Software Engineering-Data Design

Like other software engineering activities, data design (sometimes referred to as data architecting) creates a model of data and/or information that is represented at a high level of abstraction (the customer/user’s view of data). This data model is then refined into progressively more implementation-specific representations that can be processed by the computer-based system. In many software applications, the architecture of the data will have a profound influence on the architecture of the software that must process it.

The structure of data has always been an important part of software design. At the program component level, the design of data structures and the associated algorithms required to manipulate them is essential to the creation of high-quality applications. At the application level, the translation of a data model (derived as part of requirements engineering) into a database is pivotal to achieving the business objectives of a system. At the business level, the collection of information stored in disparate databases and reorganized into a “data warehouse” enables data mining or knowledge discovery that can have an impact on the success of the business itself. In every case, data design plays an important role.

Data Modeling, Data Structures, Databases, and the Data Warehouse

The data objects defined during software requirements analysis are modeled using entity/relationship diagrams and the data dictionary . The data design activity translates these elements of the requirements model into data structures at the software component level and, when necessary, a database architecture at the application level.

In years past, data architecture was generally limited to data structures at the program level and databases at the application level. But today, businesses large and small are awash in data. It is not unusual for even a moderately sized business to have dozens of databases serving many applications encompassing hundreds of gigabytes of data. The challenge for a business has been to extract useful information from this data environment, particularly when the information desired is crossfunctional (e.g., information that can be obtained only if specific marketing data are cross-correlated with product engineering data).

To solve this challenge, the business IT community has developed data mining techniques, also called knowledge discovery in databases (KDD), that navigate through existing databases in an attempt to extract appropriate business-level information. However, the existence of multiple databases, their different structures, the degree of detail contained with the databases, and many other factors make data mining difficult within an existing database environment. An alternative solution, called a data warehouse, adds an additional layer to the data architecture.

A data warehouse is a separate data environment that is not directly integrated with day-to-day applications but encompasses all data used by a business . In a sense, a data warehouse is a large, independent database that encompasses some, but not all, of the data that are stored in databases that serve the set of applications required by a business. But many characteristics differentiate a data warehouse from the typical database :

Subject orientation. A data warehouse is organized by major business subjects, rather than by business process or function. This leads to the exclusion of data that may be necessary for a particular business function but is generally not necessary for data mining.

Integration. Regardless of the source, the data exhibit consistent naming conventions, units and measures, encoding structures, and physical attributes, even when inconsistency exists across different application-oriented databases.

Time variancy. For a transaction-oriented application environment, data are accurate at the moment of access and for a relatively short time span (typically 60 to 90 days) before access. For a data warehouse, however, data can be accessed at a specific moment in time (e.g., customers contacted on the date that a new product was announced to the trade press). The typical time horizon for a data warehouse is five to ten years.

Nonvolatility. Unlike typical business application databases that undergo a continuing stream of changes (inserts, deletes, updates), data are loaded into the warehouse, but after the original transfer, the data do not change.

These characteristics present a unique set of design challenges for a data architect. A detailed discussion of the design of data structures, databases, and the data warehouse is best left to books dedicated to these subjects. The interested reader should see the Further Readings and Information Sources section of this chapter for additional references.

Data Design at the Component Level

Data design at the component level focuses on the representation of data structures that are directly accessed by one or more software components. Wasserman  has proposed a set of principles that may be used to specify and design such data structures. In actuality, the design of data begins during the creation of the analysis model. Recalling that requirements analysis and design often overlap, we consider the following set of principles for data specification:

1. The systematic analysis principles applied to function and behavior should also be applied to data. We spend much time and effort deriving, reviewing, and specifying functional requirements and preliminary design. Representations of data flow and content should also be developed and reviewed, data objects should be identified, alternative data organizations should be considered, and the impact of data modeling on software design should be evaluated. For example, specification of a multiringed linked list may nicely satisfy data requirements but lead to an unwieldy software design. An alternative data organization may lead to better results.

2. All data structures and the operations to be performed on each should be identified. The design of an efficient data structure must take the operations to be performed on the data structure into account . For example, consider a data structure made up of a set of diverse data elements. The data structure is to be manipulated in a number of major software functions. Upon evaluation of the operations performed on the data structure, an abstract data type is defined for use in subsequent software design. Specification of the abstract data type may simplify software design considerably.

3. A data dictionary should be established and used to define both data and program design. The concept of a data dictionary has been introduced in . A data dictionary explicitly represents the relationships among data objects and the constraints on the elements of a data structure. Algorithms that must take advantage of specific relationships can be more easily defined if a dictionarylike data specification exists.

4. Low-level data design decisions should be deferred until late in the design process. A process of stepwise refinement may be used for the design of data. That is, overall data organization may be defined during requirements analysis, refined during data design work, and specified in detail during componentlevel design. The top-down approach to data design provides benefits that are analogous to a top-down approach to software design—major structural attributes are designed and evaluated first so that the architecture of the data may be established.

5. The representation of data structure should be known only to those modules that must make direct use of the data contained within the structure. The concept of information hiding and the related concept of coupling  provide important insight into the quality of a software design. This principle alludes to the importance of these concepts as well as "the importance of separating the logical view of a data object from its physical view".

6. A library of useful data structures and the operations that may be applied to them should be developed. Data structures and operations should be viewed as a resource for software design. Data structures can be designed for reusability. A library of data structure templates (abstract data types) can reduce both specification and design effort for data.

7. A software design and programming language should support the specification and realization of abstract data types. The implementation of a sophisticated data structure can be made exceedingly difficult if no means for direct specification of the structure exists in the programming language chosen for implementation.

These principles form a basis for a component-level data design approach that can be integrated into both the analysis and design activities.
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