UML & Users’ Concerns

Objective

Whereas UML has been brought to existence by very wise men under very propitious skies, the initial enthusiasm and first successes have never been transformed into wider acceptance and customary usage; subsequent updates and extensions didn’t help and may even have triggered some anticlimax. More than fifteen years after its launch, the utilization of UML is very limited, both in breadth (projects developed) and depth (features effectively used).  Moreover, the UML house is deeply divided and there isn’t much consensus among the few that use it seriously, principally to support domain specific languages (DSL).

The Divided House of UML (Anne Desmet)

Certainly, there must have been a wrong turn somewhere, possibly at the UML2 crossing when the OMG committee lost sight of users modeling needs and took the road to meta-models. Considering UML’s shrinking stamp and dwindling relevancy, that road appears more and more like a dead-end; but it may be still possible to get back on track and retrieve the Us of the UML: unified semantics for all and sundry users.

Where to Look

Whether on driving or back seats, respectively for model driven or agile methods, models are widely accepted as a necessary constituent of development processes. Nonetheless, and despite being the only official standard, UML standing appears to falter, up to be already seen as a cold case. As suggested by Ivar Jacobson (“The road ahead for UML“), one of its main drawback would be its lack of modularity with regard of users needs. If that flaw is to be fixed, the question is where to look: directly at language level, or at supporting mechanisms.

Given the broad consensus that surrounded the initial project, one should at first look for a sound and stable subset to be used as a backbone and fleshed out according specific contexts, purposes or users. As a matter of fact that is what stereotypes and profiles are meant to do, except that without a well-defined backbone of unambiguous constructs, the only possible outcomes are domain specific languages. So, one should first consider how the separation of concerns  could be better supported by language constructs.

Language Constructs, Model, and Separation of Concerns

Separation of Concerns

Despite its roots in the Object Oriented paradigm, UML has demonstrated its adaptability to all and every method or domain. Unfortunately, being a Jack of all trades often means a master to none, and the use of UML is clearly frustrated by its versatility; that translates either into shallow usage of ambiguous semantics, or into extensions targeting specific domains or technologies.

On the ground, three mechanisms can be used to make for the lack of focus: stereotypes, views, and customization.

  • UML stereotyping mechanism support predefined constructs for problem (business objects and processes) or solution (system architecture and object design) spaces. Stereotypes can be grouped into profiles, e.g for specific business domains or technical architectures.
  • Views (or perspectives) organize access to models according contents: logical, physical, conceptual, pragmatic, etc
  • Tool customization  organizes access to models according users purposes and skills: analyst, architect, designer, developer, etc.

While those approaches have their benefits, they are set independently of languages constructs, either as UML extensions (stereotypes and profiles), or defined from outside by development methodologies (views) or projects organization (customization). As a consequence, they have little or no effect on the simplicity or efficiency of UML; they may even add to confusion and complexity when overlapping stereotypes are introduced to support multiple taxonomies, e.g technical architectures and business domains.

Language Constructs (a), Stereotyped Model (b), Combined Views or Profiles (c)

That may point to a clear direction: given the potency of the stereotyping mechanism and its pivotal role in UML utilization, significant benefits could be achieved through a better integration into core language constructs, even if that entails some constraints or limitations. Two straight modifications should be considered:

  • Model layers: language constructs should be re-organized along architectural concerns for enterprise (business processes), system (functionalities), and platforms (components).
  • Stereotypes visibility: language constructs should support the distinction between local taxonomies and “unified” ones, the former set with limited scope and visibility, the latter meant to be applies across layers.

While both modifications can be carried out on their own, their benefits would be boosted if they were set within the broader MDA framework and supported by specific language constructs.

Modular Language Constructs

Given the growing intricacy, ubiquity and diversity of systems, UML complexity and versatility should clearly be in demand, and the problem is to harness those capabilities according the needs and skills of the different kinds of users.

That’s arguably a critical flaw of UML, which lumps together essential with secondary constructs, as well as definite with ambivalent semantics. That brings weighty consequences, both for users and models:

  • Steep or even abrupt learning curve: confronted to a wall of mixed constructs users have to master the whole upfront, whatever their needs and skills.
  • Blurred concerns: describing various specific contents with the same ambivalent constructs will either distort language semantics, or blur concerns specificities.
  • Corrupted transformation: whatever the modeling tools, the bad apples of inputs will usually corrupt the whole of outputs. In other words any advance in model driven development requires a sound backbone of unambiguous language constructs.

