Building Blocks of Enterprise Solution Design

15 minute read

Sept 2018: Coming up with a solution design fit for use in large organisations can be a big ask - but breaking it down and spending time planning your approach systematically will help you design solutions that scale to enterprise level.

It’s natural, when asked to start work on a new project, to focus on one particular area: how to solve the core problem.

But a Senior Developer or Solution Designer should be contemplating far more than this for any project of reasonable size.

All of the areas we’ll explore here really need to be handled - but some of them, in some organisations, will be a “given”, with no project-specific thought needed whatsoever. If Thou Shalt Use Git and GitHub, great, one less thing to worry about. But still be mindful of this as a topic for consideration, just one which - this time - has a super-easy answer. In the future that may not be so.

Don’t worry about having to nail all of this 100% up-front, or about executing/solving all of it on your own - if you’re working on an enterprise project, part of working effectively means delegating and distributing tasks, ideally to people with a keen interest in that task. You don’t need to write a 300 page “Solution Design Spec” either. Your documentation approach is your own to choose, but much of what we discuss here could be covered on a Wiki page - if it even needs that.

Some areas can be deferred - making decisions may not be possible up-front, for technical or local-expert-availability reasons, or various others.

To reiterate: working all of this out should be a concrete, resourced, part of the project if it’s anything other than immediately clear. It’s not a case of work all of this tricky stuff out and then fire the project starting pistol…

A general approach worth adopting is one from the famous 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - “Begin With The End In Mind”. Simply put it means establishing early on a clear picture of what your eventual outcome looks like. For tech solution design, breaking that down into some manageable constituent parts is a really good idea. Can I really picture the Backup solution? The DR solution? As in, can I sit at my desk, close my eyes, and imagine in detail what the shape of that will be?

If so, great - you’ve probably got that covered. If not though, don’t worry, and be pleased that you’ve identified a part of your solution that you can tackle early on to ensure a good level of assimilation - not an ugly bolt-on at the end when it’s too late for a more elegant option.

I highly recommend Stephen Covey’s book, by the way; its style may be a little dated now and somewhat idiosyncratic but the core ideas, the seven “habits”, have a lot to commend them.

So - let’s start to consider the key solution design areas we need to account for.

Solving the Core Problem

I’ve stated earlier that this isn’t the only thing to focus on - but obviously it is a pretty important one to include, so let’s get it out of the way!

Whether it’s a fairly pure computation with a known set of inputs, or whether it’s about connecting existing systems, set a task to drill into this.

I don’t mean you need to spend 6 months on a Detailed Design, specifying every last flow - just that you need a coherent vision of what you’re trying to do, and a reasonable grasp of how you’re going to do it. Once you get to a point you’re comfortable with overall feasibility, or at least a plan for getting there, proceed.

Consider an elevator pitch: if you can explain it to an educated colleague and they don’t look at you funny or ask if you’ve really thought about it, you’re probably OK.

Project Life Span

“This project’s going to last 4 years and 3 months” said no stakeholder, ever. But you do need to think about how long, roughly speaking, you’re building your solution to last: 6 months? A one-off data migration in a year’s time?

Consider “T shirt sizing”: 2 weeks, 6 months, 2 years, 5 years, 10 years+ are probably useful starting points: Extra Small to XXL sort of thing.

Why’s this relevant? Simply put if you know you’re being asked to design something that has to last and grow for 5 years or more, you can justify spending more of your team’s time and budget on certain early tasks: prototyping untested technologies, validating load and scale assumptions, evaluating 3rd party product options.

Similarly you can justify pushing back against certain constraints - not least deadlines.

This kind of conversation, by the way, can be a good way to raise topics which might not even have occurred to senior management: they might know they want a new Strategic Widget Management Solution and they want it within the next 6 months and let’s have no arguments about that - but raising the lifespan topic might be one way to register the possible false economy of rushing through mission critical software projects without enough time or budget to do them “properly”.

It’s also the sort of conversation which, if you don’t raise it, may not ever happen. And that’s a missed opportunity all round.

Key Risks

All projects have risks - some major, some minor. Some tech related, some people related, some market related. It’s a good idea to brainstorm your risks early on and classify them by impact (low, medium, high) and likelihood (again, low, medium, high is a good starting point).

Usual brainstorming rules apply - think of as many as you can: some will be thrown out, some mocked mercilessly, some will stick, that’s fine!

Clearly high impact, high likelihood risks are worth factoring fully into your project - can they be mitigated? Because they’re probably going to hurt you, a lot, if you don’t.

For technology-risk and difficult logic/computation problems consider prototypes and proof-of-concept (POC) work. Nailing your big concerns early allows you to confront the hard challenges - and if necessary adjust course before you’re too committed (see: Fallacy of Sunk Costs).

