What Is Reference Architecture?

Illustration of the view out of a car. The word 'problem' is written in the rearview mirror and the word solution is written in the background.
Reference architecture helps provide business solutions!

In the world of software engineering, reference architectures act as the guideline for operations. They provide the framework for processes and documentation. They also continuously enhance the efficiency and performance of your systems and processes. This leads to cost savings, better optimization, and increased productivity. 

Discover what reference architecture is in this article, along with best practices and examples. Read on to learn all you need to know about this guideline! 

What Is Reference Architecture?

Reference architecture, also known as enterprise architecture, is a template or a set of documents. This template makes it easy for software architects and developers to address specific problems. For example, it could contain definitions for commonly-used words, an architecture blueprint with elements and relationships, data models, communication standards, recommended processes, etc. 

The idea is to make the job easier for anyone investigating problems or implementing solutions in that domain. In short, enterprise architecture is a resource you can refer to while designing and implementing complex technology solutions. But you may ask yourself how this helps you and why you should have one in the first place. I’ll talk about this in the next section. 

Why Is Reference Architecture Important?

A reference architecture adds value to companies in the following ways:

  • Eliminates confusion by standardizing language and organizational context
  • Makes problems easier to solve by implementing clear guidelines
  • Provides resources for designing an IT architecture, teams, and solutions
  • Saves time, effort, and money by having the ability to tap into existing resources
  • Optimizes problem-solving by providing standard best practices
  • Supports interoperability and reusability of components

But how can you harness these benefits for your company? Let’s see how you can create your own enterprise architecture.

5 Steps to Build a Reference Architecture

Creating your reference architecture is challenging as no predefined steps or processes exist. However, below are 5 key steps to help make the implementation process easier!

1. Identify the Purpose

Firstly, ask yourself some questions to identify the purpose of the enterprise architecture:

  • What is the domain and scope of the reference? 
  • Who are the stakeholders
  • How will you use this architecture? 
  • What are the constraints, assumptions, and environments associated with it? 

Exploring the answers can help you create a pragmatic reference document.

2. Formulate the Principles

Once you have the answers to the questions, start writing things you want to include in your enterprise architecture. Ensure you align items with the foundational statements and your company’s culture and values

3. Lay Down the Technical Rules

Now, you’re all set for the technical aspects of your document. The next step is to decide the frameworks and patterns you want to follow within your company. Ideally, include the rationale for these decisions so others can understand them. Add all the rules required to achieve the principles formulated earlier.

4. Build the Rules and Standards

Next, build the rules and standards across different departments within the company. Come up with a list of possible challenges and choose the correct standard for each scenario.

5. Set the Context

Finally, narrow your enterprise architecture down to include the vocabulary and context for each situation. Your document acts as a comprehensive reference point for everyone within your company. To this end, it starts with a broad definition and systematically refines terms and actions for each situation and context. That said, this isn’t the only way to build your enterprise architecture. Most companies follow a logical process, making it easy to incorporate industry best practices. 

Now let’s discover the best practices you can adopt in your company.

Reference Architecture Best Practices

When you use best practices to design your enterprise architecture, you ensure you leverage all its benefits. In particular, you can improve efficiency, meet regulatory requirements, and reduce the chance of errors. Below is a brief look at best practices to optimize your solution:

  • Competitive advantage; works best on elements within your company, like compliance 
  • Benchmark metrics within your industry; this helps to compare outcomes with competitors
  • Compliance standards for regulatory mandates
  • Component reuse; reducing organizational efforts on repetitive tasks
  • Governance as a part of your reference architecture

The above list doesn’t cover everything, but it gives you an idea of how you can create reference architectures. It can also help you adapt reference architectures to your company’s needs. 

Now let’s look at some examples that give you an idea of how to implement an enterprise architecture solution.

Reference Architecture Examples

Below are a few reference architecture examples to help you understand what they are. They also demonstrate how they can help the software development process.

Java Platform Enterprise Edition

Use Java EE for applications and microservices.

Java Platform Enterprise Edition incorporates a set of definitions and specifications that extend Java Platform Standard Edition (SE). To this end, it’s well-suited for applications and microservices. This includes components for scaling, deployment, and security. You’ll often find it in the accounting, banking, and e-commerce sectors.

IBM Insurance Application Architecture

The IBM Insurance Application Architecture is a well-known architecture for the insurance industry. This architecture helps insurance companies link IT projects with business requirements, support critical operations, and handle regulatory compliance. 


The auto industry needs good architecture!

Automotive Open System Architecture (AUTOSAR) is a reference architecture for electronic control units in the automotive sector. It covers scalability, transferability of your software, safety requirements, and the sustainable use of environmental resources. 

Now that you know how an enterprise architecture can positively impact your company let’s recap!

Final Thoughts

To conclude, a reference architecture is a blueprint or guide that helps decision-making for complex networks. Typically, this architecture can help you choose the best model and approach to building sustainable software applications that meet your business objectives. 

Do you have more questions about reference architecture? Check out the FAQ and Resources sections below!


Are architectural patterns and reference architectures the same?

No, a reference architecture defines the entire domain of a company. On the other hand, an architectural pattern is restricted to just a single problem or solution. You should note that a reference architecture also can span multiple challenges.

Are architectural frameworks and reference architectures the same?

No. Architecture frameworks, like Open Group Architecture Framework (TOGAF), provide an architecture standard. Enterprise architects may come up with different architectures. But a reference architecture helps you to decide on the best architecture from this list based on industry best practices, your existing resources, and other pertinent factors.

Can a reference architecture have many views?

Yes, it can. Often, a reference architecture defines 4 views; interoperability, scalability, security, and availability. Views ensure software engineers and architects have templates to create world-class products. 

Can you give me examples of what’s included in a reference architecture?

A reference architecture is a template for creating and delivering high-quality software products. For example, it could contain data models, relationships between elements, communication protocols, views, processes, etc. 

What’s the core objective of reference architecture?

The core objective of an enterprise architecture is to provide a standardized uniformity across the company. It acts as a template to help different teams make decisions related to architecture choices, troubleshooting, and more. Check this review of Windows Server’s reference architecture.


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