Agile 5 – What is agile architecture?

Copyright Graham Berrisford. One of several hundred papers at Last updated 12/06/2019 12:34

Avancier’s agile papers

This is the fifth in a series of mostly short papers.

1.     On the beginnings of agile

2.     On agile software development

3.     On agile businesses and systems

4.     On systems thinking ideas used in agile

5.     What is agile architecture?

6.     EA in the world of agile architecture

What does agile architecture mean?

Agile means willing and able to speedily respond to change.

What architecture means is less clear.


For some software architects, the architecture of a software system is its basic structure - in the code.

It is the stable abstractions people writing the code depend on.

The abstractions include a domain-specific vocabulary, starting with the names of data types.

Along with some stable compositions, interfaces and generalisations.


For enterprise and solution architects, architecture is higher level design-time description - rather than code.

It is some kind of architecture definition documentation.

It is usually intentional (an output of up-front planning) but can instead be emergent (reverse-engineered from code).

It is written in natural language – or near to it - and communicates the intent of the code.


Either way, if the architecture changes much or often, you’ve got a problem.

To use a metaphor: the architecture of a concrete building should allow for the fittings to be changed.

But to change the architecture might well mean discarding the fittings and re-building from scratch.


The term “Agile Architecture” is used with several meanings that might be more clearly called something else.


1 Intentional (up front) architecture that is revised in response to changing requirements

Architecture frameworks like TOGAF presume this will be the case.

It isn’t a common meaning of “agile architecture”.


2 Intentional (up front) architecture that expands incrementally to drive incremental software development

An architecture framework like TOGAF can be used in this way.

It isn’t a common meaning of “agile architecture”.


3 Emergent (post hoc) architecture

Software development teams contain bright people who can do more than programming and testing.

In the agile development world, they do analysis and project/product management.

In the dev/ops world, they deploy applications into the production environment, and manage that.

In the agile architecture world, architecture is said to “emerge” from modularisation of the software system.


Of course you can work iteratively and incrementally, develop your architectural documentation alongside your system.

Years ago, Scott Ambler called this Agile Model-Driven Development, but his guidance is for software development teams.

Today it is called evolutionary design, but is it design at all? Isn’t it agile documentation rather than agile architecture?


An emergent architecture reflects modularisation decisions made in software development, and is documented afterwards.

Some say architectures best emerge from this way, from incremental development, with no up-front architecture or architect.

This means architectural documentation is reverse-engineered from an emergent design, and maintained in step with software development.

Of course this is contrary to the classical notion that an architect draws diagrams that builders follow.

“One of the more persistent myths of agile development is that up-front architecture and design are bad …” Bob Martin


Surely, an architect must describe a system's structure and behaviour at a level of abstraction that is as stable as possible?

If that abstract architecture is continually changing, doesn’t that undermine the notion of architecture?


4 High-level (light or lean) architecture

Some say up-front architecture effort should be minimal.

The architecture should be so abstract that (in effect) many design decisions are delegated to software developers.

“While we must acknowledge emergence in design and system development, a little planning can avoid much waste.” James O. Coplien.

“Lean architecture comes from applying the principles of the Toyota Production System to software architecture.

Lean architecture is both about an architecture with no fat, and about the consistency and reduction of waste in the process surrounding its creation and use.”

Read this article for more


5 Architecture that facilitates scaling up agile development from a team to the wider system or enterprise

This means a particular high level design that facilitates agile software development.

It typically assumes

·       modularising the architecture into subsystems assignable to (relatively) autonomous development teams.

·       decoupling subsystems so teams can work (relatively) autonomously

·       using design patterns used also in extreme scale systems (5 above)

·       releasing a “minimum viable product” followed by short-cycle releases that extend the system’s capability

·       using agile development methods and practices such as SCRUM and Kanban.


6 The architecture of an agile system?

Some assume the architecture that emerges from agile development will produce an agile system.

Where agile may mean flexible, configurable or scalable.

However, agile development does not necessarily produce an agile system.

Because the agilist’s exhortation is to produce “the simplest system that can possibly work”.

There is a trade off between design for simplicity and design for flexibility.

Some promote design patterns used by the internet giants in extreme scale systems, but those design patterns have downsides.


Authors often mean 5 above, a particular architecture that facilitates agile software development.

This may mean mandating loose coupling as a principle, and design patterns used in extreme scale systems (5 above).


Authors tend to deprecate what they see as current EA practices.

There is indeed some EA bad practice out there; so what is good EA?

See the next paper in the series