Announcing the Arch Decisions plugin for Redmine

February 23, 2010

I’ve been silent for a long time on this blog for two important reasons:

  1. I’ve decided not to post anything unless I really have some value to add
  2. I’ve been spending my spare time working on an open source plugin for the Redmine platform

So, without further ado, I’d like to announce the release (of version 0.0.8!) of the Redmine Arch Decisions plugin! At Sakonnet, my previous gig, they were using Quickbase to track tasks, specs, and just about everything. It was a snap to add in a new feature to track “architecture” (or technical) decisions, configure notifications for collaboration, and hook them up to our issues trackers for reference and follow-up. ¬†I wrote about this tool in a previous blog post, and I have been known to make the comment before that I couldn’t imagine working on software again without it. Well, when the time came to move on, guess what? No tool for tracking my “arch decisions”.

Fortunately, my current employers at Integritas are open to trying out new ideas, and are using the Rails-based Redmine for their issue tracking. Redmine, as with Rails in general, has a fairly usable plugin framework, and it was a great opportunity for me to get my hands dirty with RoR, so I jumped to it. Now, on the date of the release of the 8th version of my plugin (which we have been using for our projects), I feel I’m ready enough to announce it to anyone who’s looking for a way to record their technical decisions (and discuss them before they get made) without the overhead of stiff formal documents.

The following is a very brief overview of what you get in Redmine Arch Decisions 0.0.8:

Arch Decisions

Listing of Arch Decisions

The plugin includes a listing of the Arch Decisions themselves, which are currently limited to the scope of a single project. The ADs have an ID, a status, a summary, and a “Problem Description” field for more detailed information on the context of the decision. ADs currently follow a very simple workflow that isn’t being enforced, but is still useful:

  1. Not Started
  2. Under Discussion
  3. Decision Made
  4. Work Scheduled (implies that issues and/or tasks have been registered to track the implementation)
  5. Implemented (implies that all said issues and/or tasks have been completed, or at least to the satisfaction of the scope of the decision)
  6. Canceled
  7. Deprecated (implies that there’s another AD out there somewhere to replace it)

Arch Decisions also have a text field called “Resolution” that should be filled out when the status is changed to “Decision Made”. The resolution should explain what the final decision was, summarize why that decision was made, and provide any additional guidance to any developers who will be making sure the AD gets implemented.

Basic information for an Arch Decision

In addition to those basic text fields, there are also important supplemental elements embedded within the decisions that play an important role in the documentation and decision-making process (note that these are a new feature that I didn’t have in the old Quickbase version):

Factors

Factors associated with an AD

One of the most important benefits of tracking technical decisions in this way is the possibility of making all decision points and trade offs explicit. There are so many reasons why this is important :

  • You can see on one place all the reasons for which a decision was made
  • You can weigh them against one another so that no one gets fixated on a single reason
  • You can truly validate your assumptions by making them visible and discussing them individually
  • If any of these reasons change in the future, you can go back and check to see if your decision is still valid

Taking a cue from Craig Larman and others, I call these reasons “Factors”. A factor can be just about anything – a requirement, a hunch, a feature, a factoid – that can be used as a justification for a particular decision. In my personal experience, I have seen these factors tossed about with reckless and wanton abandon, littering the sacred grounds of a design discussion. The RAD plugin attempts to put a little order to this chaos by giving you one place to record this information. In general, it can be detrimental to the flow of a discussion to continuously stop to record these factors, but it can be extremely productive to let the fur fly in the heat of the moment, and then carefully pick out the key factors afterwards when you’re ready to clean house.

Factors have a status, which is important in showing which ones have been “challenged” (by marking them as “Validated” once the discussion has completed), including ones that were later shown to be incorrect assumptions (“Refuted”). There is even a text field called “Evidence” wherein the user can record exactly how they came to the conclusion regarding the validity (via external URLs, quotes from a discussion, or even a lame but honest “because Tim said so”).

Also importantly, factors can be reordered on the AD view page by simply dragging a row and placing it in the order desired. This allows you to explicitly declare which factors have a greater weight or priority, which comes in useful when a trade off must be made.

