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Software Architecture Cheatsheet, Part 1 - Application Types

What I really like about being a software artist is the richness of tools and techniques you have at your disposal. And the more tools you have, the harder it is to use the right ones, the more tempting it is to limit yourself to a few of them. But to me it’s like analogic versus digital DJing: given that your ultimate purpose is to create sounds that make people move, why limit yourself to sync-and-scratch when you can have effects, loops, samples and a virtually unlimited library of tracks?

But I’m sort of missing my point here. Let’s get back to software. I’ve recently come to work on a new project that has been in the works for almost 2 years. For 2 years, wanna-be software developers have tried to solve a very difficult problem with very usual tools. It’s like Maslow said:

When you know how to use a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

Well, guess what! Everything is NOT a nail. And I’m gonna try to go over the reasons why in this post.

Software is one big family…

…and each member of the family has its own personality.

The most popular right now is certainly web applications. And by web applications, I mean traditional ones. HTML, CSS, throw is a little bit of Javascript, and maybe generate all of that with some server-side scripting like PHP, Python, JSF or whatever. Heavy load on the server, but very lightweight on the client. The interface is somehow poor because it relies heavily on technologies that were designed for documents gathered in websites, rather than for full-blown applications, with all the interactivity that it implies. Yes, some progress has been made in the past few years with all this AJAX stuff, but bear with me, this all seems like tinkering to me.

The mirror opposite of lightweight clients are certainly fat clients, aka desktop applications. Those applications are based on a composition of graphical widgets the user interacts with, throwing events around and interacting with the operating system. Contrary to their web counterpart, they usually require quite a procedure for deployment and maintenance, because they are physically running on the user’s machine and only check in with the server if they need to. But damn they’re fast.

More recently, a new compromise solution has shown up, offering the best of both worlds: the great ergonomy of desktop clients combined with the ease of deployment and maintenance of web clients. That’s what marketing guys have lovingly called Rich Internet Applications. Now behind this lovely RIA thing, there are a few technologies that make it a lot easier to write rich user interfaces that run within the confines of a web browser. But still, those have limitations compared to their pure desktop brethren: poor integration with the operating system, security constraints all over the place, heavily rely on server-side business code.

Now if Rich Internet Applications are web applications that solve the ergonomy problem, there is of course the other side of the compromise: desktop applications that solve the deployment and maintainability issues. Those are sometimes called smart clients: local database, offline mode, online synchronization, automatic updates, easy one-click installation.

Even though, those seem to fulfill the family picture, there are a few weird cousins out there that are good to be known. Command-Line Interface (CLI) applications have poor to no user interface at all. Their main purpose is to be run on the command-line by some geeky system administrator somewhere, or to be part of batch scripts running automatically every night. Very useful for maintenance apps, and for all long tasks like data analysis or system checks.

And of course there are mobile applications and all kinds of embedded systems. The user interface simply cannot be rich here, because the display is so small, and the computing resources are so limited. Small memory, small keyboard. The iPhone is certainly changing the landscape here, but you still have to manage memory!

Don’t forget extension apps, like SAP modules, CMS plugins, MS Access applications. Those are applications of their own. Usually highly specialized but very fast to develop for simple use cases, to get things done quickly.

Finally, even though, they’re less and less popular, there are still many mainframe applications out there. Now I won’t go into much details here because I’ve never set foot on that ground. But it certainly doesn’t harm to remember that it exists.

Now there certainly are a few other kinds of software applications out there that I didn’t think of, but you get my point. There are a lot of different tools out there, and very different techniques to use those tools in order to create software solutions to very different problems. And what makes those problems so different, you might ask. Well, it’s all about the business context. In the second part of this series, I’ll focus on the characteristics of a business environment can influence the tools you choose to implement the solution to a problem.

But before we get there, do you see other kinds of applications that I forgot to mention?

From http://sebastien-arbogast.com/

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