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Solutions Architect Tips - The 5 Types of Architecture Diagrams

allenheltondev profile image Allen Helton Originally published at readysetcloud.io ・6 min read

Have you ever been in a meeting where someone is trying to explain how a software system works?

I was having a conversation with a relatively new solutions architect who was trying to describe a system they had come up with. It had about eight different components to it and they all interacted with each other in multiple ways.

They were explaining the solution using hand gestures and a lot of "and this piece communicates with this one by...".

I understood the words coming out of their mouth but they don't make sense strung together.

Words get lost when explaining complex conceptual architecture. I was trying to build a mental model while following a train of thought. I needed a visual.

I needed a diagram.

But not just any diagram. Architecture diagrams are not a "one size fits all" solution.

We've discussed recently that a significant part of being a solutions architect is effectively communicating your ideas to both technical and non-technical audiences.

Your diagrams must take that into consideration. If you want to get your idea across to different sets of people, you must make multiple versions of your diagrams.

Today we are going to talk about the 5 different types of diagrams you should make depending on 5 different audiences.

We will take an example from my fake business but real API, Gopher Holes Unlimited, where we add a new gopher into the system to be tracked.

The Flow Diagram

The most generic and generally broadest reaching diagram you can make is the flow diagram. It is a medium-high level diagram that shows all the pieces of a workflow.

This diagram illustrates the moving parts in a business process.

Basic Architecture Flow Diagram

Audience

The audience for this type of diagram is generally technical. It may be used to pitch an idea to an architecture board or describe how a business process works to a developer.

Considerations

The major component to the architecture flow diagram is to include all the moving parts. In the case of our serverless AWS environment, we label each managed service and which ones communicate with each other.

No details are described in how the pieces interact with each other, but it does show the connections. It shows how data flows through the system.

The Service Diagram

A service diagram illustrates connectivity from a high level. It does not show any detail into how the workflow or service works, but instead shows the major pieces at play. This is a diagram intended to show the internal vs external services used in an application.

Architecture Service Diagram

Audience

IT and network engineers tend to be most interested in this type of diagram. They care about any connections you're making to outside services, plus they need to know if any internal connectivity needs to be monitored.

I often use this diagram to describe how systems work to executives. They want to know connections between major applications and there is nothing better than the service diagram to represent those connections.

Considerations

When building an architecture service diagram it's good to list all the microservices that make up your application or ecosystem. Label which services communicate with each other and be sure to make the distinction between services your company owns and services that are external.

Details into how the services work are not necessary in this high level diagram. This is all about the services that make an application run.

The Persona Diagram

It is important to show that your architecture solves the business problem. A persona diagram describes a chronological view and actors in a particular workflow. This is your best tool for proving that you've taken the business into consideration when developing your solution.

Architecture Persona Diagram with Swim Lanes

Audience

Business oriented individuals and product owners are the intended audience for this type of diagram. They are focused on personas and how they interact with the system. Showing them a graph of who does what, when will perfectly describe what your system is doing.

Considerations

The architecture persona diagram dips into the BPMN model a little bit. Make use of swim lanes to show the different actors in a workflow. This type of diagram tends to be lower level, as it includes more detail than the others. Be sure to label the personas, the workflow, and any assumptions of how the business process gets from one step to the other.

These diagrams also help developers who are new to a domain and offer insightful context into what they will be building.

The Infrastructure Diagram

The infrastructure diagram is a "what you see is what you get" model. It represents everything that has been implemented. A low-level diagram in nature, it is meant to be inclusive of everything that exists in a service/application/ecosystem.

The purpose of this diagram is to show what has been built and how the system currently works. Consider this a blueprint of the application you built.

Infrastructure Diagram

Audience

The audience for an infrastructure diagram varies. It can be used to show developers what they have to work with in a specific microservice. It could also be used to show a client all the resources your company uses to accomplish a task.

Technical people will be the primary consumers your infrastructure diagram. Since you're providing an inventory and not conveying ideas or business processes, the intended use of this diagram is scoped down to informational only. It's for people who like the "nitty-gritty" detail.

Considerations

When building an architecture infrastructure diagram, don't leave out any pieces. The goal of this type of diagram is to show everything in your app and how they connect. You don't need to go into too much detail of how it all works, but rather focus on getting all the pieces of your app included in the diagram.

The Developer Diagram

When you need to get down to brass tacks, the developer diagram is going to be your best bet. It includes everything a developer would need in order to build the solution. The goal is to answer any questions that might come up by looking at a flow diagram and include them in the design. This is the lowest level diagram of the bunch and is intended to get the idea across without your presence.

Someone should be able to read this diagram and know exactly what to do.

Developer diagram with details included

Audience

The developers implementing the solution are the audience here. The level of detail included in the diagram is unnecessary for people outside of your team. Sometimes too much detail can be a bad thing for an audience that doesn't need it.

Providing implementation details to people outside of the development team is a perfect example of too much detail. It causes a distraction and takes away from other messages you are trying to convey.

Considerations

The architecture developer diagram is essentially the flow diagram with added detail. Label each piece with any specific implementation detail you can think of and be sure to label important transitions.

This type of diagram does not replace user stories, but it does help enhance them and increase understanding across a development team. Use them when you can because when implementation is done, you have a useful artifact to reference in the future.

