The Economics of Reuse
Reusing artifacts means using them in contexts that are different of their native ones. That may come by design, when specifications can anticipate on shared concerns, or as an afterthought, when initially unexpected similarities are identified later on.
Planned or opportunistic, reuse brings benefits in terms of costs, quality, and continuity:
- Cost benefits are most easily achieved for component engineering but may also be obtained upstream with model reuse and patterns.
- Quality benefits are first and foremost rooted at model level, especially when components implementation is supported by automated tools.
- Continuity benefits are to be found both along the business (semantics and business rules) and engineering (functional architecture and platform implementations) perspectives.
Reuse policies may also bring positive externalities by inducing a comprehensive approach to software design.
Yet, those policies will usually entail costs and may as well bear negative externalities:
- Artifacts designed for reuse are usually most costly to develop, even if part of additional costs should be ascribed to quality management.
- Excessive enforcement policies may significantly hamper projects ability to meet business needs in time.
- Managing reusable assets usually induces overheads.
In order to assess those policies, economics of reuse must be set across business, engineering or architecture perspectives:
- Business perspective: how to factor out and reuse artifacts associated with the knowledge of business domains when system functionalities or platforms are modified.
- Engineering perspective: how to reuse development artifacts when business contents or system platforms are modified.
- Architecture perspective: how to use system components independently of changes affecting business contents or development artifacts.
That can be achieved by managing development assets along model driven architecture: CIMs for business and enterprise architecture, PIMs for systems functional architecture, and PSMs for systems technical architecture.
Contexts & Purposes
Whatever their inception, reused artifacts are meant to be used independently of their native context and concerns: opportunistic reuse will map a specific purpose to another one, planned reuse will map a shared concern to a specific purpose. As a corollary, reuse policies must be supported by some traceability mechanism linking concerns and purposes across contexts and architectures.
From the enterprise perspective, the problem is to reuse the knowledge of business domains and processes. For that purpose different mechanisms can be considered:
- The simplest solution is to reuse generic components, with the business knowledge directly transferred through parameters.
- Similarly, business rules can be separately edited and managed in business contexts before being executed by system components.
- One step further, business semantics and rules can be fenced off with domains and applied to different objects and applications.
- Finally, models of business objects and processes can be capitalized and managed as reusable assets.
Once business knowledge is duly capitalized as functional assets, they can be reused along the engineering perspective:
- System functionalities: functional patterns are (re)used to map functional requirements to functional architecture, and services are (re)used to support business processes.
- Software architecture: Object and aspect oriented designs, using inheritance and polymorphism.
- Software implementations: Component-based development and information hiding.
Along the architecture perspective information hiding is generalized to systems, and reuse is masked by the definition of services.
It must be noted that, contrary to misleading similarities, refactoring is the opposite of reuse: instead of building from well understood and safe artifacts, it tries to extract some reusable chunks from opaque and unsafe components.
Enterprise and business knowledge may affect the full scope of system functionalities: boundaries (e.g users authorizations), controls (e.g accounting rules), and persistency (e.g consistency constraints). Whereas there isn’t much to argue about the benefits of reusing enterprise and business knowledge, costs may significantly diverge depending on the way corresponding assets are managed:
- Domain specific knowledge are rooted at requirements level. That’s typically achieved when use cases are introduced to describe how systems are meant to support business processes. With different use cases targeting different aspects of the same business objects and processes, overlaps must be identified and factored out in order to be reused across processes.
- Business knowledge may also be global, i.e shared at enterprise architecture level, defining objectives, assets and organization associated with the continuity of corporate identity and business capabilities within a regulatory and market environment.
In any case, the challenge is to map business knowledge to system models, more precisely to embed reused descriptions of business objects and process to corresponding development artifacts. At architecture level the mapping should target objects or processes identities, at domain level the focus will be on aspects and views.
As epitomized by service oriented architectures, business architectures can be mapped to system ones through delegation, either directly (business processes calling on services), or indirectly (collaboration between services). That will establish a clear distinction between shared (aka global) and domain specific knowledge, and consequently between respective economics of reuse.
- Given that shared knowledge must be reused across domains and applications, there can be no argument about benefits. That will be achieved by a messaging model built on a need-to-know basis. And since such model is an intrinsic feature of the functional architecture, it incurs no additional overheads.
- Specific knowledge for its part is managed at domain level and therefore masked behind services interfaces. Whatever reuse occurs there remains local and an intrinsic part of domain design.
Things are not so clear when business knowledge is not managed by services but distributed across domains, mixing specific and global knowledge. Managing reusable assets would be easy were the distinction between business and functional requirements to coincide with the one between shared and specific knowledge; unfortunately that’s seldom the case, and requirements, functional or business, will have to be sorted out at architecture or design level.
Whereas Service Oriented Architectures (SOA) put functionalities in the driving seat, Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) gives the lead to applications for which it provides adapters. As maintenance of integration adapters is a very poor substitute for knowledge management, reuse is mostly limited to legacy applications.
