N-Tier Architecture

03 Jan

N-Tier architecture is an industry-proved software architecture model, suitable to support enterprise-level client/server applications by resolving issues like scalability, security, fault tolerance and etc. .NET has many tools and features, but .NET doesn’t have pre-defined ways to guard how to implement N-Tier architecture. Therefore, in order to achieve good design and implementation of N-Tier architecture in .NET, understanding fully its concepts is very important. However, many of us may hear, read or use N-Tier architecture for many years but still misunderstand its concepts more or less. This article tries to clarify many basic concepts in N-Tier architecture from all aspects, and also provide some practical tips. The tips in this article are based on the assumption that a team has a full control over all layers of the N-Tier architecture.

Tier and Layer

Firstly we need to clarify the difference between two terms in N-Tier architecture: tier and layer. Tier usually means the physical deployment computer. Usually an individual running server is one tier. Several servers may also be counted as one tier, such as server failover clustering. By contrast, layer usually means logic software component group mainly by functionality; layer is used for software development purpose. Layer software implementation has many advantages and is a good way to achieve N-Tier architecture. Layer and tier may or may not exactly match each other. Each layer may run in an individual tier. However, multiple layers may also be able to run in one tier.

A layer may also be able to run in multiple tiers. For example, in Diagram 2 below, the persistence layer in .NET can include two parts: persistence Lib and WCF data service, the persistence lib in the persistence layer always runs in the same process as business layer to adapt the business layer to the WCF data service. However, the WCF data service in persistence layer can run in a separate individual tier. Here is another example: we may extract the data validation in business layer into a separate library (but still kept in business layer), which can be called by client presenter layer directly for a better client-side interactive performance. If this occurs, then data validation part of the business layer runs in the same process of the client presenter layer, the rest of business layer runs in a separate tier.

Tier And Process

If a layer can run in an individual process, usually it will also be able to run in an individual computer (tier), hence it can be considered capable for an individual tier in N-Tier architecture. However, this isn’t always true. For example, assume that there are two layers which are implemented to run in two individual processes; they communicate with each other too. However, if these two layers are implemented in a such way that their IPC (inter-process communication) is solely based on a non-distributed way, such as the local shared memory, then these two layers can run in two different processes only in the same computer, not in two different computers. Unless there is another alternative distributed IPC way (such as socket) available for these two layers, these two layers will be considered capable for only one tier even though they can run in two different processes of the same computer.

Layer and Process

A layer may run in an individual process; several layer may also run in an individual process; a layer may run in several processes too. If you read above section “Tier and Layer Relationship”, you can understand here easily.

3-Tier Architecture 

We introduce the 3-Tier concept first so that we can understand other tier concepts later easily. The simplest of N-Tier architecture is 3-Tier which typically contain following software component layers listed from the top level to the low level: presentation layer, application layer and data layer, which are depicted in Diagram 1.

A layer can access directly only the public components of its directly-below layer. For example, presentation layer can only access the public components in application layer, but not in data layer. Application layer can only access the public components in data layer, but not in presentation layer. Doing so can minimize the dependencies of one layer on other layers. This dependency minimization will bring benefits for layer development/maintenance, upgrading, scaling and etc. Doing so also makes the tier security enforcement possible. For example, the client layer cannot access the data layer directly but through the application layer, so data layer has a higher security guarding. Finally, doing so can also avoid cyclic dependencies among software components.

In order to claim a complete 3-Tier architecture, all three layers should be able to run in separate computers.


Difference between tier and layer

It is a confusing question for beginners. A few think that both are the same. But they are not the same. Tier represents multiple hardware boxes. In other words the components are physically separated into multiple machines. But in the case of layers all components are in the same system.

What are the Layers?

Theoretically it is N-tier architecture. So, we can create as many layers as possible but basically people classify code in three categories and put them in three layers. So, for this article we will consider N-tier architecture as 3-tier architecture and try to implement one sample application.

Let’s explain each and every layer first.

Presentation Layer/ UI Layer

This is the top-most layer of the application where the user performs their activity. Let’s take the example of any application where the user needs to fill up a form. This form is nothing but the Presentation Layer. In Windows applications Windows Forms are the Presentation Layer and in web applications the web form belongs to the Presentation Layer. Basically the user’s input validation and rule processing is done in this layer.

Business Layer

This is on top of the Presentation Layer. As the name suggests, most of the business operations are performed here. For example, after collecting form data we want to validate them with our custom business rule. Basically we define classes and business entities in this layer.

Data Access Layer

On top of the Business Logic Layer is the Data Access Layer. It contains methods that help the business layer to connect with the database and perform CRUD operations. Generally all database related code and stuff belongs to the Data Access Layer. Sometimes people use a platform-independent Data Access Layer to fetch data from various database vendors.

N-Tier: 3 or more tiers architecture. Diagram 2 below depicts a typical N-Tier architecture. Some layers in 3-Tier can be broken further into more layers. These broken layers may be able to run in more tiers. For example, application layer can be broken into business layer, persistence layer or more. Presentation layer can be broken into client layer and client presenter layer. In diagram 2, in order to claim a complete N-Tier architecture, client presenter layer, business layer and data layer should be able to run in three separate computers (tiers). Practically, all these layers can also be deployed in one compute (tier).


Client layer: this layer is involved with users directly. There may be several different types of clients coexisting, such as WPF, Window form, HTML web page and etc.

Client presenter layer: contains the presentation logic needed by clients, such as ASP .NET MVC in IIS web server. Also it adapts different clients to the business layer.

Business layer: handles and encapsulates all of business domains and logics; also called domain layer.

Persistence layer: handles the read/write of the business data to the data layer, also called data access layer (DAL).

Data layer: the external data source, such as a database.

Sometimes, the number of tiers is able to be equal or more than 3, but client presenter layer, business layer and data layer cannot run in three separate computers (tiers). Is this a N-Tier architecture? we categorize this N-Tier as an incomplete N-Tier architecture because its client presenter layer, business layer and data layer cannot run in three separate computers (tiers).

If we use the modem non-embedded database such as Sql Server, Oracle and etc, these databases will always be able to run in an individual computer. Therefore, for this case in Diagram 1, the criteria of a 2-Tier architecture is that presentation layer and application layer can run in only one computer; the criteria of a complete 3-Tier architecture is that presentation layer and application layer can run in different computers. A complete N-Tier architecture has the same criteria as 3-Tier.

Read also: Three Layer Architecture in C# .NET


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