As the business motivation for new IT projects rises higher on the radar of enterprise developers, System Architect, from Popkin Software and Systems Inc., can help managers ask and answer questions of "Why?" as well as "How?"
More than merely descriptive, more than just a cave-painting approach to software documentation, an enterprise model and diagram tool can expose logical flaws or enable rapid but focused response to new situations. In fact, Popkin credits its own tool with doing just that when the companys Lower Manhattan office became inaccessible last September.
eWeek Labs has looked at many previous versions of this impressive tool for system modeling and analysis, but its been too long since weve updated our acquaintance with System Architects growing capabilities both upstream and downstream of the application development stage of the problem-solving cycle.
In Version 8.5, released late last year at a per-seat price of $3,295, System Architect has become an intelligent whiteboard for capturing and guiding enterprise planners from their first discussion of business direction through their specific technology plans—and even their dynamic simulations of system performance under stress. (A 30-day free evaluation copy of Version 8.5 can be downloaded from the companys Web site; a mailed copy is $40.)
System Architect costs a bit more than Computer Associates International Inc.s Erwin or Sybase Inc.s PowerDesigner, which are its most likely competitors. It costs a lot more than Microsoft Corp.s Visual Studio, which many developers would consider their base-line tool.
But the payback from a tool such as this is its ability to capture more than one persons ideas, combining input from many individuals and departments into results accessible for analysis by senior decision makers. Its therefore essential that the diagrams produced by tools such as these should take care of themselves, so to speak: Information captured in one place should always appear, when its relevant, in other places, so diagram cross-reference and maintenance does not become a new and time-consuming task in itself.
Recent versions of System Architect have strengthened this important attribute: Relationships such as "includes" or "instance of" are now maintained by a project encyclopedia, rather than being represented only in a particular diagram, so that any subsequent use of related entities in another diagram will automatically include the corresponding relationship line. In general, the products bidirectional links between re-positories and tools are reliable and intuitive.
Diagram methodologies approach the status of a religion in some organizations, and System Architect is determinedly ecumenical. The many users of UML (Unified Modeling Language) will find System Architect offering—indeed, insisting on—the use of its Package facility to group UML elements and to provide an appropriate name space. (More information is available at www.uml.org.)
Adding an element at the level of a dictionary requires specifying its package; adding the same element to an existing diagram, however, draws on that diagrams already-defined package membership, so that this feature does not become a burden.
Other diagramming faiths, such as the federal standard IDEF1X thats used in many government projects, newly added to Version 8.5, will also find well-integrated support. Even the products supplied tutorials include an IDEF3 process flow-based version of the simulation exercise, as well as Popkins own Process Chart format. Gane-Sarson, Yourdon-DeMarco and Ward-Mellor methodologies and notations have been in the product since we began reviewing it more than a decade ago.
COBOL, dBASE and even Paradox data likewise receive continued support from System Architects physical data model generation tools; C++, Java and Visual Basic code can be generated from class diagrams or class structures inferred from source code.
Of special interest to eWeek Labs in this release were the process simulation tools. These tools are now integrated into System Architect, with a drag-and-drop simulation builder thats easy to use but that doesnt live up to the rest of the products high level of subsequent visibility into what has been assumed or how those assumptions affect one another.
Following a supplied tutorial, for example, we constructed a retail stock management simulation that included two clerks with staggered schedules to avoid a lunch hour bottleneck. However, we found no way of visualizing this arrangement or putting parameters on the simulation to investigate the effects of having only a single clerk or of adding a third clerk to the system.
The animated display of the simulation in progress is the kind of thing that will probably demo well in a meeting, but wed like to see better facilities for attaching analytic graphics to the process chart for more rapid identification of potential trouble spots. We applaud the introduction of this dynamic tool into System Architects previously static view of the world, but we encourage buyers to examine more-complete simulation products, such as Scitor Corp.s $2,500 Process v4.
Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.