One interesting thing to note about factors is that they may have varying scopes. Some may be very specific to the Arch Decision at hand (e.g. “We will get a big bonus if we pick Strategy A!” or “The coin said ‘heads'”). Some may related to more than one AD (e.g. “The company has mandated that we use open source tools for this project”). Still others may be “global truths” that can even be applied across multiple projects (e.g. “Amazon EC2 does not support multicast between instances” (can this one be refuted yet?)). Factors can be created on their own (via the separate Factors tab), or right in the AD itself. In the latter case, they are automatically given a scope of “Arch Decision”. But this can be changed to something a little more broad. When this happens, the Factor can then be added to multiple ADs as appropriate.

Strategies

Strategies for an AD

What’s a decision without options to choose from? As with factors, my experience has been that people are good at tossing out ideas, but less good at remembering what they were later on. Or understanding anyone’s ideas but their own. So the RAD plugin also separates out a section just to track what those alternatives were that everyone proposed. Each one has a “short name”, which can be useful as reference (a little better than “wait, are you talking about the one where command comes in as a message which is then republished, or the one where you stick the command in the database and then you have a periodic task to look them up?”), plus a sightly longer summary. Then there is a detailed description for what that stratesugy would really entail.

Importantly, strategies can then be officially “rejected”, with an explanation as to why (in the future, it might be interesting to point to the key Factors). When this happens, they show up at the bottom of the list, with a big red “X” so that no one is confused as to whether or not that possibility is still being discussed (nor why it was rejected).

In some cases, you have a “there can only be one” situation, where a decision could only be considered to have been made when all the other competing strategies have been rejected. In this case, the Resolution will really just be a rewrite of the surviving strategy and its implications. In other cases, you might have multiple winners, each of which composes a part of the final resolution. I find this is especially the case when you are making decisions regarding standards – some will be rejected, while others will be accepted and adopted.

Tracking

An Issue with two related ADs

With this release, ADs can finally be associated with Redmine Issues. This is very important for tracking and governance (making sure the decision gets carried out, and that it is still followed in later implementations. It’s also true that during the course of making a decision, work has to be done on the side. Thus, the association between ADs and issues includes the “type” of relationship that an Issue bears to the AD:

  • Task – the work is a task related to making the decision (e.g. for research)
  • Proof of Concept – partial implementation projects that are required to prove whether or not a particular strategy is viable
  • Implementation – software development work intended to implement a decision (e.g. the creation of a framework according to the design specifications stipulated by the resolution)
  • Governed – implementation of the issue is expected to follow the guidelines laid out by a (possibly previously-existing) decision

Since I often work with issue trackers other than Redmine (and have been too lazy to implement a real integration), it’s also possible to define an Issue by an external URL rather than via a Redmine ID. Although the external tracker won’t have a back reference to the AD, and the AD won’t be able to report on the status of the issue, it’s certainly better than having no link at all.

Collaboration

The heart of the original idea for Arch Decisions was the ability to provide a voice to everyone involved in a decision. Ivory tower type architects would do well to take heed and use this tool. Developers don’t always like to have their instructions handed to them on a silver platter (especially when they think a bowl would be better for the soup they’re expected to eat). The RAD plugin gives developers the chance to speak up by posting comments in the Discussion sections (in fact, there’s one for each Factor and Strategy as well as the main AD itself, for those times when you need to focus on a specific subject). It also gives other project members a chance to respond, since there is a “watch” feature, and change notifications can go out via email.

In the previous incarnation of Arch Decisions, there was also a button on each issue so that a developer could raise a red flag whenever there was an implementation detail that needed to be discussed. Thus, the discussion could go both ways, so that architects are not always kept in the blue about what the developers are doing, and what they need to know. This worked very well at my last place of work. Unfortunately, I haven’t implemented this feature yet, but I’m sure it won’t be long before I do.

Final Details

Installing the plugin is very straightforward: just download Redmine and follow its basic instructions, then download the plugin, stick it in the /vendors/plugins folder, and run “rake db:migrate_plugins” to set up the database. I’ll provide a more extensive guide in another post, but hopefully that’s enough to get you started.¬†Unfortunately, the plugin only works with version 0.8.4 of Redmine. I’d like to get it working for 0.9.x soon, so if that’s important to you, give me a holler to get off my butt.

I’ve got more tips and details to discuss about the plugin, so I’ll try to get around to that as soon as possible. Until then, let me know if you have any feedback, and I really wish you the best in your future decisions!