At design level knowledge is weaved into canonical data models (entities), functional architectures (controls), and user interfaces frameworks (boundaries).
On one hand, tracing reuse to requirements may be problematic as they are by nature concrete and unstructured, hence not the best support for generalization or the factoring out of shared features. Assuming business analysts can nonetheless separate reusable wheat from specific chaff, knowledge management at this level will require a dedicated framework supporting comprehensive and differentiated traceability. Additional overheads will have to be taken into account and compared to potential benefits.
On the other hand, canonical data models and functional architectures are meant to provide unified views of shared objects and semantic domains. Yet, canonical models are by nature unwieldy as they carve structures, features, and connections of business objects, without clear mechanisms to combine shared and specific knowledge. As a corollary, their use may reduce flexibility, and their management usually induces significant overheads.
With enterprise and business knowledge capitalized as development assets, the engineering case for reuse may appears indisputable, but business cases are often much more controversial due to large overheads and fleeting returns. Taking cues from Barry Boehm (“Managing Software Productivity and Reuse”), here are some of the main pitfalls of artifacts reuse:
- Repository delusion: knowledge being by nature contextual, its reuse is driven by circumstances and purposes; as a consequence the availability of large repositories of development assets will probably be ignored without clear pointers rooted in contexts and concerns.
- Confusion between components (or structures) and functionalities (or interfaces): under the influence of the object oriented paradigm, the distinction between objects and aspects is all too often forgotten. That’s unfortunate as this difference is congruent with the one between business objects on one hand, business operations on the other hand.
- Over generalization: reuse is usually achieved by factoring out useful aspects or factoring off useless ones. In both cases the temptation is to repeat the operation until nothing could be added to the scope. Such “flight for abstraction” will inevitably overtake the proper level of reuse and begets models void of any anchor to business relevancy.
- Scalability: while reuse is about separation of concerns and complexity management, those two criteria don’t have to pull in the same direction. When they don’t, variants will be dispersed across artifacts and their processing will suffer a combinatorial explosion if the system has to be scaled up.
- Obsolescence: shelf lives of development assets can be defined by each or both business or technical relevancy. Assuming spans either coincide or are managed independently, they should be explicitly taken into account before any reuse.
Those obstacles can be overcome (delusion, confusion, over generalization) or managed (scalability, obsolescence) providing that models:
- Come with some built-in traceability mechanisms between knowledge and artifacts.
- Support the distinction between objects and aspects and differentiated inheritance.
On that basis it should be possible to consider the cases for reuse along the different perspectives and define policies according costs/benefits analysis.
Economics of Reuse and Sustainable Development
Sustainable system development is the ability to meet present business and functional requirements while enhancing system capability to support future ones. While reuse is not the only factor of sustainability, economics of reuse encompass most of other factors.
As the environment of software components, architectures are the first to be considered for sustainability:
- Reuse of development assets rooted in enterprise architecture is not an option: system functionalities are meant to support business processes as they are.
- At the other end of the development process, reuse of software designs and components across technical architectures should bring benefits in quality and costs.
- In between reuse of system functionalities is necessary to guarantee the robustness and continuity of functional architectures; it should also leverage the benefits of reuse of business and development assets.
Regarding returns, reuse through generic components, rules engines, or semantic domains can be directly supported by development tools, bypassing explicit models of functional architectures. That makes their costs/benefits analysis both simpler and well circumscribed. That is not the case for system functionalities which stand at the hub of perspectives. As a consequence, costs/benefits should be analyzed as a whole:
- Regarding business assets, a clear distinction must be maintained between specific and shared knowledge, reuse being considered for the latter only.
- Regarding the reuse of business assets as functional ones, services clearly offer the best returns. Otherwise costs/benefits are to be assessed, from reuse of vocabulary and semantics domains (straightforward, limited overheads), to canonical models and enterprise application integration (contingent, significant overheads).
- Economics of reuse will ultimately be set by traceability mechanisms linking enterprise and business knowledge on one hand, components designs on the other hand. Even for services (c), if at a lesser degree, the business case for reuse will be decided by leveraged benefits and non cumulative costs. Hence the importance of maintaining the distinction between identified structures and associated aspects from business (a) and functional (b) requirements, to components interfaces (d) and structures (e).
Finally, reuse may play a significant role in risk management, especially when risks are managed according to their source:
- Changes in business contexts can usually occurs along two frequency waves: short, for market opportunities, and long, for an organization’s continuity. Associated risks could be better managed if corresponding knowledge were managed accordingly.
- System architectures are meant to evolve in synch with organization continuity; were technological environment or corporate structures subject to unexpected changes, reusable functional assets would be of great help.
- Given that enterprise IT can no longer be self-contained and operate in isolation, reusable designs may provide buffers to technological risks and help exploiting unexpected business opportunities.