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Dr. Gernot Starke
Dr. Gernot Starke

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What's in a Word: Evaluate

The next post in this mini-series discussing overloaded terms: This time, I'll cover evaluation, a term that's often used in the context of systems or architecture reviews.

The Origin

The definition states:
evaluate: verb (used with object), evaluated, evaluating.

  1. to determine or set the value or amount of; appraise: to evaluate property.
  2. to judge or determine the significance, worth, or quality of; assess: to evaluate the results of an experiment.
  3. Mathematics. to determine or calculate the numerical value of (a formula, function, relation, etc.).

Of French origin, the word evaluate, contains the term value as its primary constituent. Value refers to a number or numerical value.

Evaluate to Determine Value

The (numerical) value is something that e.g. mathematicians and accountants need to determine. If we think about numbers in software architecture, we care about:

  • timing, throughput, numbers-of-concurrent-users or similar runtime metrics
  • source code metrics, like size, coupling, test coverage
  • effort estimation

However, when we talk about these metrics, we don't speak of "evaluation" but of measuring or estimation.

Evaluate to Find Problems

In his book Evaluating Software Architectures, the author Paul Clements uses the term evaluate to identify potential (quality) issues or problems in software architectures. He presents a few methodical approaches to finding such problems, primarily the ATAM method: architecture tradeoff analysis method.

Yes, you read that correctly: an analysis method in a book about evaluation.

I always wondered why Paul Clements didn't call his book "Analyzing Software Architectures" (I didn't ask him personally, though).

Let's conclude: When speaking of evaluating, what software architects actually mean is analyzing.

Evaluate expressions

In programming, we use the term evaluate in context with language expressions or functions.

Conclusion: Did you mean "Analyze"?

I propose that we (as software developers and architects) better distinguish between analysis and evaluation. In the aim42 method for improving software architectures, these distinction has been made very prominent:

  1. The analyze phase of aim42 identifies problems and risks
  2. the evaluate phase determines how bad/severe these problems are in business terms. The outcome of this evaluation are numbers (e.g. cost).

Side note: Numbers and Nanoseconds

The famous and awesome inventor of the compiler, Grace Hopper, gave a talk about numbers and nanoseconds – every developer should see and understand this talk :-).

Proposal: Focus on Analysis

Analyze (or assess) your system and situation to identify problems, risks, symptoms and root-causes. Only later, you may evaluate these issues with respect to the amount of damage, pain or havoc they can cause.

Thank you

Thanks for reading – and may simplicity and effectiveness be with you and your architectural decisions!

Related Posts

Sources and Further References

  • Software Architecture Glossary by members of the iSAQB association. Extensive (and free!) collection of software architecture terminology, oriented towards the various iSAQB curricula - available as an eBook and online.

  • Evaluating Software Architectures: a (often quite theoretical) and very early book on identifying problems in software architectures. The primary source for the well-known ATAM method.

Image Credits

Header-image based upon Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

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