Prior to the advent of digital computers, the electronics and other engineering disciplines used the term system as it is still commonly used today. However, with the arrival of digital computers and the development of software engineering as a separate discipline, it was often necessary to distinguish among engineered hardware artifacts, software artifacts, and the combined artifacts. A programmable hardware artifact, or computing machine, that lacks its software program is impotent; even as a software artifact, or program, is equally impotent unless it can be used to alter the sequential states of a suitable (hardware) machine. However, a hardware machine and its software program can be designed to perform an almost illimitable number of abstract and physical tasks. Within the computer and software engineering disciplines (and, often, other engineering disciplines, such as communications), then, the term system came to be defined as containing all of the elements necessary (which generally includes both hardware and software) to perform a useful function.
Consequently, within these engineering disciplines, a system generally refers to a programmable hardware machine and its included program. And a systems engineer is defined as one concerned with the complete device, both hardware and software and, more particularly, all of the interfaces of the device, including that between hardware and software, and especially between the complete device and its user (the CHI). The hardware engineer deals (more or less) exclusively with the hardware device; the software engineer deals (more or less) exclusively with the software program; and the systems engineer is responsible for seeing that the software program is capable of properly running within the hardware device, and that the system composed of the two entities is capable of properly interacting with its external environment, especially the user, and performing its intended function.
By analogy, then, a systems architecture makes use of elements of both software and hardware and is used to enable design of such a composite system. A good architecture may be viewed as a 'partitioning scheme,' or algorithm, which partitions all of the system's present and foreseeable requirements into a workable set of cleanly bounded subsystems with nothing left over. That is, it is a partitioning scheme which is exclusive, inclusive, and exhaustive. A major purpose of the partitioning is to arrange the elements in the sub systems so that there is a minimum of communications needed among them. In both software and hardware, a good sub system tends to be seen to be a meaningful "object". Moreover, a good architecture provides for an easy mapping to the user's requirements and the validation tests of the user's requirements. Ideally, a mapping also exists from every least element to every requirement and test.
A robust architecture is said to be one that exhibits an optimal degree of fault-tolerance, backward compatibility, forward compatibility, extensibility, reliability, maintainability, availability,serviceability, usability, and such other quality attributes as necessary and/or desirable.