Enterprise Architecture and Policy

Your organisation may have stringent policies and directives regarding technology choices, tooling, dependency management, security, identity and access management, hosting, resiliency, backups and DR, outward-facing websites - and others.

If so it’s incumbent upon you as a solution designer to comply with these. Some will help you, some may feel like a hindrance - and that’s the nature of the game, for better or worse.

Version control, CI and Building

In enterprise environments much of this will often be pre-determined; architecture and standards groups may have already made your decisions.

This can be a blessing or a curse depending on what those choices are. Hopefully it’s more of a blessing and takes a reasonably unexciting set of decisions out of the picture - and brings a pre-existing set of dependency management standards and tools to the table too.


Of course even in an organisation with such things already decided, actually getting things working end-to-end can be a significant challenge: don’t underestimate the complexity here. Getting a “Hello World!” using a few token 3rd party libraries fully “built” - and deployed somewhere - can be a significant milestone. This can be frustrating: the thought of taking 6 weeks to get a new “hello world” into production seems ripe for a bit of mockery. But for a truly large scale project expecting to carry 10, 20, 50+ person-years of effort, it’s not really too unreasonable.

Things to consider:

  • which version control system to use
  • which build/CI system to use
  • extracting your source code and compiling it - with failure alerts
  • pulling in dependencies, whether from external or internal sources
  • how you’ll update your dependency versions - and you should absolutely prefer frequent, slightly-painful updates to occasional and brutal ones!
  • running automated tests - again with failure alerts
  • scheduling builds on commit, and more formal “we’re ready to build the official February Release” builds
  • automatic deployments to an environment - or environments, plural

Tech stack and Physical Deployment Architecture

In the olden days, you would have fairly orthogonal choices:

  • what would you like to use, Java/Linux or DotNet/SQLServer?
  • how will you host it - on-prem? 3rd party datacentre?

Now though there are a frankly bewildering array of tech stack choices, and sometimes, some of them - such as AWS - combine to some extent the stack choices with the hosting choices, they’re less clear-cut concerns.

The aim of this article is not to offer suggestions on hosting or stack choices, but to raise the considerations which may apply and which a solution designer must consider:

  • what do you see your end geographical architecture being - deployments in US, EMEA and APAC? Perhaps multiple deployments in one or more of those regional hubs?

  • what do you need from your database with regard to deployments - global replication, or distinct sharding with highly independent nodes?

  • how will this work with your growth strategy? Can you go from 1 x EMEA to 2, to 3, to 10, as needed?

  • is all of the above way beyond your wildest needs and you just need a reasonably well spec-ed web server and a 50Gb database but all the cool kids are talking Kubernetes so you don’t want to look, y’know, lame?

  • stackwise do you want to stick with languages and components you know - no-one got fired for Java/Spring/Oracle! - or try something more “avant-garde”? If the latter, is your current project really the one you want to take that risk with - or is there a smaller, safer, less-mission-critical one that might be more suitable?

  • do you need a Big Data solution? Really? You’re sure your data can’t fit on a decent mobile phone with an SD card and give you all the results you need with a cheeky properly-indexed SELECT…? Well, if you say so!

Some notes of caution:

  • don’t get carried away with a what-can-we-include mindset. Prefer what-can-we-leave-out. Keep things as simple as possible while it all still works. Every component that’s a block with arrows coming in and going out in a beautiful masterpiece of a system diagram is a component in a real life production system (and dev, test, etc) with bugs, setup and maintenance costs, communication overheads, release overheads, etc

  • the network is still by orders of magnitude the slowest part of your solution compared to processor cost, memory access cost, and local storage cost: micro-services are very much in vogue at this point in mid-2018 but the cost of parcelling objects into JSON bundles and chucking them over the network for “processing” is HUGE compared to in-process handling - consider any network transits a terribly poor relation, to be avoided except when overwhelmingly justifiable

  • how will you handle profiling and monitoring, often the last thing you think about when starting out with, in particular, an unfamiliar tech stack - and which only becomes a pressing need when production problems arise

  • how will your choices impact your team in terms of training and hiring? Will a rapid re-skilling exercise be needed, and is there time and budget? Are there candidates in your area with these skills or are you plumping for bleeding edge tech and you’ll opt to build skills rather than buy them?

  • building to an unfamiliar tech stack is a significant risk, and you must actively address this

Local Run Capability

The ability to run applications and components locally is a massive boost to productivity: try to design your solutions to support this. Some choices will preclude it. Debugging in a decent IDE still offers insights that cannot be matched with black-box running-in-QA processes, although remote-debug is a close second. The benefits of letting developers explore and experiment with impunity cannot be over-stated. This applies to both “build” and “maintenance” stages of a project’s lifecycle.

