Software Engineering-Design Concepts

A set of fundamental software design concepts has evolved over the past four decades. Although the degree of interest in each concept has v...

A set of fundamental software design concepts has evolved over the past four decades. Although the degree of interest in each concept has varied over the years, each has stood the test of time. Each provides the software designer with a foundation from which more sophisticated design methods can be applied. Each helps the software engineer to answer the following questions:

What criteria can be used to partition software into individual components?
How is function or data structure detail separated from a conceptual representation of the software?
What uniform criteria define the technical quality of a software design?

M. A. Jackson once said: "The beginning of wisdom for a [software engineer] is to recognize the difference between getting a program to work, and getting it right" . Fundamental software design concepts provide the necessary framework for "getting it right."


When we consider a modular solution to any problem, many levels of abstraction can be posed. At the highest level of abstraction, a solution is stated in broad terms using the language of the problem environment. At lower levels of abstraction, a more procedural orientation is taken. Problem-oriented terminology is coupled with implementation- oriented terminology in an effort to state a solution. Finally, at the lowest level of abstraction, the solution is stated in a manner that can be directly implemented. Wasserman provides a useful definition:

The psychological notion of "abstraction" permits one to concentrate on a problem at some level of generalization without regard to irrelevant low level details; use of abstraction also permits one to work with concepts and terms that are familiar in the problem environment without having to transform them to an unfamiliar structure . . .

Each step in the software process is a refinement in the level of abstraction of the software solution. During system engineering, software is allocated as an element of a computer-based system. During software requirements analysis, the software solution is stated in terms "that are familiar in the problem environment." As we move through the design process, the level of abstraction is reduced. Finally, the lowest level of abstraction is reached when source code is generated.

As we move through different levels of abstraction, we work to create procedural and data abstractions. A procedural abstraction is a named sequence of instructions that has a specific and limited function. An example of a procedural abstraction would be the word open for a door. Open implies a long sequence of procedural steps (e.g., walk to the door, reach out and grasp knob, turn knob and pull door, step away from moving door, etc.).

A data abstraction is a named collection of data that describes a data object. In the context of the procedural abstraction open, we can define a data abstraction called door. Like any data object, the data abstraction for door would encompass a set of attributes that describe the door (e.g., door type, swing direction, opening mechanism, weight, dimensions). It follows that the procedural abstraction open would make use of information contained in the attributes of the data abstraction door.

Many modern programming languages provide mechanisms for creating abstract data types. For example, the Ada package is a programming language mechanism that provides support for both data and procedural abstraction. The original abstract data type is used as a template or generic data structure from which other data structures can be instantiated.

Control abstraction is the third form of abstraction used in software design. Like procedural and data abstraction, control abstraction implies a program control mechanism without specifying internal details. An example of a control abstraction is the synchronization semaphore  used to coordinate activities in an operating system.


Stepwise refinement is a top-down design strategy originally proposed by Niklaus Wirth . A program is developed by successively refining levels of procedural detail. A hierarchy is developed by decomposing a macroscopic statement of function (a procedural abstraction) in a stepwise fashion until programming language statements are reached. An overview of the concept is provided by Wirth:

In each step (of the refinement), one or several instructions of the given program are decomposed into more detailed instructions. This successive decomposition or refinement of specifications terminates when all instructions are expressed in terms of any underlying computer or programming language . . . As tasks are refined, so the data may have to be refined, decomposed, or structured, and it is natural to refine the program and the data specifications in parallel.

Every refinement step implies some design decisions. It is important that . . . the programmer be aware of the underlying criteria (for design decisions) and of the existence of alternative solutions . . .

The process of program refinement proposed by Wirth is analogous to the process of refinement and partitioning that is used during requirements analysis. The difference is in the level of implementation detail that is considered, not the approach.

Refinement is actually a process of elaboration.We begin with a statement of function (or description of information) that is defined at a high level of abstraction. That is, the statement describes function or information conceptually but provides no information about the internal workings of the function or the internal structure of the information. Refinement causes the designer to elaborate on the original statement, providing more and more detail as each successive refinement (elaboration) occurs.

Abstraction and refinement are complementary concepts. Abstraction enables a designer to specify procedure and data and yet suppress low-level details. Refinement helps the designer to reveal low-level details as design progresses. Both concepts aid the designer in creating a complete design model as the design evolves.

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Software Engineering-Design Concepts
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