Archive for the ‘Modeling Languages & Methods’ Category

NIEM & Information Exchanges

January 24, 2017

Preamble

The objective of the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) is to provide a “dictionary of agreed-upon terms, definitions, relationships, and formats that are independent of how information is stored in individual systems.”

(Alfred Jensen)

NIEM’s model makes no difference between data and information (Alfred Jensen)

For that purpose NIEM’s model combines commonly agreed core elements with community-specific ones. Weighted against the benefits of simplicity, this architecture overlooks critical distinctions:

  • Inputs: Data vs Information
  • Dictionary: Lexicon and Thesaurus
  • Meanings: Lexical Items and Semantics
  • Usage: Roots and Aspects

That shallow understanding of information significantly hinders the exchange of information between business or institutional entities across overlapping domains.

Inputs: Data vs Information

Data is made of unprocessed observations, information makes sense of data, and knowledge makes use of information. Given that NIEM is meant to be an exchange between business or institutional users, it should have no concern with data mining or knowledge management.

Data is meaningless, information meaning is set by semantic domains.

As an exchange, NIEM should have no concern with data mining or knowledge management.

The problem is that, as conveyed by “core of data elements that are commonly understood and defined across domains, such as person, activity, document, location”, NIEM’s model makes no explicit distinction between data and information.

As a corollary, it implies that data may not only be meaningful, but universally so, which leads to a critical trap: as substantiated by data analytics, data is not supposed to mean anything before processed into information; to keep with examples, even if the definition of persons and locations may not be specific, the semantics of associated information is nonetheless set by domains, institutional, regulatory, contractual, or otherwise.

Data is meaningless, information meaning is set by semantic domains.

Data is meaningless, information meaning is set by semantic domains.

Not surprisingly, that medley of data and information is mirrored by NIEM’s dictionary.

Dictionary: Lexicon & Thesaurus

As far as languages are concerned, words (e.g “word”, “ξ∏¥” ,”01100″) remain data items until associated to some meaning. For that reason dictionaries are built on different levels, first among them lexical and semantic ones:

  • Lexicons take items on their words and gives each of them a self-contained meaning.
  • Thesauruses position meanings within overlapping galaxies of understandings held together by the semantic equivalent of gravitational forces; the meaning of words can then be weighted by the combined semantic gravity of neighbors.

In line with its shallow understanding of information, NIEM’s dictionary only caters for a lexicon of core standalone items associated with type descriptions to be directly implemented by information systems. But due to the absence of thesaurus, the dictionary cannot tackle the semantics of overlapping domains: if lexicons alone can deal with one-to-one mappings of items to meanings (a), thesauruses are necessary for shared (b) or alternative (c) mappings.

vv

Shared or alternative meanings cannot be managed with lexicons

With regard to shared mappings (b), distinct lexical items (e.g qualification) have to be mapped to the same entity (e.g person). Whereas some shared features (e.g person’s birth date) can be unequivocally understood across domains, most are set through shared (professional qualification), institutional (university diploma), or specific (enterprise course) domains .

Conversely, alternative mappings (c) arise when the same lexical items (e.g “mole”) can be interpreted differently depending on context (e.g plastic surgeon, farmer, or secret service).

Whereas lexicons may be sufficient for the use of lexical items across domains (namespaces in NIEM parlance), thesauruses are necessary if meanings (as opposed to uses) are to be set across domains. But thesauruses being just tools are not sufficient by themselves to deal with overlapping semantics. That can only be achieved through a conceptual distinction between lexical and semantic envelops.

Meanings: Lexical Items & Semantics

NIEM’s dictionary organize names depending on namespaces and relationships:

  • Namespaces: core (e.g Person) or specific (e.g Subject/Justice).
  • Relationships: types (Counselor/Person) or properties (e.g PersonBirthDate).
vvv

NIEM’s Lexicon: Core (a) and specific (b) and associated core (c) and specific (d) properties

But since lexicons know only names, the organization is not orthogonal, with lexical items mapped indifferently to types and properties. The result being that, deprived of reasoned guidelines, lexical items are chartered arbitrarily, e.g:

Based on core PersonType, the Justice namespace uses three different schemes to define similar lexical items:

  • “Counselor” is described with core PersonType.
  • “Subject” and “Suspect” are both described with specific SubjectType, itself a sub-type of PersonType.
  • “Arrestee” is described with specific ArresteeType, itself a sub-type of SubjectType.

Based on core EntityType:

  • The Human Services namespace bypasses core’s namesake and introduces instead its own specific EmployerType.
  • The Biometrics namespace bypasses possibly overlapping core Measurer and BinaryCaptured and directly uses core EntityType.
Lexical items are meshed disregarding semantics

Lexical items are chartered arbitrarily

Lest expanding lexical items clutter up dictionary semantics, some rules have to be introduced; yet, as noted above, these rules should be limited to information exchange and stop short of knowledge management.

Usage: Roots and Aspects

As far as information exchange is concerned, dictionaries have to deal with lexical and semantic meanings without encroaching on ontologies or knowledge representation. In practice that can be best achieved with dictionaries organized around roots and aspects:

  • Roots and structures (regular, black triangles) are used to anchor information units to business environments, source or destination.
  • Aspects (italics, white triangles) are used to describe how information units are understood and used within business environments.
nformation exchanges are best supported by dictionaries organized around roots and aspects

Information exchanges are best supported by dictionaries organized around roots and aspects

As it happens that distinction can be neatly mapped to core concepts of software engineering.