Solution Sizing

This can be difficult, but it’s vital to have a feel for solution sizing. What sort of traffic do you expect? How many users/customers? What data storage do you expect, e.g. per day, week, month? How long must you keep it? What data is disposable in the medium to long term, and what must be archived - and for how long? Can you establish time-targets, e.g. in 6 months the aim is XXX, 12 months it’s YYY then 24 months ZZZ?

In some ways it’s not so critical to get these 100% accurate, per se, but to get buy-in for your projections.

And err on the side of caution - in this area, success beyond projections can be a real problem. If you’ve planned for growth doubling after 12 months and you hit that milestone after just 2 you could be in serious difficulty. So always build in contingency, by a factor of at least 2 - 100% difference, not 10%.

And have a concrete plan for growth - more compute power? More storage? If you’re starting with a product catalog of 1,000 items marketed in one country alone but you know you plan to roll out globally with a catalog of 1,000,000 items you need a plan beyond just buying more RAM and a bigger SSD.

Development Tools and Standards

IDEs, text editors, coding standards - no project is really underway until the team’s had a really good fight about this kind of stuff! Eclipse vs VIM, tabs vs spaces, where to put one’s { and } and all that. Marvellous fun. And Windows/Mac/Linux developer OS of course…

Again corporate decisions may reign supreme, but if not then please consider truly how important a “one size fits all” tooling ecosystem really is. If blessing the use of anything-goes as long as the build - and test suites - remain in their happy places avoids religious tooling wars, great. Perhaps define a “preferred” tool set and anyone wishing to diverge is responsible for their own problems but otherwise welcome to do so.

Error Handling

You might think this an odd one to consider at a solution design level: what to do with exception is usually an interview question about checked-or-unchecked. But it can be a significant architectural question: if your system is 4th in a chain of systems all contributing to “Organisation Event XXX Is Happening” and yours is the one whose database chooses to go pear-shaped, what should happen?

Maybe you are a purely UI operation in which case a user-friendly - but security-aware - error message may be acceptable.

If you’re a pure REST API responder, apt error codes is probably a clear answer, albeit you should certainly be thinking about transactionality and rollbacks.

You may, when push comes to shove, be tempted to ignore this, certainly in the short term if you’re feeling a bit overburdened by other challenges, but the sooner you confront it the better - and the easier it will be in the long run.


It can be natural to just consider production - how will everything work there? And sure, that’s the ultimate target environment, so why not. But it’s also most likely the last environment you’ll get to: you’ll need to go through dev, test, maybe others, first.

What environments do you want to have - and what will budgets cover?

  • Dev, Test, Prod?
  • Dev, QA, UAT, Prod?
  • Dev, QA, UAT, Pre-prod, Prod?
  • Dev, QA, UAT, Pre-prod, Prod-minus-1-day, Prod?
  • Dev, Test1, Test2, Test3, .. , Prod?

Can you design something with “on demand” environments or must they be procured months in advance so start work on the 4 year environment plan right this moment?

What level of “prod-like” should each environment be in terms of size and resources? (At least one should be “very”)

Will production data be available to load elsewhere when needed? Must it be obfuscated for security or privacy reasons?

Will your team be DevOps for all this, or will a dedicated team assist? The more environments and moving parts the larger the task.

There are a lot of questions here to consider. Once again, think carefully about what the best thing will be for your team.

Testing Strategy

A good testing strategy will have a number of layers:

  • unit testing
  • integration testing (i.e. testing in isolation but with “real” message queues, databases, whatever)
  • local-run testing
  • end user testing
  • testing-in-prodlike-ecosystem testing (i.e. testing alongside other - real - solutions in your ecosystem, if apt)

All of these are distinct testing techniques: decide which ones do, or should, apply; ideally as many as possible. Each has value and although as you work left to right they go from “fast and cheap” to “complicated and expensive”, there are things you can discover in full-ecosystem testing that more left-hand-side methods simply cannot account for.

Consider whether you need a test team, or whether your area has an existing team of test specialists you can bring in; automated testing is only ever a part of an integrated test programme. Often test teams are overlooked - “we’ll just get the developers to test it” - but this is often a serious miscalculation and a truly false economy: for one thing, developers you’re asking to do testing are spending time Not Developing Software, and for another it’s often something they’ve little interest in, and have equally little real talent for - it’s simply a task to get through…


Security cannot be an afterthought in this day and age. Security needs will vary depending on your environment and whether your project is internal-only or outward-facing but the need for rigorous security practice and “Defence in Depth” security planning has never been greater.

