The best architecture document in history

What was going on in 2000

Before I give you his answer, here is a quick refresher on what was going on at the time (especially important for those who say AOL was old-fashioned and did not invent anything):

  • AOL was America Online (not yet AOL Time Warner, Time Warner or AOL LLC)
  • It was the biggest ISP on the planet (most of the planet was using dial-up)
  • Over half of the internet traffic in the world was routed daily through AOL’s data center (as part of our very controlled Parental Control architecture)
  • AOL was the king of numbers and scaling: Three new members were registering every two seconds, five thousand people were authenticating these accounts every second, over 5 million people were on AIM instant messaging each other over a billion times per day
  • AOL invented the technologies to do this – the app server market was still nascent, Java was still emerging as an enterprise standard, .NET did not exist yet…

This influenced our answers to this question

So obviously, we we all wracking our brains… Was it the OSCAR architecture (for AIM), was it UNIX BSD, was it someone else’s model.  His answer really surpised us… He said it was the United State Constitution. Here’s why:

  • It has scaled. The writers of the constitution wrote it when the US was 7 million people spread across 13 colonies. It works wonderfully today for a nation of 300 million people spread across 50 states and five time zones
  • It has built-in error handling. It included an amendment process that allowed for change, but not to quickly. This has enabled the document to adapt to support a move from a tiny New World of landed, while male voters to a heterogeneous superpower.
  • It has been extensible. It did not proscribe how to run a government in 18th-century terms. Instead it defined the rules to work regardless of whether government met in person (at Independence Hall in Philadelphia) or was beign conducted over Government 2.0 virtual town halls
  • It is fault-tolerant. We have whether impeachments and other constitutional crises
  • It supports fail-over and restart without loss of operation. It christened the peaceful transition of power between leaders and administrations
  • It supports Globalization (G11n). It has been adapted and adopted by states and nation-states worldwide

He asked us all if anything we were writing could stand up for 200 years. It was a real eye opener.

How it influenced me

I immediately returned from my off-site and tore-up the architecture document I was working on for all systems supporting marketing and member development. That document had architecture definitions that specified very temporal things like platforms, languages and operating systems. All of these things would be obselete in 2-8 years (1-4 software generations).

I replaced it with a document written in the style of the US Constitution:

  • Articles on major topics (e.g., managing data, integrating systems)
  • Sections enumerating good architecture practices (e.g., modularity, encapsulation, error-handling, scaling)

Each of these describe desired outcomes. None specified how to do it (or what to use.) This ensured the document would remain current (until we reached a point where we changed our very approach to building and managing software–something a few people are calling for “revolutions” to change.)

The document I wrote is still current today (although AOL is no longer the leader of the Internet and dial-up is a small fraction of its users). It encourages innovation and creation of new solutions to achieve its principles. What is more, is it contains principles that I can explain to and obtain acceptance from business owners and technologist alike.

My challenge to you

Take a look at the US Constitution and think about how fifty-five 18th-century delegates architected something that is valid today. Challenge yourself to do the same.

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  • Jim, This was a great blog post. Inspiring.. Thx!

    Bob Kerner16 May 2009
    • Thanks for your comment, Bob. This was what I always tried to endeavor in our work in Architecture & Core Systems. Your work on RuBIX and or architecture played a large piece of this (something, I may add I am using as a inspiration for our new Pub/Sub and XML-based REST APIs today ; )

      admin16 May 2009
      • uh, wha?

        Sue3 January 2012

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