Further Reading

External Links

Focus: Analysis vs Design

January 4, 2017

Preamble

Definitions should never turn into wages of words as they should only be judged on their purpose and utility, with  such assessment best achieved by comparing and adjusting the meaning of neighboring concepts with regard to tasks at hand.

GChirico_prodigal-son

Analysis & Design as Duet (Giorgio de Chirico)

That approach can be applied to the terms “analysis” and “design” as used in systems engineering.

What: Logic & Engineering

Whatever the idiosyncrasies and fuzziness of business concerns and contexts, at the end of the day business and functional requirements of supporting systems will have to be coerced into the uncompromising logic of computers. Assuming that analysis and design are set along that path, they could be characterized accordingly.

As a matter of fact, a fact all too often ignored, a formal basis can be used to distinguish between analysis and design models, the former for the consolidation of requirements across business domains and enterprise organization, the latter for systems and software designs:

  • Business analysis models are descriptive (aka extensional); they try to put actual objects, events, and processes into categories.
  • System engineering models are prescriptive (aka intensional); they define what is expected of systems components and how to develop them.
Squaring Logic with Engineering

Squaring Logic with Engineering

As a confirmation of its validity, that classification along the logic basis of models can be neatly crossed with engineering concerns:

  • Applications: engineering deals with the realization of business needs expressed as use cases or users’ stories. Engineering units are self-contained with specific life-spans.
  • Architectures: engineering deals with supporting assets at enterprise level. Engineering units are associated with shared functionalities without specific life-spans.

That taxonomy can be used to square the understanding of analysis, designs, and architectures.

Where: Business unit or Corporate

Reversing the perspective from content to context, the formal basis of analysis and design can also be crossed with their organizational framework:

  • Analysis is to be carried out locally within business units.
  • Designs are to be set both locally for applications, and at enterprise level for architectures.

Organizational dependencies will determine the roles, responsibilities, and time-frames associated with analysis and design.

Who: Analysts, Architects, Engineers

Contents and contexts are to determine the skills and responsibility for stakeholders, architects, analysts and engineers. On that account:

  • Analysis should be the shared responsibility of business and system analysts.
  • Designs would be solely under the authority of architects and engineers.

The possibility for agents to collaborate and share responsibility will determine the time-frames of analysis and design .

When: Continuous or Discrete

As far as project management is concerned, time is the crux of the matter: paraphrasing Einstein, the only reason for processes [time] is so that everything doesn’t happen at once. Hence the importance of characterizing analysis and design according to the nature of their time-scale:

  • At application level analysis and design can be carried out iteratively along a continuously time-scale.
  • At enterprise level the analysis of business objectives and the design of architectures will require milestones set along discrete time-scales.

The combination of organizational and timing constraints will determine analysis and design modus operandi.

How: Agile or Phased

Finally, the distinction between analysis and design will depend on the software engineering MO, as epitomized by the agile vs phased debate:

  • The agile development model combines analysis, design, and development into a single activity carried out iteratively. It is arguably the option of choice providing the two conditions about shared ownership and continuous delivery can be met.
  • Phased development models may rely on different arrangements but most will include a distinction between requirements analysis and software design.

That makes for an obvious conclusion: whether analysis and design are phased or carried out collaboratively, understanding their purpose and nature is a key success factor for systems and software engineering.

PS: Darwin vs Turing

As pointed out by Daniel Dennett (“From Bacteria to Bach, and Back“), the meaning of analysis and design can be neatly rooted in the theoretical foundations of evolution and computer science.

Darwin built his model of Natural Selection bottom up from the analysis of actual live beings. Roundly refuting the hypothesis of some “intelligent designer”, Darwin’s work epitomizes how ontologies built from observations (aka analysis models) can account for the origin, structure and behaviors of individuals.

Conversely, Turing’s thesis of computation is built top-down from established formal principles to software artifacts. In that case prior logical ontologies are applied to design models meant to realize intended capabilities.

Further Reading

iStar and the Requirements Conundrum

December 12, 2016

Synopsis

Whenever software engineering problems are looked at, the blame is generally put on requirements, with each side of the business/system divide holding the other responsible.

vvvv

Figuring Concepts (Ai Weiwei)

The iStar approach tries to tackle the problem with a conceptual language focused on interactions between business processes and supporting systems.

Dilemma

Conceptual approaches to requirements try to breach the dilemma between phased and agile development schemes: the former takes for granted that requirements can be fully and definitively set upfront; the latter takes a more pragmatic path and tries to reconcile business and system analysts through direct and continuous collaboration.

Setting apart frictions between specific methods, the benefits of agile principles and practices are now well-recognized, contingent on the limits of agile scope. Summarily, agile development is at its best when requirements capture and analysis can be weaved with development and tests. The question remains of what happens when requirements are to be dealt with separately.

The iStar’s answer shares with agile a focus on collaboration and doesn’t take side for business (e.g users’ stories) or systems (e.g use cases). Instead, iStar modeling language is meant to support a conceptual description of interactions between business processes and supporting systems in terms of actors’ goals and commitments, and the associated dependencies.

