Difference between Software Architecture, Software Structure, and Software Design


Over the past 10-15 years, Software architecture has been widely spread in software engineering community, To the extent that there are currently many career positions for software architect like Technical Architect and Chief Architect. Also, Architecture has involved in many different domains, for example, the architecture used to describe and refer to the internal structure of microprocessor and structure of machines or Network. For that matter, Trying to find one widely accepted definition for software architecture is not easy, and this issue has been introduced in many books when the authors start defining software architecture.

“Trying to define a term such as software architecture is always a potentially dangerous activity. There really is no widely accepted definition by the industry.”

(Gorton, 2011)

This post shall highlight the difference between Software Architecture, Software Design, and Software Structure and the interrelation between them.

Software Architecture vs. Software Structure

Software architecture

The most widely accepted definition comes from work done in the Software Architecture group of the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

“The architecture of a software-intensive system is the structure or structures of the system, which comprise software elements, the externally visible properties of those elements, and the relationships among them.”

(Bass, Clements, & Kazman, 2003)

Software Structure

Software structure may be a little confusing and seems that no difference between it and software architecture, also there is no solid definition for system structure. Software structure has two types, static and dynamic.

“The static structures of a software system define its internal design-time elements and their arrangement”

“The dynamic structures of a software system define its runtime elements and their interactions“

(Bass, Clements, & Kazman, 2003)

The following example of Human Body will illustrate what is the meaning of software structure? The Human Body is structuring the body structure, so the neurologist, the orthopedist, the hematologist, and the dermatologist all take a different perspective on the structure of a human body. Ophthalmologists, cardiologists, and podiatrists concentrate on subsystems. And the kinesiologist and psychiatrist are concerned with different aspects of the entire arrangement’s behavior. Although these perspectives are pictured differently and have totally different properties, all are related together, describe the architecture of the human body. (Maya & Merson, 2008)

The same example can be taken from Engineering structure of a simple home. Some structures made for Electric purposes, others for Sanitation purposes and others for structural purposes. Each one of them represents a different structure for a specific role and specific purpose. All of these structures shall be consistent to create the architecture, and only one of them cannot represent the architecture.

The same is the software, it contains different views for various purposes and stakeholders. Each view is a structure. The developer needs to have a software structure to help him in developing the requirements. The System integrator needs to know the interrelation between components and its properties and behavior. The tester needs to know what are the inputs and expected outputs. The below-quoted paragraph completes the relation between the structures and the architecture.

“None of these structures alone is the architecture, although they all convey architectural information. The architecture consists of these structures as well as many others. This example shows that since architecture can comprise more than one kind of structure, there is more than one kind of element (e.g., implementation unit and processes), more than one kind of interaction among elements (e.g., subdivision and synchronization), and even more than one context (e.g., development time versus runtime). By intention, the definition does not specify what the architectural elements and relationships are.”

(Maya & Merson, 2008)

It is worth mentioning that, structures have a more detailed level of information regarding each component, for example, the structure of deployment infrastructure may include many details regarding processing power, storage, and shared memory. This detailed information may be not introduced at the level of architecture.

It can be argued that structure is architecture as it describes the elements and component from the perspective of stakeholders, which achieves their goals. So it is architecture from their own perspective.

“If structure is important to achieve your system’s goals, that structure is architectural. But designers of elements, or subsystems, that you assign may have to introduce structure of their own to meet their goals, in which case such structures are architectural: to them but not to you.”

(Clements, et al., 2010)

Software Architecture vs. Software Design

Software Design

The design is used in many fields and has no generally widely accepted definition. However, work experience shows that design is making a plan for the software developing activity to accomplish its requirements and its related quality attributes.

Architecture is mainly a design, while not all designs are architecture. This concept has been explained in (Clements, et al., 2010). As the architecture is a set of main design decisions which will affect the software and its quality attributes, while any other design decisions left for downstream developer and designer is a nonarchitectural design, these designs are left because it will not affect the overall decisions that have been taken by the architect to document the software architecture.

