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InfoQ Homepage Articles InfoQ Software Architecture and Design Trends Report - April 2023

InfoQ Software Architecture and Design Trends Report - April 2023

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Key Takeaways

  • Design for Portability is gaining adoption, as frameworks like Dapr focus on a cloud-native abstraction model and allow architects to separate business logic from implementation details.
  • Large language models are going to have a significant impact, from helping understand architectural trade-offs to empowering a new generation of low-code and no-code developers.
  • Sustainability of software will be a major design consideration in the coming years. Work is being done to better measure and then reduce the carbon footprint of software systems.
  • Decentralized apps are taking blockchain beyond cryptocurrency and NFTs, but a lack of consumer demand will keep this as a niche pattern.
  • Architects are always looking for improvements on how to document, communicate, and understand decisions. This may be another area where large language models will play a role in the future, acting as forensic archeologists to comb through ADRs and git history.

The InfoQ Trends Reports provide InfoQ readers a high-level overview of the topics to pay attention to, and also help the InfoQ editorial team focus on innovative technologies. In addition to this report and the trends graph, an accompanying podcast features some of the editors discussing these trends.

Updates to the trends graph

More details follow later in the report, but first it is helpful to summarize the changes from last year's trends graph. 

Three new items were added to the graph this year. Large language models and software supply chain security are new innovator trends, and "architecture as a team sport" was added under early adopters.

Trends which gained adoption, and therefore moved to the right, included "design for portability," data-driven architecture, and serverless. eBPF was removed as it has niche applications, and is not likely to be a major driver in architectural decisions.

A few trends were renamed and/or combined. We consider Dapr as an implementation of the "design for portability" concept, so it was removed as a separate trend. Data-driven architecture is the combination of "data + architecture" and data mesh. Blockchain was replaced with the broader idea of decentralized apps, or dApps. WebAssembly now notes both server-side and client-side, as these are related but separate ideas and may evolve independently in the future.

Design for portability

The portability aspect of "design for portability" is not about being able to pick up your code and move it. Rather, it creates a clean abstraction from the infrastructure. As InfoQ editor Vasco Veloso says, "whoever is designing and building the system can focus on what brings value, instead of having to worry too much with the platform details that they are going to be running on."

This design philosophy is being enabled by frameworks such as Dapr. Daniel Bryant, InfoQ news manager, sees the benefit of the CNCF project as providing a clearly defined abstraction layer and API for building cloud-native services. Bryant said, “[with integration] it's all about the APIs and [Dapr] provides abstractions without doing the lowest common denominator".

A recent article by Bilgin Ibryam described the evolution of cloud-native applications into cloud-bound applications. Instead of designing a system with logical components for application logic and compute infrastructure, cloud-bound applications focus on the integration bindings. These bindings include external APIs as well as operational needs such as workflow orchestration and observability telemetry.

Another technology that supports designing for portability is WebAssembly, specifically server-side WebAssembly. Often WebAssembly is thought of as a client-side capability, for optimizing code running in the browser. But using WebAssembly has significant benefits for server-side code. InfoQ Editor Eran Stiller described the process for creating WebAssembly-based containers. 

Instead of compiling it to a Docker container and then needing to spin up an entire system inside that container on your orchestrator, you compile it to WebAssembly and that allows the container to be much more lightweight. It has security baked in because it's meant to run the browser. And it can run anywhere–in any cloud, or on any CPU, for that matter. – Eran Stiller

More information about Dapr and WebAssembly can be found by following those topics on InfoQ.

Large language models

The news around AI, specifically large language models such as GPT-3 and GPT-4, has been impossible to ignore. This is not simply a tool used by software professionals as the adoption by everyday people and the coverage in all forms of media has demonstrated. But what does it mean to software architects? In some ways, it is too early to know what will happen. 

With ChatGPT and Bing, we're just beginning to see what is possible with large language models like GPT-3. This is the definition of an innovator trend. I don't know what will come of it, but it will be significant, and something I look forward to seeing evolve in the next few years. – Thomas Betts

While the future is uncertain, we have optimism that these AI models will generally have a positive benefit on the software we build and how we build it. The code-generation capabilities of ChatGPT, Bing chat, and GitHub Copilot are useful for writing code and tests and allowing developers to work faster. Architects are also using the chatbots to discuss design options and analyze trade-offs.