Actors & Goals

The defining aspect of the iStar modeling approach is to replace one-sided perspectives (business or system) by a systemic one focused on the interactions between agents. The interactive part of a requirement will therefore comprise three basic items:

  • A primary actor trigger an interaction in order to meet some goal; e.g a car owner want his car repaired.
  • Secondary actors may be involved during the ensuing exchanges: e.g body shop, appraiser, insurance company.
  • Functions to be performed: actual task; e.g appraise damages; qualification (soft goal), e.g fair appraisal; and resources, e.g premium payment.
Actors & dependencies

Actors & Dependencies

Dependencies Semantics

The factual description of interactions is both detailed and enriched by elements set within a broader scope:

  • Goal (strong) dependency: assertions about actual state of affairs: object, activity, or expectations.
  • Soft-goal dependency: assertions about expected outcomes.
  • Task dependency: organizational, functional, or technical constraints pertaining to the execution of activities.
  • Resource dependency: constraints or conditions on the availability of inputs, actual or symbolic.

It would be tempting to generalize the strong/soft distinction to dependencies as to make use of modal logic, strong dependencies associated with deontic rules, soft dependencies with alethic ones. That would .

iStar & Caminao

Since iStar modeling categories are directly aligned with UML Use Cases, they can easily mapped to core Caminao stereotypes for actors, objects, events, and activities.

Actors & dependencies

iStar with Caminao Stereotypes

Interestingly, the iStar strong/soft distinction could translate to the actual/symbolic one which constitute the conceptual backbone of the Caminao paradigm.

Assessment

From the business perspective, iStar must be credited with two critical tenets:

  • The focus on interactions between agents is essential for business and system analysts to collaborate. Such benefits appear clearly for the definition of primary and secondary roles (aka actors), intents (business) and capabilities (supporting environments).
  • The distinction between strong and soft goals, even if the logical basis remains unexploited.

Yet, the system perspective lacks a functional dimension, e.g:

  • Architecture levels (enterprise and organization, systems and functionalities, platforms and technologies) are not taken into consideration, nor the nature of capabilities, e.g strategic and operational.
  • The strong/soft dependencies distinction is not explicitly associated with systems capabilities.

On the whole these pros and cons reflect iStar’s declared intent on conceptual modeling; as a corollary these flaws mark also the limits of conceptual modeling when it is detached from the symbolic description of supporting systems functionalities.

Nonetheless, as illustrated by the research quoted below, iStar remains a sound basis for the specification of interactions between users and systems, either as use cases or users’ stories.

Further Reading

External Links

Focus: MDA & UML

November 9, 2016

 Preamble

UML (Unified Modeling Language) and MDA (Model Driven Architecture) epitomize the lack of focus and consistency of the OMG’s strategy. As it’s safe to assume that there can be no architectures without models, MDA and UML arguably bring sensible (if not perfect) schemes without significant competition.

Eugene de Salignac

Architectures & Models (Eugene de Salignac)

Unfortunately, not much has been made to play on their obvious complementarity and to exploit their synergies.

MDA & the Nature of Models

Model driven architecture (MDA) can be seen as the main (only ?) documented example of model based systems engineering. Its taxonomy organizes models within three layers:

  • Computation independent models (CIMs) describe organization and business processes independently of the role played by supporting systems.
  • Platform independent models (PIMs) describe the functionalities supported by systems independently of their implementation.
  • Platform specific models (PSMs) describe systems components depending on implementation platforms.

Engineering can then be managed along architecture layers (a), or carried out as a whole for each application (b).

mapsterrits_landingschar

Managing changes at architecture (a) or application (b) level.

It’s important to note that the MDA framework is completely neutral with regard to methods: engineering processes can be organized as phased activities (procedural), iterations (agile), or artifacts transformation (declarative).

Logic & The Matter of Models

Whatever the idiosyncrasies and fuzziness of business concerns and contexts, at the end of the day requirements will have to be coerced into the strict logic of computer systems. That may be a challenging task to be carried out directly, but less so if upheld by models.

As it happens, a fact all too often ignored, models come with sound logical foundations that can be used to formalize the mapping of requirements into specifications; schematically, models are to be set in two formal categories:

  • Descriptive (aka extensional) ones try to classify actual objects, events, and processes into categories.
  • Prescriptive (aka intensional) ones specify what is expected of systems components and how to develop them.
The logical basis of models

The logical basis of models

Interestingly, that distinction provides a formal justification to the one between analysis and design models, the former for the consolidation of requirements across business domains and enterprise organization, the latter for systems and software designs. Such logical foundations could help to manage the mapping of business processes and systems architectures.

UML & the Anatomy of Models

Except scientific computation, there is no reason to assume a-priori congruence between the description of business objects and processes and the specification of the software components. As a corollary, their respective structures and features are better to be dealt with separately.

But that’s not the case at architecture level, where domains and identities have to be managed continuously and consistency on the two sides of the business/system divide. At this level (aka enterprise architecture), responsibilities and identification and communication mechanisms must be defined uniformly.

Compared to MDA set at architecture level, UML describes the corresponding artifacts for business, systems, and platform layers. Regardless of the confusing terminology (layers or levels), that puts MDA and UML along orthogonal dimensions: the former (layers) deals with the nature of contents, the latter (levels) with their structures and features.

MDA is only concerned with architectures, UML describe the structure of architecture components.

MDA is only concerned with architectures, UML describe the structure of architecture components.

Using the same unified modeling language across business, systems, and platform layers is to clearly and directly enhance transparency and traceability; but the full extent of MDA/UML cross-benefits is to appear when models logic is taken into account.

Models & Systems Evolution

As illustrated by the increasing number of systemic crashes, systems obsolescence is no longer a matter of long-term planning but of operational continuity: change has become the rule and as far as complex and perennial systems are concerned, architectures are to evolve while supporting their functional duties seamlessly. If that is to be achieved, modularity and a degree of consistency are necessary between the nature of changes and their engineering. That’s where MDA is to help.