Conclusion

There are many types of architecture diagrams. Each one serves a unique purpose and many serve different audiences. As a solutions architect, you must be able to provide the right type of diagram to the right people when pitching your ideas.

Oftentimes one version of the diagram isn't enough. When I start a new design, I always start with the flow diagram. I get all my thoughts down and pitch it to other SAs. Once we agree on a solution, I take that diagram and turn it into a persona diagram and take to the business folks.

When I get sign off from the business side of the house, I am then free to make the developer diagram and the service diagram. The service diagram is given to executives to make sure they get a high level view of what we're doing. The developer diagram is given to the engineers who are going to be implementing the solution.

Once the solution is built, we can update the infrastructure diagram to include the new work.

A picture is worth a thousand words, but when it comes to architecture diagrams they might be worth five thousand. Being able to get people to understand your idea quickly and easily is the key to being a great solutions architect.

With the ability to build different types of diagrams for different audiences, you set yourself up for success.

P.S. - I always use draw.io for building my diagrams. It is a free tool that provides everything you need to make beautiful, comprehensive charts, models, and diagrams.

Discussion (15)

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lkurzyniec profile image
Łukasz Kurzyniec

There is "The C4 model" for visualizing software architecture. Worth to check!

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allan_walker profile image
Allan

I agree with the levels and descriptions of each and believe they will all be effective for the audiences you have described. We have standardized on using C4 Models as it provided a comprehensive framework for modeling in general. It was very easy to choose several required models for each project and point to optional models when they make sense. I believe draw.io supports C4 however we have adopted PlantUML with a C4 extension.

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manuelbrs profile image
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a2xchip profile image
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robole profile image
Rob OLeary • Edited

Are these diagrams your own notation? Or do they follow a diagram specification?

The only mention I saw was related to the Persona diagram: "The architecture persona diagram dips into the BPMN model".

It would be worthwhile adding something about modelling languages that architects use such as UML. While in meetings people may scribble boxes and lines free-form to get their message across; for documents people tend to follow a modelling standard.

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sgsfak profile image
Stelios Sfakianakis

To me all the examples shown look the same "box and arrows" diagrams, with the "Persona" one slightly differentiating since it uses "swimlanes" ...

UML has plenty types of diagrams but for me the most useful are Use Case, Class, Sequence (or activity, here's on with lanes), and Deployment diagrams. You d better familiarize yourself with those and use them when appropriate (Note, I am not fond of complex formal "enterprise-y" design processes, but a common notation is usually useful...)

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sarafian profile image
Alex Sarafian

Good article. I think we miss articles that are not code focused. Software engineering is not only about code.

I'm not a trained architect but I've explained difficult topics to various groups. I don't do enterprise/business architecture so my angle is always "technical".

I find the following information to be conveyed in a solution

  • Information flow
  • Actors
  • Components and network connectivity

For some reason, everyone expects very detailed sequence diagrams to be the silver bullet for everything. I don't get, plus I don't think that too much detail in a diagram serves any purpose unless you assume you work with code monkeys. In my experience, architecture is to set up the dancing hall but the engineers including the architects will do the dancing as the night progresses.

I prefer plantuml though it has it's problems. This is because of its nature in code that can be easily added in any source repository and align with the branch. It is also easy to inject in any other system that would use the script as a master source and generate other artifacts and if necessary allow for translation of the master version. I worked for technical documentation.

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raphael_jambalos profile image
Raphael Jambalos

Hi Allen, this is a very good read! As a senior cloud developer, I work with diagrams almost every day of the week to create proposals for clients. I usually just use Infrastructure and Flow diagrams in my work. But with this post, I think it would be worthwhile to use the other diagrams as well, especially the ones for business people.

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adymitruk profile image
Adam Dymitruk 🇨🇦

Separate artifacts create silos and slow communication. I address all of these diagrams with Event Modeling. It acts as a blueprint that serves the purpose of all of the above.

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kleberson1 profile image
Kleberson

For each audience you need to diagram and explain differently. Good article!

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jodoron profile image
yonatan doron

Great article, I can relate to a whole lot of what you wrote here! Diagrams are critical IMO whenever designing a system or documenting an existing one.

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destynova profile image
Oisín

I can't see how the example Persona diagram could be of much value to product owners. They're generally concerned with what the system does, and for whom, rather than how it's done.

Also in that diagram, and most of the others, there are unlabeled icons that require very specific knowledge to understand. Product owners are unlikely to recognise which one stands for an AWS Lambda function, nor understand what that is or why they're looking at it.

For system diagrams, I think the C4 models are pretty good. We use the context and container diagrams only, since the others are far too low level for most purposes. They're pretty simple but they require labelling every node and edge which avoids the problem of someone having to guess what they're looking at based on a fancy picture of a disk or lambda symbol.

But I don't even think the C4 diagrams are very relevant to product specialists -- maybe the system context diagram can be good to just illustrate which pieces we are responsible for, etc.
Perhaps of more value would be old school use-case diagrams or similar UML ideas.

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dalewaterworth profile image
dale-waterworth

A nice guide here for targeting the right audiences, will definitely refer back to this for my own diagrams.

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vcttai profile image
Tai Vu

Nice share bro.

A picture is worth a thousand words, but when it comes to architecture diagrams they might be worth five thousand

I totally agree with you.