Ask 50 people to describe an IT architect, and the chances are good you'll get 50 different answers. It's a hard job to pin down. While IT architect might be the broad category, in reality there are many different and specific types of architects that come in a variety of flavors (and I will use IT architect to encompass them all).
Just as there are landscape architects, residential architects, industrial architects, and commercial architects in the construction domain, we in IT have application architects, enterprise architects, and network architects, to name a few of the subsets. Yet while we understand that IT architects come in a variety of types, standardizing the names for those different types and defining what each type does is still a work in progress. A standard dictionary would be useful.
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To meet the need at hand, we've created an informal dictionary that defines the various types of architects in the IT landscape. The dictionary is based on industry convention. It organizes these multiple types of IT architects according to a multidimensional spectrum. The endpoints on the spectrum are:
Figure 1 illustrates the different types of architects you typically find in IT.
The color of the circle indicates the architect's general orientation. The circle sizes indicate the estimated number of architects in practice.
The sections that follow describe each orientation along with its architect roles. Also included in each architectural role are certifications that may be of interest if you want to pursue that role. The example certifications provide details that describe the qualifications and competencies that an IT architect in the given role is expected to have.
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The main focus of business-oriented architects is to ensure that the IT systems they design meet the business' goals. While any person in this role is expected to have a professional understanding of software development and system operations, business-oriented architects are less likely to be steeped in the details of creating and operating large-scale systems at the day-to-day code level. Rather, their central concerns are that the system under design supports the processes, rules, and expected business outcomes, according to the company's resources and constraints.
The types of architects that commonly have a business orientation are:
The enterprise architect's role is to align technical initiatives, principles, and practices with a business' strategic vision at a high level. The enterprise architect has a keen understanding of a business' purpose, goals, constraints, and physical organization. The enterprise architect also understands how all technical activity, existing and planned, maps to the given company's needs.
Enterprise architects have a history of working at a detailed level with various technologies in various roles. Typically, enterprise architects ascend to the position after at least a decade working at lower levels in the technical organization designing, implementing, and maintaining a variety of systems using diverse technologies.
- The Open Group TOGAF 9 certification
- The Open Group Certified Architect
- Zachman Certified Enterprise Architect
- ITIL Master Level 5 certification
- Certified Information Technology Architect (IASA)
Like an enterprise architect but more administrative, the chief architect role is responsible for all architectural activity to ensure business needs are being met everywhere.
- Same as the enterprise architect
Operations-oriented architects have a bias toward designing systems in terms of the operational resources and capabilities of a company's digital infrastructure. This includes assets that are on-premises as well as cloud-based. Typically, operations-oriented architects are well-versed in systems administration, network engineering, system testing, security best practices, and system orchestration frameworks.
The types of architects that commonly have an operations orientation are:
A cloud architect focuses on designing systems that use cloud-based technologies to meet business goals. Typically, a cloud architect is well-versed in products and services provided by native cloud vendors such as AWS, Google Cloud, and Azure, to name a few. A cloud architect also has expertise in implementing cloud technologies on-premises.
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- Professional Cloud Solutions Architect certification
- Red Hat Certified Specialist in OpenShift
- A Cloud Guru Certified Cloud Practitioner
- Kubernetes certifications
A network architect is an expert at applying network technology to system designs. This type of architect has an extensive background in the physical aspects of network design and implementation on a very large scale. Network architects also understand the details and nuances of data exchange as defined by the OSI model. They are current with the latest developments in networking technologies and best practices, particularly around datacenter security and interoperability.
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A security architect designs and guides the implementation of security policies, processes, and mechanisms intended to safeguard an enterprise's digital infrastructure. Security architects have experience applying security principles and best practices to both the hardware and software assets that make up the digital domain. They guide research and policy development. They have a detailed understanding of government and corporate cybersecurity regulations. Also, they understand threat detection, prevention, and testing at a detailed level.