As pointed to above, modularity is best achieved with regard to level (architecture, element) and models contents (business, systems, platforms).

At architecture level, changes in domains, identification, and categories must be aligned between descriptive (enterprise) and prescriptive (systems) models. That will be best achieved with UML models across all MDA layers.

Using UML and MDA helps to align descriptive and prescriptive models at architecture level.

Using UML and MDA helps to align descriptive and prescriptive models at architecture level.

The constraints of continuity and consistency can be somewhat eased at element level: if descriptive (business) and prescriptive (systems) models of structures and features are to be consistent, they are not necessarily congruent. On component (prescriptive/design) side, UML and object-oriented design (OOD) are to keep them encapsulated. As for the business (descriptive/analysis) side, since structures and features can be modeled separately (and OOD not necessarily the best option), any language (UML, BPMN, DSL,etc.) can be used. In between, the structure (aka signature) of messages passed at architecture level is to be specified depending on communication framework.

Considering the new challenges brought about by the comprehensive interoperability of heterogeneous systems, the OMG should reassess the full range of latent possibilities to be found in its engineering portfolio.

Further Reading

Zebras cannot be saddled or harnessed

September 23, 2016

As far as standards go, the more they are, the less they’re worth.

nn

Read my code, if you can …

What have we got

Assuming that modeling languages are meant to build abstractions, one would expect their respective ladders converging somewhere up in some conceptual or meta cloud.

Assuming that standards are meant to introduce similarities into diversity, one would expect clear-cut taxonomies to be applied to artifacts designs.

Instead one will find bounty of committees, bloated specifications, and an open-minded if clumsy language confronted to a number of specific ones.

What is missing

Given the constitutive role of mathematical logic in computing systems, its quasi absence in modeling methods of their functional behavior is dumbfounding. Formal logic, set theory, semiotics, name it, every aspect of systems modeling can rely on a well established corpus of concepts and constructs. And yet, these scientific assets may be used in labs for research purposes but they remain overlooked for any practical use; as if the laser technology had been kept out of consumers markets for almost a century.

What should be done

The current state of affairs can be illustrated by a Horse vs Zebra metaphor: the former with a long and proved track record of varied, effective and practical usages, the latter with almost nothing to its credit except its archetypal idiosyncrasy.

Like horses, logic can be harnessed or saddled to serve a wide range of purposes without loosing anything of its universality. By contrast, concurrent standards and modeling languages can be likened to zebras: they may be of some use for their owner, but from an outward perspective, what remains is their distinctive stripes.

So the way out of the conundrum seems obvious: get rid of the stripes and put back the harness of logic on all the modeling horses.

Further Readings

Focus: Bounded Contexts & Open Concepts

September 13, 2016

Preamble

Domain Driven Design (DDD), the brainchild of Eric Evans, aims to map out system representations of business entities directly from business concepts and semantics.

Balazs

How to conciliate bounded contexts and open minds (Balazs Szabo)

Four basic tenets are often put ahead to characterize DDD:

  • Layered architectures.
  • Aggregates and threads of continuity and identity.
  • Bounded contexts.
  • Ubiquitous language supporting the communication between business domains and software representations.

If the meaning and benefits of layers and aggregates are widely understood, there is less of a consensus about practical implementation of bounded contexts and ubiquitous languages.

Architecture Layers

All too often, modelers overlook the difference between descriptive and prescriptive models, the former depicting business environments and objectives, the latter their symbolic representations in systems. Unfortunately, this seemingly benign neglect seems to imply that descriptive models have no other purpose than supporting the development of systems, which can subsequently stand on their own. But what may once have been a safe assumption is now a very hazardous one considering that today’s IT systems must be weaved with enterprise environment and accommodate continuously to its changes.

cc

Feeding development processes is not the only purpose of descriptive models.

On that regard Domain Driven Design seems inconclusive: on one hand it insists upon the tie between concepts and implementations, on the other hand it makes a clear distinction between concepts (roots and aggregates), and their use (contexts). Setting DDD layers with regard to enterprise architecture could help to clarify the point.

With regard to software (as opposed to enterprise) architecture, DDD identifies four layers: users interfaces (or presentation), applications, domains (or models), and infrastructures. Of these, the domain layer seems to be the only one unambiguously set apart, definitions of the others leaving room for overlaps; but potential qualms can be easily remedied by introducing formal criteria:

  • Presentation: non shared processing of I/O.
  • Application: shared processing of transient representations
  • Domain: shared access to persistent representations
  • Infrastructure: shared access to services.
Architecture Functional layers understood as PIM artifacts.

Architecture Functional layers understood as PIM artifacts.

Furthermore, these layers are best understood when associated with the platform independent models (PIMs) of the model driven architecture (MDA) framework.

Aggregates & Roots

The distinction between the identity and structure of objects on one hand, features semantics and use on the other hand, is arguably a core tenet of DDD as it brings together objects designs and systems architectures.

With regard to objects design, aggregates to be accessed through a single root (#) guarantee the continuity and integrity of the threads anchoring business entities to their symbolic counterparts.

With regard to systems architectures, features of business entities surrogates can be shared across domains, each according to their own semantics, as epitomized by persons in the example below.

vvvv

Roots anchor identified (#) persons to their symbolic surrogates

Yet, the fact is that approach combines object with aspect oriented designs and its implementation at architecture level could come with serious drawbacks when functional facets are to be shared across domains. That’s where bounded contexts intervene.