While these improvements in efficiency are useful, care must be taken to understand the limitations of AI models. They all have built-in biases which may not be obvious. They also may not understand your business domain, despite sounding confident in their responses.

This will definitely be a major trend to watch in 2023, as new products are built on large language models and companies find ways to integrate them into existing systems.

Data-driven architecture

Last year, we discussed the idea of “data + architecture” as a way to capture how architects are considering data differently when designing systems. This year we are combining that idea with Data Mesh under the heading of “data-driven architecture.” 

The structure, storage, and processing of data are up-front concerns, rather than details to be handled during implementation. Blanca Garcia-Gil, a member of the QCon London programming committee, said, “when designing cloud architectures there is a need to think from the start about data collection, storage, and security, so that later on we can derive value from it, including the use of AI/ML.” Garcia-Gil also pointed out that data observability is still an innovator trend, at least compared to the state of observability of other portions of a system.

Data Mesh was a paradigm shift, with teams aligned around the ownership of data products. This fits the idea of data-driven architecture, as well as incorporating Conway’s Law into the overall design of a system.

Design for sustainability

While there has been more adoption in designing for sustainability, we chose to leave it as an innovator trend because the industry is just starting to really embrace sustainable systems and designing for a low carbon footprint. We need to consider sustainability as a primary feature, not something we achieve secondarily when trying to reduce costs. Veloso said, “I have noticed that there is more talk about sustainability these days. Let's be honest that probably half of it is because energy is just more expensive and everybody wants to reduce OPEX.”

One of the biggest challenges is the difficulty in measuring the carbon footprint of a system. Until now, cost has been used as a stand-in for environmental impact, because there is a correlation between how much compute you use and how much carbon you use. But this technique has many limitations.

The Green Software Foundation is one initiative trying to help create tools to measure the carbon consumed. At QCon London, Adrian Cockcroft gave an overview of where the three major cloud vendors (AWS, Azure, GCP) currently stand in providing carbon measurements.

As the tooling improves, developers will be able to add the carbon usage to other observability metrics of a system. Once those values are visible, the system can be designed and modified to reduce them.

This also ties into the ideas around portability and cloud-native frameworks. If our systems are more portable, that means we will more easily be able to adapt them to run in the most environmentally-friendly ways. This could mean moving resources to data centers that use green energy, or processing workloads during times when the energy available is more green. We can no longer assume running at night, when the servers are less busy is the best option, as solar power could mean the middle of the day is the greenest time.

Decentralized apps (dApps)

Blockchain and a distributed ledger is often the technology behind decentralized apps. However, blockchain remains a technology that solves a problem most people do not see as a problem.

The use of decentralization outside of blockchain and web 3.0 has also emerged elsewhere within the software development ecosystem. For example, Mastodon emerged as a decentralized social network that is an alternative to Twitter. However, consumer uptake of this platform has yet to be as successful as the existing centralized offerings.

Because of this niche applicability, decentralized applications remain classified as an innovator trend.

Architecture as a team sport

Architects no longer work alone, and architects can no longer think only about technical issues. The role of an architect varies greatly across the industry, and some companies have eliminated the title entirely, favoring “principal engineers” as the role primarily responsible for architectural decisions. This corresponds to a more collaborative approach, where architects work closely with the engineers who are building a system to continually refine the system design.

Architects have been working collaboratively with software teams to come up with and iterate designs. I continue to see different roles here (especially in larger organizations), but communication and working together through proof of concepts to try out designs if needed is key. – Blanca Garcia-Gil

Architecture Decision Records (ADRs) are now commonly recognized as a way to document and communicate design decisions. They are also being used as a collaboration tool to help engineers learn to make technical decisions and consider trade-offs.

Listen to the Trends Report Discussion on the InfoQ Podcast

The Architecture & Design editorial team met remotely to discuss these trends and we recorded our discussion as a podcast.  You can listen to the discussion and get a feel for the thinking behind these trends.

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