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Site reliability engineer
A site reliability engineer (SRE) is a modern role for developers to focus on operations at scale. An SRE is well-versed in designing highly available systems as well as ensuring network resilience and implementing security best practices. They design systems that meet a business's needs and expectations according to budgetary constraints from both business and technical perspectives.
[ Learn about Red Hat’s approach to site reliability engineering (SRE) ]
The automation architect's role is to provide the guidance, expertise, and design perspective necessary to automate IT processes in a way that meets business objectives and supports technological best practices. Typically, an automation architect identifies the appropriate tools, techniques, and organizational policies required to apply state-of-the-art automation to the variety of tasks and procedures inherent in the business' software development lifecycle (SDLC).
- ISA Certified Automation Professional (CAP) certification
- Certified Software Test Automation Architect
- Red Hat Certified Specialist in Ansible Automation
Developer-oriented architects tend to focus on systems design aspects that have to do with programming and software development. Usually, a developer-oriented architect has a detailed understanding of a variety of programming languages, software development frameworks, and database technologies, as well as an awareness of the different schools of programming, such as object-oriented programming vs. functional programming.
The types of architects that commonly have a developer orientation are:
A software architect provides the design expertise, guidance, and policies relevant to developing software systems that run at an enterprise scale. Software architects express sets of high-level principles and techniques to follow in system implementation. They identify technologies and frameworks that are best suited to satisfy technical objectives in a way that aligns with business goals. Software architects typically have a strong background in programming, database engineering, and operations management.
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A data architect's role is to identify the critical data requirements in a business' strategic vision—short and long term—and then coordinate data engineering activities to satisfy those requirements according to the resources and constraints inherent in the business. The data architect defines the principles and models that guide data engineering activities within the enterprise. The data architect also serves as a liaison between business and technical interests as data management and development activities move forward. Data architects typically have a history of direct operational experience in database design, data systems administration, and data programming.
- IBM Certified Data Architect – Big Data
- Google Professional Data Engineer certification
- SAS Certified Big Data Professional
An application architect's role is to provide expertise, guidance, and implementation policies for developing enterprise systems within a particular programming framework. Application architects typically have a well-defined scope of expertise in terms of programming. However, as microservice-oriented architectures continue to become popular, application architects are also well-versed in various API technologies such as REST, GraphQL, and gRPC. The application architect is also familiar with container/binary orchestration frameworks such as Kubernetes, Docker, Docker Swarm, and WebAssembly.
Vendor-oriented architects are well-versed at applying a particular vendor's product or service(s) to system designs intended to achieve business goals.
The types of architects that commonly have a vendor orientation are:
A solutions architect's role is to provide expertise, guidance, and implementation policies for developing enterprise systems within products and services offered by a specific vendor. Many vendors offer a broad set of products and services according to a product line. For example, Amazon Web Services has services for programming, data management, and machine learning, to name a few. Red Hat product lines focus on specialties such as virtualization, environment provisioning, container management, Linux operating systems, and systems programming.
[ Check out Red Hat Portfolio Architecture Center for a wide variety of reference architectures you can use. ]
The solutions architect has in-depth knowledge of many, if not all, of a vendor's products and services. The solutions architect designs systems and services using the products provided by a specific vendor.
- Red Hat Certified Architect
- Salesforce Certified Technical Architect
- Google Professional Cloud Architect certification
- Azure Solutions Architect certification
What type are you?
It's rare for a single IT architect to be a complete expert in all aspects of system design and refactoring. The days of the general practitioner have passed. Today, the IT landscape is far too broad and detail-laden to expect any one person to know it all. The risks are too great to think otherwise. Instead, wise companies have a clear understanding of the purpose and goals of the systems they intend to create. Hence, they look for the right type of architect to meet the need at hand.
The trick for IT architects working in today's world is to be very clear about their type, and to pursue excellence in their chosen specialty. The road to such clarity starts with a simple question: "What type of IT architect are you?" Your answer will determine your path forward.