Bounded Contexts

Contexts are introduced to conciliate continuity and integrity, managed through aggregates, and semantics and functional accesses, managed through contexts; bounded contexts (BCs) are ones with shared business entities. Adding to the example above, person usually appears in different functional contexts subject to specific responsibilities, with one and only one with explicit responsibility on aggregates (#).

Bounded contexts are used to distinguish between identification and integrity, managed through aggregates, and semantics and use, managed through contexts.

Bounded contexts are used to distinguish between identification and integrity, managed through aggregates, and semantics and use, managed through contexts.

But as sound and useful as bounded contexts may be conceptually, their implementation is mostly entrusted to maps and best practices. Since the way shared business domains are managed by systems is arguably a key success factor of enterprise architectures, the lack of principled implementation schemes leaves the conceptual gap between business domains and software designs unaccounted for. That would be the purpose of ubiquitous languages (UL).

Ubiquitous or Domain Specific Languages.

The explicit objective of ubiquitous languages is to bring under a common semantic roof domain analysis and software design, and so to tie concepts and implementations. But that very endeavor may also be seen as controversial, shallow, and confusing:

  • Controversial: bringing together concepts and implementations appears to contradict OO principles as well as layered architectures.
  • Shallow: the so-called languages (as many as domains ?) are in fact just lists of entities and operations, without grammar or unifying semantics.
  • Confusing: they are supposedly derived from models, which would suggest specificity instead of ubiquity; that understanding would also belie the customary assumption that models are built with modeling languages.

One way out of the conundrum could be to see ubiquitous languages as variants of domain specific ones whose explicit objective is precisely to tie concepts with implementations. But that option would bypass the issue of principled BC design, and more generally the relationship between business domains, systems architectures, and software designs.

The other way would be to forsake ubiquitous (or specific) languages and use instead open concepts and functional patterns.

Bounded Contexts & Open Concepts

Open concepts are modeling artifacts whose semantics can be shared by business domains and systems functional architectures. For that purpose they have to meet standard OO principles:

  • Open-Closed Principle (OPC): open concepts should have no reason to change, they can only be refined. In other words open concepts are meant to be specialized, but not generalized. That ensures that the semantics of sub-types defined by different projects cannot be modified.
  • Substitution Principle (LSP): sets of instances denoted by specialized concepts are subsets of the sets denoted by more general ones. That ensures that individuals are consistently identified across projects.
  • Dependency-Inversion principle (DIP): higher levels semantics are defined independently of lower levels. That ensures that the semantics of sub-types are consistently, but not necessarily uniformly, defined across projects.
  • Interface-Segregation Principle (ISP): semantics and features are congruent, i.e all features are meaningful for whoever is using the concept. That ensures that there is no overlapping of semantics even when subsets of individuals overlap.

Assuming these criteria can be fulfilled, open concepts can be used as a modeling glue between bounded contexts overlaps.

Open concepts for entities (aka roots):

  • Structural inheritance means that the targeted entities (i.e shared between contexts) inherit both structures and aspects: parties are a subset of social agents.
  • Functional inheritance means that the targeted entities inherit all the aspects whatever the identified structure: an organization has all the features of a collective agent but is not necessarily identified as such.
vvv

How to consolidate contexts overlaps using open concepts

Open concepts for aspects (aka features):

  • Structural inheritance is equivalent to composition, i.e inherited aspects are bound to domain individuals whatever their structure: symbolic references are an intrinsic component of products but can be used in any kind of domain.
  • Functional inheritance is equivalent to aggregation, i.e inherited aspects are not bound to domain individuals: business roles can combine different ones.

On a broader perspective, using open concepts to consolidate the overlaps between bounded contexts enables the formal verification of models, not only for internal consistency but also with regard to best practices. And best practices can be translated into functional (aka representation) patterns formally defined in terms of open concepts.

Further Readings

External Links

Models as Parachutes

August 31, 2016

Preamble

The recent crash of Delta Airlines’ reservation system, following a number of similar incidents, have raised new concerns about the reliability of a whole generation of large and critical IT systems.

László Moholy-Nagy-para

Models as Parachutes (László Moholy-Nagy)

Particularly at risk are airlines or banking systems, whose seasoned infrastructures, at the cutting edge when introduced half a century ago, have been strained to their limit by waves of extensive networked new functionalities. Confronted to the magnitude and complexity of overall modernization, most enterprises have preferred piecemeal updates to architectural leaps. Such policies may bring some respite, but they may also turn into aggravating factors, increasing stakes and urgency as well as shortening odds.

Assuming some consensus about stakes, hazards, and options, the priority should be to overcome jumping fears by charting a reassuring perspective in continuity with current situation. For that purpose models may provide heartening parachutes.

Models: Intents & Doubts

Models can serve two kinds of purposes:

  • Describe business contexts according to enterprise objectives, foretell evolution, and simulate policies.
  • Prescribe the architecture of supporting systems and the design of software components.
Business analyst figure maps from territories, software architects create territories from maps

Models Purposes: Describe contexts & concerns, Design supporting systems

Frameworks were supposed to combine the two perspectives, providing a comprehensive and robust basis to systems governance. But if prescriptive models do play a significant role in engineering processes, in particular for code generation, they are seldom fed by their descriptive counterpart.

