The engineering of large systems

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The results include system-level qualities, properties, characteristics, functions, behavior, and performance.

The value added by the system as a whole, beyond that contributed independently by the parts, is primarily created by the relationship among the parts; that is, how they are interconnected. It is a way of achieving stakeholder functional, physical, and operational performance requirements in the intended use environment over the planned life of the systems. In other words, systems engineering is a logical way of thinking. Systems engineering is the art and science of developing an operable system capable of meeting requirements within often opposed constraints.

Systems engineering is a holistic, integrative discipline, wherein the contributions of structural engineers, electrical engineers, mechanism designers, power engineers, human factors engineers, and many more disciplines are evaluated and balanced, one against another, to produce a coherent whole that is not dominated by the perspective of a single discipline.

Systems engineering seeks a safe and balanced design in the face of opposing interests and multiple, sometimes conflicting constraints. The art is in knowing when and where to probe. The exact role and responsibility of the systems engineer may change from project to project depending on the size and complexity of the project and from phase to phase of the life cycle.

For large projects, there may be one or more systems engineers. For small projects, sometimes the project manager may perform these practices. Today's decisions influence tomorrow's software modifiability, and thus tomorrow's sustainment cost. In today's software-intensive systems, the software architecture also greatly influences system quality attributes, even when no such connection is apparent to the system designers.

This connection is one reason designers must pay attention to the relationship of the needed software to the system-level decomposition: the decomposition creates a structure that constrains the software architecture, which, in turn, affects the system's quality attributes. If the software architecture is incorrectly constrained by the system-level decomposition to physical pieces, this constraint can reduce the functionality that the software provides. With the ubiquity of digital data that has developed in the last decade, communication among systems is a strong contributor to the rapidly expanding capabilities of systems of systems.

Today, much more information is communicated from system to system, in many different formats and along different paths, with different critical constraints including timing, privacy, and security.


Determination of system and sensor status and sending of commands that achieve control require communication, which is thus a prime contributor to system quality attributes such as quality, safety, and security. Figure 2 highlights the software that allows the communication to occur, relative to the notional solution architecture.

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This drawing also shows communication to entities external to the system, such as existing legacy systems and stakeholders, and other systems that may be created in the future. Leaving the requirements for all these kinds of software undetermined often makes the integration and realization of future capability more difficult. Rather than focusing on the physical items and ignoring the communication paths, it is now more important than ever that government analysts consider the tradeoffs involved when cutting a system into acquirable pieces.

Early systems engineering teams must include people with the background knowledge and the expertise to identify problems that will need further study before tradeoffs can be finalized.

Systems Engineering: Historic and Future Challenges

Example: Consider an unmanned aerial vehicle system a drone, or remotely piloted aircraft in a battle theater. This drone takes photographs and sends the data back to tactical decision makers. What kind of security should this drone system have?

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Should the data be encrypted? If so, how will the military have to staff the battle areas to ensure cryptographically qualified workers are available? Should data be processed on the aircraft, leading to heavier aircraft with lower communication bandwidth, or should it be sent raw, with the opposite effects?

Such questions arise in today's SoSs when acquirers are determining the initial capabilities to develop. Without the expertise of systems architects on the government team, the implications of all these decisions to the system architecture--including software cost--are unclear.

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  • The initial system's impact is unclear, but even more unclear is the manner in which these decisions will affect later versions of the evolving SoS. Another integration issue that occurs in complex SoSs is that holders of the various contracts make different assumptions about the software and data.

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    If each contributor to a massive calculation does a Fourier transform from time to frequency or vice-versa, the software may not meet its required timing. Software architects must be aware of the assumptions and of the effect that incorrect assumptions may have on the results. Software architects should define known assumptions and specify how future conflicts in assumptions should be resolved. The Defense Acquisition University's Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System JCIDS Primer defines the requirements environment as finding the balance between near-term and long-range requirements, system versatility and optimization, growing demands and fiscal constraints, ambition and achievability, and quantity and quality.

    Such balancing is part of the defense systems engineering discipline. System engineers ask and attempt to answer questions such as the following:. To answer these questions, the systems engineering team must have a clear idea of the system and software architectural challenges and of modern ways to address such challenges.

    Such considerations demand either that a software architect with considerable experience in the domain be part of all such early systems engineering teams or that the systems engineers have significant strength in software architecture.

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    The latter is problematic: systems engineers must excel in a broad set of engineering topics and understand the operational domain, while software architects must understand very detailed aspects about software and keep continuously up to date. It is difficult for any one person to master all this information, and the two aspects may be generally suited to different kinds of people : a systems engineer's job is easier if they like interacting with the many people who are needed to provide the broad system overview For more on this see Development of Systems Engineering Expertise by James R.

    Armstrong , while software engineers often need to think through a number of complex concepts during a quiet time with a closed door. It is usually best to add a capable, experienced software architect to the systems engineering team. To achieve this necessary balance across disciplines and over the lifecycle, with recent emphasis on ensuring evolvability due to recognition of high sustainment costs [see here and here ], systems engineers perform trade studies.

    Early trade studies look at multiple ways of meeting the highest-level customer need. During these trades, systems engineers--including those in the acquirer organization--identify a number of options i.


    Because software fulfills more system capability today than in previous decades, because system solutions tend to be SoSs, and because evolvability is an increasingly important quality attribute, today's systems engineers working in the earliest phases should pay special attention to potential integration issues.

    They must look at multiple options and conduct trade studies documenting how well each option meets the various success criteria. Software architects must also be available to look at each potential solution and identify its likelihood of meeting software quality attributes. These architects should be skilled in understanding the implications of various architectures on different kinds of performance.

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    They should also be willing to estimate relative risk across the options given as well as recommend architectural tweaks that could improve the score of any particular option. This is important, because design decisions that look like they make lots of sense with respect to the way the system gets used might be terrible with respect to how the system gets maintained, for example.

    Considering the whole life of the product or system can help eliminate these issues. From a career perspective, you can apply this to how you see your career progressing into the future.

    Model-Based Systems Engineering

    Always think in terms of the full life cycle. In systems engineering, we talk a lot about validation and verification. A valid design is one that the customer is happy with — it gets the job done, whatever that job is. Essentially, this is to designing the right thing. In you career, verification and validation can be applied to choosing professional development activities.

    You need to know that the activities you pursue — be they courses, books, conferences, or anything else — are actually moving you towards your goals.