Sunday, March 2, 2008

The core of SDM: An inside look at system architecture - SDM Pulse, Spring 2008

By David Kim, SDM ’07

Editor’s note: The core courses for the MIT System Design and Management Program are:
System architecture, which focuses on artifacts themselves and includes concept, form, function, and decomposition
Systems engineering, which targets the processes that enable successful implementation of the architecture, and includes QFD, Pugh Concept Selection, and Robust Design
System and project management, which involves managing tasks to best utilize resources and employs tools such as CPM, DSM, and System Dynamics

This article, the third in a series on the SDM core, introduces system architecture. Author David Kim, a full-time, on-campus SDM student, is a systems engineer at Raytheon who recently completed this course.

David Kim, SDM ’07
System architecture embodies SDM’s programmatic philosophy by applying its signature holistic approach—“systems thinking”—to design and development. This core SDM course presents a synthetic view of the topic, including the resolution of ambiguity to identify system goals; the creative process of mapping form to function; and the analysis of complexity and methods of decomposition and reintegration.

Architects lead all the early, conceptual phases of the system development process, and they support the process through development, deployment, operation, and evolution. However, system architecture is not just about building a system. It’s about the bigger picture: the context and the complex relationships associated with the system. Which is why this course is fundamentally about a process for critical thinking. Students learn to identify problems, think about approaches, see what others have done, and synthesize the best option.

MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems Ed Crawley, who teaches the class, emphasizes the need for holistic thinking and creativity. The course cites the importance of both top-down and bottom-up approaches, balances both simplicity and complexity, and is open enough to be flexible and creative but sufficiently structured to be organized and consistent.

Throughout the course, different methods are used to convey the architecture concepts to students. Lectures teach principles, tools, frameworks, processes, and real-world applications. Plus, students learn by doing, working on “opportunity sets” that require them to architect and critique real-life systems. Throughout, students learn through collaboration with team members. And, the course effectively encapsulates the whole SDM curriculum by connecting the dots of all the other courses offered throughout the year.

Unlike most MIT classes, this course starts in January, takes a break through the spring and summer terms and resumes in the fall. The intensive January session introduces fundamental theories and teaches students to analyze architecture. The fall term focuses on application: processes upstream and downstream of architecting, holistic frameworks, and approaches to creativity, ambiguity, and complexity. Numerous guest speakers expand on class topics. Lectures last term addressed software architecture, commonality, platforms, legacy systems and reuse, and supply chains. The class studied real-life examples of system architecture, including flexible design in Boeing’s Blended Wing Body airplane, embedded software architecture at Xerox, and robustness, platforms, and modularity at BMW Munich.

SDM students have applied system architecture in various contexts, both in industry and in research. System architecture principles have proved to be immensely helpful in the development of various technical systems, both hardware and software (including information technology). One SDM student even applied system architecture in a political context to understand, analyze, and recommend an architecture for a territorial dispute resolution system.

System architecture is truly universal. We live in a world in which any entity is a subsystem of a greater entity and complexly related to countless other entities. Personally, I am looking forward to putting the principles of system architecture to use on future projects, and then some.

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