Solution Architecture Anti-Patterns

Dan Hughes
February 28, 2024

In the complex and often serious world of solution architecture, it's easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day minutiae and forget that, sometimes, some of the greatest lessons come wrapped in humor. This article takes a tongue-in-cheek look at ten solution architecture anti-patterns - those all-too-common missteps that we've either witnessed or let's admit it, been guilty of ourselves. From the mis-matched architecture of the 'Patchwork Quilt' to the go-live celebration of the 'Hit and Run', each anti-pattern is a reminder that even the best-laid plans in architecture can go awry. So, buckle up and prepare for a journey through the lighter side with these anti-patterns.

The Patchwork Quilt

Robot sewing a quilt for the Patchwork Quilt Solution Architecture Anti-pattern.

Imagine a quilt made from different fabrics, none of which match. This is what happens when technologies and systems are haphazardly stitched together without a unifying strategy. The result is a colorful but dysfunctional mishmash that can make any architect cringe. It teaches the importance of a cohesive technology strategy over a 'make do and mend' approach. It is also known as The Jenga Tower, because each added component makes the structure shakier, leading eventually to a precarious, and often spectacular, collapse.

To prevent this, establish a clear technological strategy and ensure all components are compatible and aligned with the overall architectural vision. You can build incrementally but should have the architecture in mind from the start. Regular technology audits can help maintain coherence.

The Duct Tape Fix

A temporary fix that becomes a permanent solution is the hallmark of the Duct Tape Fix anti-pattern. It’s like using duct tape to fix a leaky pipe; it might hold for a while, but it’s not sustainable. It can also makes it more difficult to modify or fix other connected components. This anti-pattern highlights the importance of proper, long-term solutions over quick, short-term fixes. Over time the situation often gets worse, as more and more duct tape gets introduced into your enterprise. Eventually you have more duct tape than pipe!

To avoid this, treat quick fixes as truly temporary and implement a real plan for permanent solutions. Don't over-invest in the duct tape solution. Regularly review and prioritize the replacement of these temporary fixes with appropriate solutions.

The Echo Chamber

Designing in an echo chamber happens when architects design solutions in isolation, without external feedback or user input. This results in two key issues:

  1. The solution does not benefit from feedback. Feedback is always valuable, it either changes and strengthens your architecture or it forces you to clarify and enhance your explanation of the architecture.
  2. Your stakeholders may not understand or be "on board" with your architecture. Which will be problematic as it takes a village to implement any solution.

To prevent this, involve stakeholders and users early in the design process and regularly seek their feedback. Done right, solution architecture is a group activity and the solution architect leads and facilitates the design process. Implementing people-centric design practices, like those in the Wittij People-Centric Architecture method, ensures that solutions are practical and user-friendly.

The Magic Beanstalk

Overambitious projects with unmanaged growth are known as the 'Magic Beanstalk'. Just like Jack's beanstalk, these projects grow rapidly and uncontrollably, often leading to an encounter with something big and scary (like budget overruns or technical impossibilities). Scope creep is insidious, and well-intended additions slowly increase the likelihood of failure. While most "scope" is functional in nature and doesn't impact the architecture, shifting requirements can make it challenging to get the architecture right.

To avoid this, set realistic goals and scale expectations based on actual capabilities and resources. Clearly document the scope, and ensure it is always front and center as changes are evaluated. Implement a phased approach to growth, allowing for adjustments based on feedback and performance. While managing scope is really within the remit of project leadership, a solution architect can control the scope of the the architecture. We recommend a Solution User View as an effective tool to understand and communicate a solution scope.

The Bermuda Triangle

In this scenario, data enters the system never to be seen again. Like the infamous Bermuda Triangle, it's a mysterious and often frustrating phenomenon where good data goes to get lost. This anti-pattern highlights the importance of effective data management and retrieval systems.

To avoid this, invest in robust data management and design solutions with integration in mind. Ensure the system of record for different domains of data is clear and your design is not duplicating data unnecessarily, nor requiring redundant manual data entry. Regular data audits and implementing data governance policies can ensure data integrity and availability.

The Titanic

This anti-pattern is akin to the ill-fated Titanic voyage, where overconfidence in the ship's invulnerability led to a lack of adequate lifeboats. In the world of solution architecture, this translates to an overconfident assumption that major failures are unlikely, leading to inadequate planning for disaster recovery. Just like the Titanic underestimated the risk of an iceberg, businesses often underestimate the potential for catastrophic IT failures. Whether it's a natural disaster, a cyber-attack, or a human error, the lack of a solid disaster recovery plan can lead to significant operational downtime, data loss, and financial damage.

