Put a dozen technologists in a room and ask them to define a
reference architecture, and you’ll likely end up with a dozen disparate
definitions. Some might consider reference architectures to be detailed
technical diagrams that show a representative implementation of a particular
technology, down to hardware specifications and technical interfaces. For
others, a reference architecture shows conceptual or functional building blocks
that might solve a business problem, independent of the underlying technology.

Agree to agree

While debating the various definitions of reference
architectures might make for an interesting conversation over cocktails, any
definition is correct as long as it’s clear what the reference architecture is
meant to accomplish within your organization and serves the task at hand. If
you’ve selected a vendor product and are ready to integrate it into your IT
environment, a deeply technical reference architecture provided by the vendor
makes perfect sense and can save weeks of implementation time. On the other
hand, if your company is considering a strategic shift that involves a major
change in the way business is done, a reference architecture that represents a different
business functionality and how it relates is appropriate.

Just because a vendor or research organization defines a
reference architecture in a certain manner doesn’t mean you have to follow its
convention. Rather than sticking to some organization’s “official”
definition of a reference architecture, determine what questions the architecture
is meant to answer and who the audience will be for the architecture. Once you’ve
agreed on these key points, socialize and share examples of how the
architecture you’re developing will solve some organizational problem or help
resolve a business challenge.

Less is more

In addition to endlessly debating the definition and purpose
of a reference architecture, there’s the risk of treating the reference
architecture as a monolithic, static diagram that shows anything and everything
that will one day be in place. Some of the most effective reference
architectures I’ve seen are not single diagrams at all, but multilevel diagrams
that distill a complex IT environment into a high-level representation that’s
broken down into more detailed levels. Similarly, presenting a series of
diagrams that depict how the architecture evolves over time can be a highly
effective way to convey when different functionality will be deployed and to present
different scenarios for how implementation might proceed.

In most cases, one of the key purposes of a reference
architecture is to answer the question of what resources and timeframe will be
required to implement a major enterprise project. Using a series of
architectures that show not only functionality, but an evolution of that functionality,
makes a compelling and readily understandable story.

Understand the audience and objective

With a story in mind for your reference architecture, and a
realization that it need not be a single, massive diagram, consider its primary
audience. Two reference architectures for the same technology could be vastly
different depending on the audience. If you’re attempting to convince the CEO
that a major enterprise project is viable, detailing strategic capabilities and
their interrelationships will be far more effective than a technically nuanced
depiction of a complex interface. While this can be difficult for technically
minded staff to grasp, consider what questions your audience is likely to ask,
and what decisions or input you’d like from them, and let that guide the level
of detail present in your reference architecture.

The most effective reference architecture is often a series
of diagrams, each depicting a related aspect of a business problem at a given
moment. Your reference architecture might be several diagrams at various levels
of detail or it might be a series of diagrams with nary a mention of servers,
networks, or applications. As long as the diagram helps advance your business
or technology strategy, it has met its ultimate objective.