Broadly speaking, the noncommittal attitudes toward descriptive models comes from a rooted mistrust in non executable models: as far as business analysts and software engineers are concerned, such models can only serve as documentary evidence. And since prescriptive models are by nature grounded to systems’ inner making, there is no secure conceptual apparatus linking systemic changes with their technical consequences. Hence the jumping frights.

Overcoming those frights could be achieved by showing the benefits of secure and soft landings.

Models for Secure Landings

As any tools, models must be assessed with regard to their purpose: prescriptive ones with regard to feasibility and reliability of architectures and design, descriptive ones with regard to correctness and consistency. As already noted, compared to what has been achieved for the former, nothing much has been done about the validity of the latter.

Yet, and contrary to customary beliefs, the rigorous verification of descriptive (aka extensional) models is not a dead-end. Of course these models can never be proven true because there is no finite scope against which they could be checked; but it doesn’t mean that nothing can be done to improve their reliability:

Models must be assessed with regard to their purpose

How to Check for secure landings

  • Correctness: How to verify that all the relevant individuals and features are taken into account. That can only be achieved empirically by building models open to falsification.
  • Consistency: How to verify that the symbolic descriptions (categories and connectors) are complete, coherent and non redundant across models and abstraction levels. That can be formally verified.
  • Alignment: How to verify that current and required business processes are to be seamlessly and effectively supported by systems architectures. That can be managed by introducing a level of indirection, as illustrated by MDA with platform independent models (PIMs) set between computation independent (CIMs) and platform specific (PSMs) ones.

Once established on secure grounds, models can be used to ensure soft landings.

Models for Soft Landings

Set within model based system engineering frameworks, models will help to replace piecemeal applications updates by seamless architectures modernization:

  • Systems: using models shift the focus of change from hardware to software.
  • Enterprise: models help to factor out the role of organization and regulations.
  • Project management: models provide the necessary hinge between agile and phased projects, the former for business driven applications, the latter for architecture oriented ones. Combining both approaches will ensure than lean and just-in-time processes will not be sacrificed to system modernization.
Seamless architectures modernization (a) vs Piecemeal applications updates (b).

Seamless architectures modernization (a) vs Piecemeal applications updates (b).

More generally, and more importantly, models are the option of choice (if not the only one) for enterprise knowledge management:

  • Business: Computation independent models (CIMs), employed to trace, justify and rationalize business strategies and processes portfolios.
  • Systems: Platform specific models (PSMs), employed to trace, justify and rationalize technical alternatives and decisions.
  • Decision-making and learning: Platform independent models (PIMs), employed to align business and systems and support enterprise architecture governance.

And knowledge management is arguably the primary factor for successful comprehensive modernization.

Strategic Decision-making: Cash or Crash

Governance is all about risks and decision-making, but investing on truly fail-safe systems for airlines or air traffic control can be likened to a short bet on the Armageddon, and that cannot be easily framed in a neat cost-benefit analysis. But that may be the very nature of strategic decision-making: not amenable to ROI but aiming at risks assessment and the development of the policies apt to contain and manage them. That would be impossible without models.

Further Reading

Focus: Business Processes & Abstraction

July 16, 2016

Preamble

Abstractions, and corollary inheritance, are primarily understood with objects. Yet, since business processes are meant to focus on activities, semantics may have to be refined when abstraction and inheritance are directly used for behaviors.

enrique_gimenez-velilla

How to apply abstraction to processes ?  (E. Gimenez Velilla)

Considering that the primary purpose of abstractions is to tackle business variants with regard to supporting systems, their representation with use cases provides a good starting point.

Business Variants: Use case’s <extend> & <include>

Taking use cases as a modeling nexus between business and systems realms, <extend> and <include> appear as the default candidates for the initial description of behaviors’ specialization and generalization.

  • <include>: to be compared to composition semantics, with the included behaviors performed  by instances identified (#) by the owner UC (a).
  • <extend>: to be compared to aggregation semantics, with the extending behaviors performed  by separate instances with reference to the owner ones (b).
Included UCs are meant to be triggered by owners (a); that cannot be clearly established for abstract use cases and generalization (c).

Included UCs are meant to be triggered by owners (a); that cannot be clearly established for abstract use cases and generalization (c).

Abstract use cases and generalization have also been mentioned by UML before being curiously overlooked in following versions. Since none has been explicitly discarded, some confusion remains about hypothetical semantics. Notionally, abstract UCs would represent behaviors never to be performed on their own (c). Compared to inclusion, used for variants of operations along execution paths, abstract use cases would describe the generic mechanisms to be applied to triggering events at UC inception independently of actual business operations carried out along execution paths.

Nonetheless, and more importantly, the mix-up surrounding the generalization of use cases points to a critical fault-line running under UML concepts: since both use cases and classes are defined as qualifiers, they are supposed to be similarly subject to generalization and specialization. That is misguided because use cases describe the business behaviors to be supported by systems, not to be confused with the software components that will do the job. The mapping between the former and the latter is to be set by design, and there is no reason to assume a full and direct correspondence between functional requirements and functional architecture.

Use Cases Distilled

As far as use cases are considered, mapping business behaviors to supporting systems functionalities can be carried out at two levels:

  • Objects: UCs being identified by triggering agents, events, and goals, they are to be matched with corresponding users interfaces and controllers, the former for the description of I/O flows, the latter for the continuity and integrity of interactions.
  • Methods: As it’s safe to assume that use cases are underpinned by shared business functions and system features, a significant part of their operations are to be realized by methods of shared business entities or services.
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Setting apart UIs and controllers, no direct mapping should be assumed between use cases and functional qualifiers.