For example, in a service-oriented architecture, the architect is interested in defining the main services and component and their connections with each other, while he is not interested in how one of these services will be implemented as this can be left for nonarchitectural design methods and implementations, as defining these interfaces between the components and the data exchanged between them is more important and cannot be left to any element design decision. As software components and its quality depend on these main decisions.

It is worth mentioning that, there is a wrong view by understanding that architecture is focused on high level and conceptual framework, and it is followed by a step of detailed design, also that architecture document shall be limited to number of pages (50 pages) and it is just a small set of only big decisions. Authors of (Clements, et al., 2010) advises the readers to stamp out these thoughts as they are nonsense and asks them to eliminate the terminology of detailed design and using the nonarchitectural design. As Architecture may be detailed or high level based on the global decisions.

To summarize, architecture is design, but not all design is architectural. The architect draws the boundary between architectural and nonarchitectural design by making those decisions that need to be bound in order for the system to meet its development, behavioral, and quality goals. All other decisions can be left to downstream designers and implementers. Decisions are architectural or not, according to context. If structure is important to achieve your system’s goals, that structure is architectural. But designers of elements, or subsystems, that you assign may have to introduce structure of their own to meet their goals, in which case such structures are architectural: to them but not to you.


And (repeat after me) we all promise to stop using the phrase “detailed design.” Try “nonarchitectural design” instead.

(Clements, et al., 2010)

This perspective is not similar with the perspective of Author of (Budgen, 2003) who illustrated the design as a phase of the software lifecycle after architecture phase and it is interested in the level of deep details and description of system elements.

Architectural design. Concerned with the overall form of solution to be adopted (for example, whether to use a distributed system, what the major elements will be and how they will interact).

 Detailed design. Developing descriptions of the elements identified in the previous phase, and obviously involving interaction with this. There are also clear feedback loops to earlier phases if the designers are to ensure that the behavior of their solution is to meet the requirements.

(Budgen, 2003)


To sum up, it can be argued that the three terminologies; Software Architecture, Software Design and Software Structure have no widely agreed definition nor a remarkable difference between them. Therefore, they have many perspectives according to their purposes. In my own perspective, software architecture and software design are the same concepts, while they are different on the level of details needed to be shared with stakeholders based on the global architectural decisions.

In addition, software structure is set of architecture to characterize a set of actions and component from the perspective view of the software in specific depth. Software architecture is a group of these structures. These structures are organized in a manner to fulfill the software requirements and its quality attributes. Also, the software Structure of specific view is architecture as it describes the elements, its properties, and behavior to meet this specific view goal for the specific stakeholder.

Above all, in order to reach a remarkable difference between the three terminologies, we have to decide which viewpoint we are looking from.


“SEI”, S. E. (2011). Software Engineering Institute. (Carnegie Mellon University) Retrieved 10 7, 2011, from http://www.sei.cmu.edu/architecture/start/definitions.cfm

Bass, L., Clements, P., & Kazman, R. (2003). Software Architecture in Practice (2nd edition). Addison Wesley 2003.

Budgen, D. (2003). SOFTWARE DESIGN (2nd ed.). Addison Wesley.

Clements, P., Bachmann, F., Bass, L., Garlan, D., Ivers, J., Little, R., . . . Stafford, J. (2010). Documenting Software Architectures (2nd Edition). Addison-Wesely.

D. Garlan, M. S. (1993). An Introduction to Software Architecture, Advances in Software Engineering and Knowledge Engineering, Volume I. World Scientific. Retrieved from D. Garlan, M. Shaw, An Introduction to Software Architecture, Advances in Software Engineering and Knowledge Engineering, Volume I, World Scientific, 1993

Design. (n.d.). Retrieved October 14, 2011, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design

Gorton, I. (2011). Understanding Software Architecture. In I. Gorton, Essential Software Architecture (2nd ed., p. 2). Springer.

Maya, L. D., & Merson, P. (2008). Documentation Roadmap and Overview. Retrieved October 7, 2011, from Software Architecture Document: https://wiki.sei.cmu.edu/sad/index.php/Documentation_Roadmap_and_Overview


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