More with Three-Tiered Design

Reuven shares more tips on the usefulness and limitations of three-tiered architecture—and just what is it?
Problems with Three-Tier Design

Now that we have looked at a very simple three-tier project, it's time to look at some of the problems associated with such a design. I am not saying that three-tier solutions are inherently evil, but neither are they a panacea. Like most solutions, they are appropriate under certain circumstances. In many cases, splitting the design and implementation among several people can be easier when you divide the work into different layers, as we saw with our web-based appointment calendar. One person could write all of the necessary code, but two people could probably do it more quickly and easily, given a well-documented interface between them.

As with any engineering solution, there are always trade-offs. With a three-tiered design, perhaps the most important trade-off is time. Such an architecture takes longer to specify and design, even if it will eventually be more robust, easier to write, easier to test and easier to divide among a number of programmers.

While dividing a project into many parts might make it easier to specify and test each part, it makes integration testing all the more important and difficult. If everyone sticks to the published and agreed-to API, such testing does not have to be terribly difficult. But there are always differences between the specification and the implementation, and integration testing tends to bring these out. The more tiers in a project, the more important and difficult such testing can be.

Finally, it can be difficult and frustrating to create an object middleware layer that provides an interface to the database. SQL is not a perfect language, but it allows us to express a very large number of queries with a very small number of commands.

Removing SQL from the Mason components and forcing programmers to work with an object API, means that the programmer will be limited to a small subset of the database's power and flexibility. Every time more functionality is needed, the programmer will have to request it be added to the middleware's API. Being able to specify any database query inside of an HTML template (e.g., a Mason component) is a liberating experience for a programmer, and taking that freedom away can be frustrating.


Programmers designing large or complex web applications are finding it increasingly useful to adopt the three-tiered architecture beginning to replace the simpler client/server model that has been favored for the last decade. Indeed, creating three-tiered applications can often make life easier. In the end, however, you will have to decide whether this solution is appropriate for your needs or if it's overkill given your time frame and specifications.

Reuven M. Lerner owns and manages a small consulting firm specializing in web and Internet technologies. As you read this, he should be (finally!) finishing Core Perl, to be published by Prentice-Hall later this year. You can reach him at, or at the ATF home page,