The business variants distilled into objects’ or services’ methods can be generalized and specialized according to OOD principles; and the same principles can be applied to specific users’ interfaces. But since purely behavioral aspects of UCs can neither be distilled into objects’ methods, nor directly translated into controller objects, their abstraction semantics have to be reconsidered.

Inheritance Semantics: Structural vs Functional

As far as software artifacts are concerned, abstraction semantics are set by programming languages, and while they may differ, the object-oriented (OO) paradigm provides some good enough consolidation. Along that perspective, inheritance emerges as a critical issue due to its direct impact on the validity of programs.

Generally speaking, inheritance describes how structural or behavioral traits are passed from ancestors to descendants, either at individual or type level. OO design is more specific and puts the focus on the intrinsic features (attributes and operations) supported by types or classes, which ensues that behaviors are not considered as such but through the objects’ methods that realize them:

  • Structural inheritance deals with attributes and operations set for the whole life-cycle of instances. As a consequence corresponding inheritance is bound to identities (#) and multiple ascendants (i.e identities) are ruled out.
  • Functional inheritance deal with objects behaviors which may or may not be frozen to whole life-cycles. Features can therefore be inherited from multiple ascendants.

That structural vs functional distinction matches the one between composition and aggregation used to characterize the links between objects and parts which, as noted above, can also be applied to uses cases.

Use Cases & Abstraction

Assuming that the structural/functional distinction defined for objects can also be applied to behaviors, use cases provide a modeling path from variants in business processes to OOD of controllers:

  • Behaviors included by UCs (a) are to be set along the execution paths triggered by UC primary events (#). Inheritance is structural, from UCs base controllers to corresponding (local) ones, and covers features (e.g views on business objects) and associated states (e.g authorizations) defined by use case triggering circumstances.
  • Behaviors extending UCs (b) are triggered by secondary events generated along execution paths. Inheritance is functional, from extending UCs (e.g text messaging) to UCs primary controllers.

Yet this dual scheme may not be fully satisfactory as it suffers from two limitations:

  • It only considers the relationships between UCs, not with the characteristics of the use cases themselves.
  • It ignores the critical difference between the variants of business logic and the variants of triggering conditions.

Both flaws can be patched up if abstract use cases are specifically introduced to factor out triggering circumstances (c):

Use cases provide a principled modeling path from variants in business processes to the OOD of corresponding controllers.

Use cases provide a principled modeling path from variants in business processes to the OOD of corresponding controllers.

  • Undefined triggering circumstances is the only way to characterize abstraction independently of what happens along execution paths.
  • Abstract use cases can then be used to specify inception mechanisms to be inherited by concrete use cases.

That understanding of abstract use cases comes with clear benefits with regard to security and confidentiality.

What is at Stake

Factoring out authentication and authorization epitomizes the benefits of abstract UCs:

  • Concrete schemes with included UC will give access to all registered users with the particulars of managers or customers checked later (a).
  • Alternatively, abstract schemes will use inheritance of inception mechanisms in order to explicitly prevent separate access (c).
  • Applying <include> with abstract UC should be ruled out because it would make room for the execution of operations with undefined triggering circumstances.
Interactions can only be triggered by concrete actors.

Interactions can only be triggered by concrete actors.

As a conclusion, by enabling a clear distinction between business logic and operational circumstances, abstraction can reinforce the security of functional architectures.

Further Reading

 

Focus: UML Reenacted

June 26, 2016

Overview

After a promising inception twenty years ago by the OMG (Object Management Group), UML (Unified Modeling Language) seems to have lost part of its steam and fallen short of initial expectations.

(Marta Minujin)

UML library: too many books, too specific languages (Marta Minujin)

On a general perspective that may be due to the primacy given to the agendas of tools providers, at the expense of users concerns. More specifically, UML practices have been hamstrung by two opposed misconceptions: on one side UML has been associated to OO methods and as a result demoted by non-devotees; on the other side it has been taken as a substitute for programming languages, and so confined to class diagrams and code generation. Hopefully, two major advances in methods and development frameworks, respectively agile and MBSE, could correct those biases and renew UML appeal.

UML Core Artifacts

UML diagrams target five primary artifacts:

  • Use cases, events, and actors describe what happens between systems and active agents in their environments.
  • Activities describe what systems are supposed to do when use cases are triggered.
  • Classes describe systems components.
  • Sequences describe how systems components collaborate to perform activities.
  • States and transitions describe the behaviors and synchronization of systems components.
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UML Backbone

While those diagrams cover the whole of enterprise systems, UML is all too often limited to the description of software components.

UML and Enterprise Systems

As noted above, the lack of clear users guidelines can be seen as a main cause of UML piecemeal and biased adoption. That can be illustrated by the use of activity and class diagrams:

  • Whereas activity and state diagrams could have been tailored to fully and consistently describe business processes, an alternative notation (BPMN) with arguable benefits is often preferred by business analysts.
  • Whereas UML is meant to deal with the whole of systems, successful implementations like domain specific languages (DSL) focus on class diagrams and code generation.
Targets and Modeling Languages

UML in Context

But both negative trends could be reversed if changes in methodological or technical environments could put UML users on sounder grounds and give them clearer guidelines.

Methods: Use Cases & Agile

As it happened, use cases have been the main UML innovation, other artifacts having been already introduced by modeling languages. And more to the point, they were meant to be the cornerstone of the “unified” construction, a modeling bridge between business processes and supporting systems. That clearly didn’t happen with traditional (and failed) methods like waterfall, but agile could be more welcoming.

