Introduction to UML in Software Engineering

UML is managed as a de facto industry standard by the Object Management Group (OMG). This article includes a review about UML History, Definition and its main diagrams.

UML Models and Diagrams

The Unified Modeling Language is a standardized general-purpose modeling language and nowadays is managed as a de facto industry standard by the Object Management Group (OMG). UML includes a set of graphic notation techniques to create visual models of software-intensive systems.


UML was invented by James Rumbaugh, Grady Booch and Ivar Jacobson. After Rational Software Corporation hired James Rumbaugh from General Electric in 1994, the company became the source for the two most popular object-oriented modeling approaches of the day: Rumbaugh's Object-modeling technique (OMT), which was better for object-oriented analysis (OOA), and Grady Booch's Booch method, which was better for object-oriented design (OOD). They were soon assisted in their efforts by Ivar Jacobson, the creator of the object-oriented software engineering (OOSE) method. Jacobson joined Rational in 1995, after his company, Objectory AB, was acquired by Rational.


The Unified Modeling Language (UML) is used to specify, visualize, modify, construct and document the artifacts of an object-oriented software-intensive system under development. UML offers a standard way to visualize a system's architectural blueprints, including elements such as activities, actors, business processes, database schemas, components, programming language statements, and reusable software components.

UML combines techniques from data modeling (entity relationship diagrams), business modeling (work flows), object modeling, and component modeling. It can be used with all processes, throughout the software development life cycle, and across different implementation technologies.

Models and Diagrams

It is important to distinguish between the UML model and the set of diagrams of a system. A diagram is a partial graphic representation of a system's model. The model also contains documentation that drive the model elements and diagrams.

UML diagrams represent two different views of a system model:

  • