Engineering the Future of Software
18-19 October 2016: Training
19-21 October 2016: Tutorials & Conference
London, UK

Don't touch the monolith; or, How lateral architecture design can satisfy your users

Steve Marshall (Ministry of Justice)
10:45–11:35 Friday, 21/10/2016
Integration architecture
Location: Balmoral Level: Beginner
Average rating: ****.
(4.50, 6 ratings)

Prerequisite knowledge

  • A basic understanding of architecting web-based systems

What you'll learn

  • Understand how lateral thinking in architectural design can satisfy users and break down monoliths


Research shows that prisoners’ reoffending rates are significantly lowered if they have frequent contact with friends and family on the outside. Booking social visits with prisoners used to involve mailing a paper form to the visitor, who would then have to phone the prison—and could spend two hours or more on hold. In September 2014, the Ministry of Justice Digital launched Prison Visit Booking, which allows visits with prisoners to be booked online through GOV.UK.

How can you integrate with an unchangeable monolith that thousands of prison staff use every day to run the UK’s prisons, while rapidly iterating on a citizen-facing visit booking service?

Steve Marshall shows how a combination of some decades-old technologies, a carefully crafted user interface, and staff in prisons made it possible to build a visit-booking service with 90% user satisfaction, all without changing the backend system. Steve also explores how to architect systems to chip away at legacy monoliths while improving your users’ experience and discusses what all of this means for how you architect your systems.

Photo of Steve Marshall

Steve Marshall

Ministry of Justice

If he ever grows up, Steve Marshall wants to be a mighty pirate. Until then, he has to make do with being a software architect at the Ministry of Justice. He’s worked on government services, travel APIs, sites for burgeoning rock bands, award-winning intranets, and a host of things between. When he’s not working or complaining on Twitter, Steve can be found listening to music, playing video games, taking more photos than he has time to process, or going very fast round corners in his car. One day, he might blog on his site again. One day.

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Picture of Hugh Greene
21/10/2016 23:46 BST

Oh, and I’m glad your talk was a short one in a long slot, as it left more time for Q&A. I think that’s particularly useful for sessions which are talking about specific experience.

Picture of Hugh Greene
21/10/2016 23:37 BST

Hi Steve, thanks for a great talk. Tudor Girba ( would be pleased: you had a clear story which got your point across, that low tech can get users what they actually need for low cost. I’m glad you gave us a bit of generalisation (because I like that sort of thing ;-) when you pointed to Fowler’s “Strangler” pattern as a way to evolve from small bits of low tech towards a coherent replacement system later — whether the old system is software or software-less.