Use cases at the hub of UML diagrams

Use cases as a modeling bridge between business processes and supporting systems.

Agile principles put the focus on collaboration and iterative code development, with only sparse mentions of models or processes. But as requirements don’t always come as clear-cut short stories told by well identified business units, use cases may help agile teams to deal with organizational or architectural dependencies:

  • Open minded and Versatile: use cases are not limited to users because actors (aka roles) are meant to hide the actual agents involved: people, devices, or other systems. As a consequence, the scope of UCs is not limited to dialog with users but may also includes batch (as one-step interactions) and real-time transactions.
  • Modular and inter-operable: given their simplicity and clarity of purpose, use cases can be easily processed by a wide array of modeling tools on both sides of the business/engineering divide, e.g BPM and UML.
  • Iterative: given their modularity, use cases can be easily tailored to the iterative paradigm. Once a context is set by business process or user’s story, development iterations can be defined with regard to invariants (use case), iterations (extension points and scenarii), backlog units (activities), and exit condition.
  • Scalable: use cases provide a sound and pragmatic transition between domain specific stories and architectural features.

That could be the basis of an open relationship between agile development models and UML.

Frameworks: Classes & MBSE

Beyond the various labels (based/driven, system/software, development/engineering), all model based approaches to systems engineering and software development try to replace procedural approaches by declarative ones, and to redefine processes in terms of artifacts transformation.

Model Based Engineering Processes are governed by the status of artifacts

UML could be used to define and manage engineered artifacts.

The benefits of that approach have already been demonstrated at design level through the use of domain specific languages (DSLs). Since effective DSLs usually rely on class diagrams, UML could be used to leverage their success beyond code generation and across the whole of the engineering process.

With artifacts seamlessly and consistently defined and managed within a single engineering framework, procedural schemes could be replaced by declarative ones reusing, editing, or transforming artifacts depending on constraints.

Further Reading

 

Phased Yet Lean Processes

June 15, 2016

Preamble

Given their inclination to fall, phases may be a recurring bane of development projects. Agile solutions have emerged as a default option providing that projects can be fully and firmly put under shared ownership and their outcome delivered continuously. But even when such conditions cannot be met lean processes may still be achieved with the help of model based engineering frameworks.

Phasing Out Procedures (Tony Clagg)

Phasing Out Bureaucratic Procedures (Tony Clagg)

Phased vs Procedural

Not all applications can stand alone and therefore be developed by a cohesive team of business analysts and software engineers delivering a continuous stream of programs. Among the reasons for that:

  • Stakeholders and decisions-making may spread across organizational units.
  • Engineering resources may not be available simultaneously and continuously.
  • The schedules of decisions or deliveries may depend on expected but not forecast changes in technical, business, or regulatory environments.
vv

Agile & Phased Development Models

Traditional approaches to phasing constraints (notoriously Waterfall) have suffered from a bureaucratic bias as they have tried to coerce every project into predefined tasks and procedures targeting standard outcomes and deliverables. And with regard of phasing concerns, the lack of flexibility and built-in mechanisms has been counterproductive: instead of making room for phased decision-making, procedural solutions have resulted in fixed requirements set upfront.

Procedural vs Declarative

Engineering processes are to be considered when, whatever the reasons, activities cannot be performed simultaneously. Whereas procedural approaches deal with the problem with predefined sequences of generic activities, declarative ones directly consider associated input and output flows and set conditions on their processing.

Cycles_DeclarIntervs

Model based engineering as governed by the status of artifacts

 

Instead of one-fits-all predefined tasks, work-units can be defined with regard to their impact on development flows. As a consequence processes can be freed of bureaucratic shackles and combine iterative schemes with phasing engineering constraints.

Model Based Engineering

Agile development models are meant to epitomize lean engineering processes as development flows are seamlessly and continuously delivered to customers without the need of intermediate products.  Assuming that good schemes have to provide good-enough options, the aim is to build cut-to-the-bone processes for sub-optimal conditions, namely even if agile constraints of shared ownership and continuous delivery cannot be fully satisfied. And that can be achieved with the help of MBSE built-in mechanisms:

  • The challenge of distributed and differentiated ownership can be dealt with by adjusting the granularity of artifacts with regard to business domains, functional architecture, and platform deployment.
  • The constraints regarding discrete and phased development and delivery are not to be confronted  upfront through planning but dealt with dynamically by balancing users’ drive with artifacts’ phasing constraints.

Lean processes can then be achieved by anchoring model based frameworks to their environment.

Cycles_DeclarOpr

Lean processes have to be built bottom-up with work units defined by their effect on targeted artifacts

Phased Yet Lean Processes

Lean processes can be defined by timed delivery without the use of unnecessary intermediate resources or assets.

Agile development models do the job by putting users’ needs on the driver’s seat and doing away with intermediate artifacts other than code. But shouldn’t backlog items likened to intermediate artifacts ? And in any case compromises may be necessary if users don’t speak with a single organizational voice and milestones are needed to synchronize development flows. For that purpose model based engineering processes have to be coupled with their organizational and technical environments:

  • Downstream automated transformation are to ensure just-in-time delivery without undue or redundant intermediate documents and models (aka development inventories).
  • Upstream conceptual (or meta-) models are to ensure semantic consistency across projects.

From a broader perspective that will demonstrate the ultimate benefits of both agile and model based engineering approaches.

Further Readings