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Multi layered software architecture is one of the most popular architectural patterns today. It moderates the increasing complexity of modern applications. It also makes it easier to work in a more agile manner. That’s important when you consider the dominance of DevOps and other similar methodologies today. Sometimes called tiered architecture, or n-tier architecture, a multi layered software architecture consists of various layers, each of which corresponds to a different service or integration. Because each layer is separate, making changes to each layer is easier than having to tackle the entire architecture.

Let’s take a look at how a multi layered software architecture works, and what the advantages and disadvantages of it are.

This has been taken from the book Architectural Patterns. Find it here.

What does a layered software architecture consist of?

Before we get into a multi layered architecture, let’s start with the simplest form of layered architecture – three tiered architecture. This is a good place to start because all layered software architecture contains these three elements. These are the foundations:

  • Presentation layer: This is the first and topmost layer which is present in the application. This tier provides presentation services, that is presentation, of content to the end user through GUI. This tier can be accessed through any type of client device like desktop, laptop, tablet, mobile, thin client, and so on. For the content to the displayed to the user, the relevant web pages should be fetched by the web browser or other presentation component which is running in the client device. To present the content, it is essential for this tier to interact with the other tiers that are present preceding it.
  • Application layer: This is the middle tier of this architecture. This is the tier in which the business logic of the application runs. Business logic is the set of rules that are required for running the application as per the guidelines laid down by the organization. The components of this tier typically run on one or more application servers.
  • Data layer: This is the lowest tier of this architecture and is mainly concerned with the storage and retrieval of application data. The application data is typically stored in a database server, file server, or any other device or media that supports data access logic and provides the necessary steps to ensure that only the data is exposed without providing any access to the data storage and retrieval mechanisms. This is done by the data tier by providing an API to the application tier. The provision of this API ensures complete transparency to the data operations which are done in this tier without affecting the application tier. For example, updates or upgrades to the systems in this tier do not affect the application tier of this architecture.

The diagram below shows how a simple layered architecture with 3 tiers works:

Three-tiered architecture diagram


These three layers are essential. But other layers can be built on top of them. That’s when we get into multi layered architecture. It’s sometimes called n-tiered architecture because the number of tiers or layers (n) could be anything! It depends on what you need and how much complexity you’re able to handle.

Multi layered software architecture

A multi layered software architecture still has the presentation layer and data layer. It simply splits up and expands the application layer. These additional aspects within the application layer are essentially different services. This means your software should now be more scalable and have extra dimensions of functionality. Of course, the distribution of application code and functions among the various tiers will vary from one architectural design to another, but the concept remains the same.

The diagram below illustrates what a multi layered software architecture looks like. As you can see, it’s a little more complex that a three-tiered architecture, but it does increase scalability quite significantly:

What are the benefits of a layered software architecture?

A layered software architecture has a number of benefits – that’s why it has become such a popular architectural pattern in recent years. Most importantly, tiered segregation allows you to manage and maintain each layer accordingly. In theory it should greatly simplify the way you manage your software infrastructure.

The multi layered approach is particularly good for developing web-scale, production-grade, and cloud-hosted applications very quickly and relatively risk-free. It also makes it easier to update any legacy systems – when you’re architecture is broken up into multiple layers, the changes that need to be made should be simpler and less extensive than they might otherwise have to be.

When should you use a multi layered software architecture?

Clearly, the argument for a multi layered software architecture is pretty clear. However, there are some instances when it is particularly appropriate:

  • If you are building a system in which it is possible to split the application logic into smaller components that could be spread across several servers. This could lead to the design of multiple tiers in the application tier.
  • If the system under consideration requires faster network communications, high reliability, and great performance, then n-tier has the capability to provide that as this architectural pattern is designed to reduce the overhead which is caused by network traffic.

An example of a multi layered software architecture

We can illustrate the working of an multi layered architecture with the help of an example of a shopping cart web application which is present in all e-commerce sites. The shopping cart web application is used by the e-commerce site user to complete the purchase of items through the e-commerce site.

You’d expect the application to have several features that allow the user to:

  • Add selected items to the cart
  • Change the quantity of items in their cart
  • Make payments

The client tier, which is present in the shopping cart application, interacts with the end user through a GUI. The client tier also interacts with the application that runs in the application servers present in multiple tiers. Since the shopping cart is a web application, the client tier contains the web browser. The presentation tier present in the shopping cart application displays information related to the services like browsing merchandise, buying them, adding them to the shopping cart, and so on. The presentation tier communicates with other tiers by sending results to the client tier and all other tiers which are present in the network.

The presentation tier also makes calls to database stored procedures and web services. All these activities are done with the objective of providing a quick response time to the end user. The presentation tier plays a vital role by acting as a glue which binds the entire shopping cart application together by allowing the functions present in different tiers to communicate with each other and display the outputs to the end user through the web browser.

In this multi layered architecture, the business logic which is required for processing activities like calculation of shipping cost and so on are pulled from the application tier to the presentation tier. The application tier also acts as the integration layer and allows the applications to communicate seamlessly with both the data tier and the presentation tier. The last tier which is the data tier is used to maintain data. This layer typically contains database servers. This layer maintains data independent from the application server and the business logic. This approach provides enhanced scalability and performance to the data tier.

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