Things to consider, meaning satisfy yourself that some area in your organisation with adequate expertise is actively dealing with, include:

  • network security
  • static code analysis for any mistakes you’re making in your code
  • dependency scanning for any known vulnerabilities in 3rd party libraries (side note - get off Apache Struts NOW if you haven’t already done so!)
  • protection of sensitive data both in transit and at rest, paying particular attention to key areas like personally identifiable information and payment card information - and watch your logs, don’t feed anything sensitive to!
  • credentials management: access to passwords, regularly changing passwords, system identities vs human identities, etc
  • common attack vectors such as XSS, SQL Injection, abuse of inputs (Google Little Bobby Tables if you’re not familiar with these)
  • ensuring your customers never see stack traces or server error messages which may reveal more about the innards of your solution than is wise

Organisations will almost certainly have their own programmes here, you’re unlikely to have to invent your own entirely from scratch - but you do need to take responsibility for adopting and embracing security practices.

Logging, Traceability and Analytics

The benefits of well implemented logging are tremendous. Not only having the forensic capability to work out what went wrong with Customer 12345’s order ID 56789 across 12 different microservices and the inherent detective work therein, but being able to use products like Splunk - which is truly brilliant - to query logs methodically and easily, and produce reports, dashboards, charts of behaviours etc in more or less real time is quite a game-changing capability - and worth an article in its own right!

As with other areas there is no one-size-fits-all to recommend here: but do think about this carefully, not as an afterthought. Get some quick guidelines together for your developers: capture key stages and processes, capture key timings “[Order 56789] DB save completed OK in 1234ms”.

Executing Releases

This is a really worthwhile one to think about early on - because if you don’t make clear plans up-front you risk losing your weekends, evenings, or ultra-early mornings to release activity.

To put it another way, consider this the “How We’ll Release Without Losing Friends and Family” step. This is your chance to design a release process which will specifically allow you to do releases in working hours, Monday to Friday - take it!

Now - I don’t what that process will be. It’s your project. I simply urge you: make that plan now! With a bit of luck, again, corporate wisdom will have mandated something that fits the bill nicely, but that’s certainly not always the case - and it might even be the opposite.

Things to consider:

  • how you get from version control/dependency-list via your build/CI server into actual production environments
  • how will you update database schema, if there are any?
  • how will you do rollbacks when needed?
  • can you deploy bad releases and then do those rollbacks without anyone, or anything, being affected?
  • how will you do post-release validations?
  • what is your user/customer profile - can they reasonably be expected to handle outages, or would that be a showstopper?
  • are you responding to requests, or triggering your own scheduled workloads?
  • do you have multiple regional deployments or a single global service?
  • can you do something with blue/green deployments?
  • can you handle varying versions e.g. patch the Europe servers to 3.12.15 while everything else is stable on 3.12.14 while you work through them in a sequence?
  • are your release/uptime obligations actually negotiable, i.e. if you make a strong enough case - and there are many good arguments! - for midweek vs weekend releases you might win?

Backups, Site Reliability and Disaster Recovery

Truly madly deeply unexciting to most developers, but crucially important in a solution design. Don’t give the task of designing this stuff to the coder on the team with the short attention span and a predilection for trying JS Framework Darling of the Week.


  • data backups have to be taken, maybe daily/hourly, maybe always-backing-up is part of your database
  • test your restore function - regularly!
  • spend time designing around “what if this bit fails” scenarios: components fail, hardware and software, and some failures can be well tolerated with some forethought
  • Disaster Recovery - it does happen, data centres do suffer outages; a solution spanning at least a couple of regional data centres is fairly easily achievable these days - and again, test your DR: a plan that can’t be tested a couple of times a year is not a great plan, to be blunt

Weighing It All Up

You might read all this and think: wow - how does anyone ever actually implement anything? And it can seem a little overwhelming. Usually people asked to produce solution designs will have some familiarity with the organisation and a network of colleagues to reach out to - they’ll already know what the lie of the land is with many facets of their task.

And newcomers to an organisation, brought in specifically for their solution design expertise, will likely have an existing track record to build upon - this type of work gets easier the more you do it. And although there are big differences between large organisations there’s often a real similarity too, especially among firms in the same industry space.

All that said, even for experienced developers and designers, a major project with a bunch of new variables - technology, constraints, whatever - can be a daunting prospect when one’s reputation (and career progress!) is at stake. And so the best advice remains, as with any significant undertaking:

  • break it down into small tasks
  • tackle those smaller challenges systematically
  • delegate, and use the resources of your team - bonus points for lining up tasks with people who’ll be excited to work on them
  • set small goals and keep moving forwards
  • make a point of asking for help, advice, feedback - even go so far as to build such “checkpoints” into your plans
  • get buy-in from your managers and stakeholders
  • build time into the project plan for all the activities necessary - and be realistic

And a final note - good luck!