ISO Compliance – An Architect’s Perspective

ISO Compliance gets a bad wrap. People roll their eyes, are bored by it, and often don’t see the relevance of it. I wanted to share my perspective on this and address some misconceptions.

International Standards Organisation (ISO) create documents that provide requirements, specifications and guidelines that can be used to ensure materials, products, and processes are fit for purpose.

Although I focus a little on ISO standards here you can apply my thoughts to most standards.

ISO Compliance & internal company process

Its a no-brainer that to be compliant to international standards such as ISO 20000, 9001, and 27001 we need to consider them in our processes. We should have processes for checking compliance and often compliance needs results in changes to our operational processes. Checking compliance basically involves taking a standard, turning it into a set of requirements and then going different exercises of requirements realization, or maybe even scoring your processes against criteria in a similar way to what I described in scoring documentation. My previous blogs on those subjects are just describing one of many approaches you can take.

Its important to ensure company processes validate compliance when they first create their processes but also whenever they change them. You cannot just implement standards and forget about them, because as processes change, so can the level of compliance to standards.

In many cases an ISO compliance certification in one country does not equate to having that certification in all countries. Just because your company may hold an ISO 20000 certification, this does not necessarily mean that it holds that certification in the country you are working in.

Adhering to standards isn’t just the job of a security or quality team. In order to really gain the benefits from ISO standards many different roles and stakeholders need to be considered or involved.

Compliance & Architecture

Its important for architects to be aware of which ISO standards a company states it is compliant to. It has a direct impact on both design and implementation in some cases. Its normal to want to short cut the compliance process. There are a few ways to do this;. One way is to create one set of master requirements that aggregates the requirements from all the relevant standards into a set of non functional requirements (NFRs) Those architecture and security NFRs need to be considered when both designing and implementing solutions, and mechanisms should be put into place to make sure that happens.

As an example – ISO 20000 asks that as part of release management a testing environment exists. An architect should plan for this when building implementation and migration architecture.

It is could be very easy to miss this requirement if architects are not aware of the international standards or company NFRs. These requirements are actually architecture concerns from a security and compliance perspective. Architecture concerns have to be managed in an architecture design.

Just as ISO standards can effect implementation and migration architecture they can also effect core architecture design. GDPR is a hot topic – around security of personal information, but for example ISO 27001 provides standards around all information security management.

Its not just a tickbox excercise

Compliance to standards may seem boring and just a pointless paper exercise and when you view it that way it starts to lose its value. The ISO standards have been put together by groups of smart people, that have developed a set of practices to mitigate risk and avoid pains they may have personally been exposed to.

I have heard from some managers in the past that “You cant expect architects to read a whole ISO standard”. Even if you have good non functional requirements from your quality and security teams I would recommend architects pick up at least one ISO standard and read it all. My personal favorite is ISO 42010 (The International Standard for Architecture Description). Read through an ISO and think about the value it’s recommendations give and the pains you would get from not following each recommendation.

For example, ISO 42010 talks about ensuring architecture concerns are framed by at least one viewpoint. If they were not, then the needs of our stakeholders might be missed. Things might not be managed and potentially a customer may notice it. Maybe even a major incident may happen – there could be a huge cost or risk.

If you start to read through a standard and maybe entertain yourself trying to imagine what kind of disaster may have happened that lead someone to write those sentences you may find yourself with a new appreciation of them.

In thinking about what is written in the different standards rather than blindly checking requirements off a list we can get more value from them, and we can learn from the mistakes of others.

Its an opportunity for group fun!

Those running a security, quality or architecture team wanting to get people engaged in ISO compliance could run a workshop with key stakeholders, and get them a little hands on with the risk management side of things.

If you lay out a set of requirements that have been distilled from an ISO standard, it stands to reason that not meeting those requirements poses a risk. If you are using a simple mechanism to validate compliance you could easily establish standard risks against each and every requirement being missed, and start to estimate impact and cost. Getting stakeholders involved in defining risk gives them a deeper more intimate engagement with risk management, and can also help later when those compliance processes are in use.

Its hard to argue that a risk is not valid, if you are the person that defined the standard risk is the person that violated it.

A message to all architects

If you are designing architecture, you need to be aware of standards you promise to adhere to for your customers. and within your own organization. If you cannot name all the standards your company promises to be compliant to, you need to at least be fully conversant with architecture and security non functional requirements. As architects we have a responsibility to ensure we are managing architecture concerns

Don’t think of ISO compliance as being a boring paper exercise. Think of it as an opportunity to take steps to ensure you have an easier, more relaxing, higher quality life at work.