To prevent this, understand the criticality of the business activities the system is supporting, then design the architecture to recover accordingly. In modern architectures, you will often handle this with a combination of availability, recovery, and failover, but whatever your situation is, just make sure the right discussions are happening!

The One-Horse Race

This humorous anti-pattern emerges when solution architects make decisions without sufficient options analysis, akin to a horse race with only one horse. It's a whimsical way of pointing out the folly of skipping comprehensive analysis and jumping to conclusions. This approach often leads to a narrow view, overlooking better or more innovative solutions. It's a reminder that when evaluating options for technology decisions, having more horses (options) in the race leads to a more competitive and ultimately more successful outcome.

Making decisions with limited options analysis can lead to suboptimal outcomes. To avoid this, conduct thorough research and consider multiple alternatives before decision-making. Encouraging a culture of open discussion and critical evaluation of options can lead to more informed and effective decisions.

The Roundabout

Imagine getting stuck in a roundabout and endlessly circling. That's this anti-pattern, where projects get caught in endless cycles of debate with no real progress. This is the counter to the one-horse race - not too little analysis, but too much! While we are huge proponents of applying rigor to making technical decisions, there are times when the decision process just seems to get stuck.

The key to avoiding this, or to navigating your way out if you find yourself there, is to stick to the playbook: tighten up that solution options analysis! Define your decision scope clearly, then follow a fact-based approach to conclusion. If all else fails, then the options analysis presentation will be the right tool for the inevitable escalation to someone who will make a decision!

The Invisible Ink

This refers to architects who "design1I refuse to give consider a process with no written artifacts "design."" solutions and document them in 'invisible ink.' Much like trying to read a map written in lemon juice without heat, future teams struggle to understand, leverage, or modify the architecture without proper documentation. It's a humorous metaphor for the essential, yet often overlooked, task of thorough documentation. This anti-pattern underscores the importance of leaving clear, decipherable records for those who will navigate the architecture in the future. Clear views of an architecture are essential for communicating to people not there where or when the decisions were made. Not to mention the lack of collaboration - or even thought! - that went into an architecture design that exists only in the solution architect's head!

To prevent this, establish strict documentation practices from the start. These don't have to be heavyweight. Plus, good architecture documentation doesn't slow things down, but accelerates a design process.

The Hit and Run

Like a questionable driver in a parking lot, this approach hits (builds the solution) and runs (moves on), without a thought for the aftermath – who's going to maintain it, what it will cost in the long run, or how it will be supported. While a solution architect does need to pay attention to feasibility of solution delivery, there are legions of others watching out for this, most especially project leadership.

To ensure the sustainability of a solution, a solution architect needs to be applying a non-functional requirement lens to the design, with a focus on how the solution will be built, installed, and operated in the environment, and highlighting any solution architecture risks that will result from the decisions made as part of the architecture design.

Slaying Solution Architecture Anti-Patterns

Robot Knight with sword and shield

While these anti-patterns are presented with a touch of humor, they each carry an important lesson. By recognizing and avoiding these pitfalls, solution architects can steer clear of these comical but costly mistakes, ensuring their solutions are as effective as they are efficient.

The best way to avoid these patterns is to follow a standard architecture process - like the Wittij People-Centric Architecture Method! - and drive all your solution architecture decisions with thoughtful decision-making based on fact-based options analysis.

Dan is the founder of Wittij Consulting. Prior to founding Wittij, he spent a decade in software development before moving into IT architecture, where he created an Open Group recognized architecture method and led delivery of all services for a company specializing in enterprise and solution architecture for 15 years. He is an energetic, thoughtful leader with an ability to engage and motivate people, and has been called a “force multiplier” for his ability to not only deliver great value, but also increase the value and capability of the people around him. Dan is a strong facilitator, able to understand and resolve complex disagreements with diplomacy. He comprehends and communicates clearly both at the detail level and the boardroom summary level to both business and technical audiences. His knowledge of enterprise techniques and technologies is broad and deep, and includes industry expertise in manufacturing, financial services, banking, health care, insurance, regulatory compliance, and NGOs.
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