Software Product Lines
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A Framework for Software Product Line Practice, Version 5.0

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What Is a Software Product Line?

A software product line is a set of software-intensive systems that share a common, managed set of features satisfying the specific needs of a particular market segment or mission and that are developed from a common set of core assets in a prescribed way.

This definition is consistent with the definition traditionally given for any product line. But it adds more: it puts constraints on the way in which the systems in a software product line are developed. Why? Because substantial production economies can be achieved when the systems in a software product line are developed from a common set of assets in a prescribed way, in contrast to being developed separately, from scratch, or in an arbitrary fashion. It is exactly these production economies that make the software product line approach attractive.

How is production made more economical? Each product is formed by taking applicable components from the base of common assets, tailoring them as necessary through preplanned variation mechanisms such as parameterization or inheritance, adding any new components that may be necessary, and assembling the collection according to the rules of a common, product-line-wide architecture. Building a new product (system) becomes more a matter of assembly or generation than one of creation; the predominant activity is integration rather than programming. For each software product line, there is a predefined guide or plan that specifies the exact product-building approach.

Certainly the desire for production economies is not a new business goal, and neither is a product line solution. But a software product line is a relatively new idea, and it should seem clear from our description that software product lines require a different technical tack. The more subtle consequence is that software product lines require much more than new technical practices.

The common set of assets and the plan for how they are used to build products don't just materialize without planning, and they certainly don't come free. They require organizational foresight, investment, planning, and direction. They require strategic thinking that looks beyond a single product. The disciplined use of the common assets to build products doesn't just happen either. Management must direct, track, and enforce the use of the assets. Software product lines are as much about business practices as they are about technical practices.

Software product lines give economies of scope, which means that you take economic advantage of the fact that many of your products are very similar–not by accident, but because you planned it that way. You make deliberate, strategic decisions and are systematic in effecting those decisions.

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