As noted above, language constructs can be regrouped along two perspectives, one directly associated with users architectural concerns, the other  reflecting the scope and visibility of targeted artifacts. While there is no particular reason to match complexity levels with architectural concerns, mapping them to granularity has a clear rationale. Such a “born again” UML would distinguish between two levels of language constructs:

  1. Those pertaining to objects and activities identified by architectures, whatever their nature: enterprise, systems or platforms.
  2. Those used to describe internals of objects and activities independently of their aspects and behaviors at architecture level.

Model Transformation: lumped (b) vs differentiated (a) language constructs.

That re-configuration would bring modularity to the language, enabling a smooth learning curve. More importantly, a clear-cut separation of concerns will enable some kind of Just-In-Time model transformation:  instead of cumulative noises (b), one will get separate transformations for models architectural backbone on one hand, contingent specificities on the other hand (a). And that could be a real game-changer for lean and fit models.

While that could be achieved by different means, a simple solution would be to use the stereotyping mechanism to describe supporting structures of enterprise, functional, and technical architectures.

Transformation vs Portability

Model transformation is about changing contents within the same environment, portability is about moving the same contents across different environments; and despite apparent similarities, they deal with different concerns, set by users for the former, by tools vendors for the latter.

Transformation is normally performed under a single corporate roof according agreed semantics; as a corollary, it is meant to cover the full contents of models. That’s not the case for portability, whose primary objective is the exchange of consolidated contents between heterogeneous environments; while sources and targets may have to share the whole of their models, a sound policy should make room for selective portability of specific or confidential contents.

The Meta-Object Facility (MOF) is the solution of choice for portability. As a meta-language it is used to describe language constructs at source and target environments; mapping rules can then be defined and bridges built between environments. As it is, those bridges usually scale very poorly due to the exponential complexity of rules having to cover all and every model idiosyncrasies; and that’s unfortunate for portability which, instead of focused targets, has to deal with overweight models cluttered with useless contents (b).

Portability between modeling environments: Lumped (b) vs Differentiated (a) constructs.

That situation would be greatly improved (a) if the wheat of consolidated constituents could be separated from the chaff of ambiguous or irrelevant contents. On a broader perspective that will open the way leaner and fitter models.

One step back may put UML back on track

There is something of a consensus among the software engineering community regarding (1) the benefits of models and (2) the failures of UML. As should be expected, that consensus translates into fragmented modeling practices and, more generally, software engineering methodologies. Obviously there isn’t much of a future for UML along that path, but the case is still open and the trend can be reversed by putting users needs back on UML driving seat.

Further Reading

External Links

4 Responses to “UML & Users’ Concerns”

  1. lkafle Says:

    Reblogged this on lava kafle kathmandu nepal.

  2. UML and ??? « Youry's Blog Says:

    [...] Good paper about UML and it’s problems: UML & Users Concerns: [...]

  3. pjameijs Says:

    Very thoughtful paper, giving good suggestions.

    At ,
    I thought about the Archimate language, with Business, Applications, and Infrastructure layers.
    This clear separation is one of the success factors of Archimate.

  4. Les DeLashmutt Says:

    Personally, I’ve found UML exceedingly useful on constructing large, complex projects. We found it was especially useful in bridging the communication gap between the end-user community and the technical staff. Not to mention, it helped us ultimately produce some high-quality, maintainable software.

    I think the secret is to choose a methodology compatible with UML, and use just the parts of UML you find useful to implement the project. There were many diagram types we never did use. I think the general rule is people use 20% of UML for 80% of the project.

    I blame the high cost of the initial UML tools for it not catching on and building a large following. In my experience, companies and other institutions are willing to pay big bucks for hardware. However, they expect the software tools to be free. I blame IBM’s initial bundling of the two together at the beginning of their reign for that attitude.

    Cost is no longer an issue — there are several decent implementations available without any fee. There are now some excellent UML tools available for a fraction of the cost of other software companies and institutions purchase without blinking an eye.

    Just use what’s useful, and don’t worry that UML isn’t perfect. If people start using it, that will create the momentum to correct most flaws.

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