Software Layers

I had a talk with my apprentice today, on software application architecture. In our case, it had to do with an application that had to interface with a back-end database. I was reviewing her code when I realised that she was replicating a lot of code everywhere – a definite case for code factoring. Everyone likes to talk about factoring but I had to find an easy way to explain it to my apprentice.

I explained to her that it is a good practice to design software in three layers – primitives, middleware and application – and proceeded to describe the layers.

Primitives are low-level functions. This did not seem to make sense to her and so I elaborated that primitives should only do one thing and one thing only. It did not elicit any extra clarity from her and so I decided to put it in context. For our application, the database operations could be made into primitives – insert, update, delete and select. Once I said that, things became obvious to her. This layer would be tied very closely to the low-level architecture, the back-end database in our case.

Middleware serves as glue between application and primitives. This makes sense in context. Our application only supports one database back-end today but we may need to support more database back-ends in the future. This is where middleware comes in. The middleware provides a standard application programming interface (API) that can be used by the application regardless of database back-end. We may have multiple primitives used to access different database back-ends but we can have a single middleware layer that abstracts it all away from the application.

In the case of embedded software, this would be any architecture specific code that need to access the hardware registers and functionality directly. Similarly to databases, these would usually include code that set and get values. A typical example of this would be code that would set, clear and toggle bits in a register. The middleware would be any code that defines processes and functionality by wrapping around the bare-metal primitive code. This could include code that reset, initialised and activated certain functionality.

Applications should be pretty obvious. The application contains all the business processes and logic that is entirely dependent on the application used. Ideally, if everything was done properly, we would be able to use the same set of middleware and primitives across multiple different applications. This should be the idea that we strive for when architecting software applications. I hope that she will always remember this simple rule-of-thumb in her future code.

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Published by

Shawn Tan

Chip Doctor, Chartered Engineer, Entrepreneur, Law Graduate.

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