The idea of software systems having layers has been around for quite awhile and the terminology is very helpful when used properly.
This article does not intend to cover the myriad of reasons why a software architect would choose to use, or not to use, layers in a software system. My off the cuff thought is any system that has more than 3 developers or more than 50,000 lines of code or would probably benefit from layers to some degree. Layers are certainly not needed for all software systems, but they are certainly helpful in some systems. Even in smaller systems they can be a useful conceptual idea, communication tool or handy for breaking up work by skill set.
A layer is all of the classes, types and related artifacts that are used to perform a particular type of function in a software system. The code that makes up layers is mostly application specific (written by the application developers specifically for use in that one system). Layer code does not mingle, all application specific code that exists in a layer exists in one and only one layer. Generic code (such as List, cryptography functions, string functions, etc) does not fall into a layer because it isn’t application specific. Ideally code that isn’t application specific and doesn’t fall into a layer should be written as reusable code and put in a library. Failing that the code that makes up layers in a system should at least exist in in separate and obviously named namespaces with non-layered code in different name spaces.
The most common layers of functionality used in software systems are the presentation layer, the service layer and the repository layer. If a systems is intended for use by other systems (not an end user) then an API layer would take the place of the presentation layer. Each of these common layers can be referred to by different names depending on who you talk to. Just like a rose, the name isn’t important because the purpose of the layer remains the same.
- Presentation Layer, User Interface Layer, GUI Layer and Web Client Layer all refer to the same functionality of interacting with a person.
- API Layer, Web API Layer and RESTful API Layer all refer to the same functionality of interacting with other external systems via a defined API.
- Service Layer, Business Layer, Logic Layer and Business Logic Layer all refer to the same functionality of implementing the business rules, logic and complex processing within the software system.
- Repository Layer and Data Access Layer both refer to the same functionality of reading and writing data to/from persistent storage.
The presentation / user interface layer is responsible for all user interaction. Business logic/rules and code that reads and writes data from persistent storage should not exist in this layer. The purpose of this layer is limited to displaying information and interacting with the user.
An API / Web API layer (instead of a user interface layer) for software systems that expose their functionality for use by other systems to use instead of a user interface. Functionally this layer takes the same role as the user interface layer would, it is responsible for all interfacing with the client.
The repository / data access layer is responsible for reading and writing data to/from persistent storage. Most often this is a relational database but it can be any type of structured storage (files, XML, no sql databases, etc).
The service / business logic layer is most of the code that exists between the presentation and repository layers. It is where the business logic and rules are implemented and where complex processing occurs. Business rules and logic should not be coded into other layers.
There can also be adapter layers positioned between the other layers in a system. For example an adapter layer between a Web API layer and a service layer that converts data from Data Transfer Objects (used in API) to the structures used by the service layer and then back into DTOs when data is returned from the service layer.
Systems can also include a proxy layer that replaces the service and repository layers for capabilities that are implemented by an external system. For example a complex web application system where the front end is implemented by one set of servers which use proxies to call into the Web API that is exposed by another set servers which contain the business rules, logic, processing and data access code.
Now that we have the fundamentals out of the way we can discuss why the concept of layers in software systems is important and still very much relevant today.
Without the concept of layers software systems would be big collections of objects that interact with each other. This would be troublesome because not all objects in a software system should be allowed to talk to each other. Layers are a top down design, code executing in a layer can call other code in the same layer or in the next layer lower down. But code can not call into layers above it and can’t skip over layers when calling downward. This is why the concept of layers is important in software systems!
Classes in the presentation/API layer should never directly talk to classes in the repository layer. Likewise classes in in the service layer should never call classes in the presentation or API layer. Classes in the data access layer should never call presentation/API or service layer classes. If we were to throw out the concept of layers and view software systems as a collection of classes that call each other then these very important concepts of separation would be lost.
A good system architecture codifies these layer concepts and makes them easier and more accessible for the application programmer while also reducing the likelihood of bad code that violates these principals. How this can be done in architecture is a difficult concept to express concisely and would require, at the very least, a sizable article of its own. I am working on transforming some of my existing personal library code into open source libraries that I’ll publish on NuGet in the foreseeable future. Those libraries will contain a very nice structured architecture I’ve used numerous times to implement these layer concepts in systems. If you’re interested in that keep an eye on my blog.