Thursday, February 4, 2010

ALM Tools

There's a Special Report in the January 15 SDTimes with a headline that bothers me -- a lot. In the print edition, it's called "Can ALM tame the agile beast?". Online it's ALM Tools Evolve in the Face of Agile Processes.

The online title makes a lot more sense than the print title. The print title is very disturbing. "Agile Beast?" Is Agile a bad thing? Is it somehow out of control? It needs to be "tamed"?

The article makes the case -- correctly -- that ALM tools are biased toward waterfall projects with (a) long lead times, (b) a giant drop of deliverables, and (c) a sudden ending. Agile projects often lack these attributes.

The best part of the special report is the acknowledgement that "barriers between developers and QA are disappearing". TDD works to blur the distinction between test and development, which is a very good thing. Without unit tests, how do you know you're finished coding?

How Many Tools Do We Need?

The point in the article was that the ALM vendors have created a collection of tools, each of which seems like a good idea. However, it's too much of the wrong thing for practical, Agile, project management.

The article claims that there were three tools for requirements, tests and defects. I've seen organizations with wishlists that are much bigger than these three. The Wikipedia ALM Article has an insane list of 16 tools (with some overlaps).

Of these, we can summarize them into the following eight categories, based on the kind of information kept. Since the boundaries are blurry, it isn't sensible to break these up by who uses them.
  • Requirements - in user terms; the "what"
  • Modeling and Design - in technical terms; an overview of "how"
  • Project Management (backlog, etc.) - requirements and dates
  • Configuration Management - technology components
  • Build Management - technology components
  • Testing - components, tests (and possibly requirements)
  • Release and Deployment - more components
  • Bug, Issue and Defect Tracking - user terms, requirements, etc.
Agile methods can remove the need for most (but not all) of these categories of tools. If the team is small, and really collaborating with the users, then there isn't the need to capture a mountain of details as well as complex management overviews for slice-and-dice reporting.


Here's a list of tools that shouldn't be necessary -- if you're collaborating.
  • Requirements have an overview in the backlog, on the scrumboard. Details can be captured in text documents written using simple markup like RST or Markdown. You don't need much because this is an ongoing conversation.
  • Modeling and Design is a mixture of UML pictures and narrative text. Again, simpler tools are better for this. Tool integration can be accomplished with a simple web site of entirely static content showing the current state of the architecture and any detail designs need to clarify the architecture. Write in RST, build it with Sphinx.
  • Project Management should be simply the backlog. This is digested into periodic presentations to various folks outside the scrum team. There isn't much that can be automated.
For UML pictures, ARGO UML is very nice. Here's a more complete list of Open Source UML Tools from Wikipedia.

Configuration Management

This is, perhaps, the single most important tool. However, there are two parts to this discipline.
For Revision Control, Subversion works very nicely.

Continuous Integration

The more interesting tools fall under the cover of "Continuous Integration". Mostly, however, this is just automation of some common tasks.
  • Build Management might be interesting for complex, statically compiled applications. Use of a dynamic language (e.g., Python) can prevent this. Build management should be little more than Ant, Maven or SCons.

    Additional tools include the Build Automation list of tools.

  • Testing is part of the daily build as well as each developer's responsibility. It should be part of the nightly build, and is simply a task in the build script.

    Overall integration or acceptance testing, however, might require some additional tools to exercise the application and confirm that some suite of requirements are met. It may be necessary to have a formal match-up between user stories and acceptance tests.

    There's a Wikipedia article with Testing Tools and Automated Testing. Much of this is architecture-specific, and it's difficult to locate a generic recommendation.

  • Release and Deployment can be complex for some architectures. The article on Software Deployment doesn't list any tools. Indeed, it says "Because every software system is unique, the precise processes or procedures within each activity can hardly be defined."

    Something that's important is a naming and packaging standard, similar to that used by RPM's or Python .egg files. It can be applied to Java .EAR/.WAR/.JAR files. Ideally, the installed software sits in a standard directory (under /opt) and a configuration file determines which version is used for production.

    Perhaps most important is the asset tracking, configuration management aspect of this. We need to plan and validate what components are in use in what locations. For this BCFG2 seems to embody a sensible approach.

For most build, test and release automation, SCons is sufficient. It's easily extended and customized to include testing.

More elaborate tools are listed in the Continuous Integration article.

Customer Relationship Management

The final interesting category isn't really technical. It includes tools for Bug, Issue and Defect Tracking. This is about being responsive to customer requests for bug fixes and enhancements.

The Comparison of Issue Tracking Systems article lists a number of products. Bugzilla is typical, and probably does everything one would actually require.

Old and Busted

I've seen organizations actively reject requirements management tools and use unstructured documents because the tool (Requisite Pro) imposed too many constraints on how requirements could be formalized and analyzed.

This was not a problem with tool at all. Rather, the use of a requirements management tool exposes serious requirements analysis and backlog management issues. The tool had to be dropped. The excuse was that it was "cumbersome" and didn't add value.

[This same customer couldn't use Microsoft Project, either, because it "didn't level the resources properly." They consistently overbooked resources and didn't like the fact that this made the schedule slip.]

When asked about requirements tools, I suggest people look at blog entries like this one on Create a Collaborative Workspace or these pictures of a well-used scrumboard.

Too much software can become an impediment. The point of Agile is to collaborate, not use different tools. Software tools can (and do) enforce a style of work that may not be very collaborative.

Bottom Line

Starting from the ALM overview, there are potentially a lot of tools.

Apply Agile methods and prune away some of the tools. You'll still want some design tools to help visualize really complex architectures. Use Argo UML and plain text.

Developers need source code revision control. Use Subversion.

Most everything else will devolve to "Continuous Integration", which is really about Build and Test, possibly Release. SCons covers a lot of bases.

You have some asset management issues (what is running where?) There's a planning side of this as well as an inventory side of confirming the configuration. Use BCFG2.

And you have customer relationship management issues (what would you like to see changed?) Use Bugzilla.


  1. Toyata: Computer-Addled Design? ... impractical to expect any company to develop products that have zero defects ... what we need is very agile in detecting and responding to events ...

  2. Manual processes of attending projects can create major problems sometimes due to lack of accuracy. In web based Project Management Software, all the errors can be removed easily and apart from that you can track and record all of your jobs. Even companies can customize project management software as per their requirements.

  3. Project teams often require coordination of activities, resources, equipment, and information. To satisfy this need the project coordinator functions in their primary role. Any coordination issues which cannot be resolved are elevated to the project manager.

  4. Most everything else will devolve to "Continuous Integration", which is really about Build and Test, possibly Release. SCons covers a lot of bases.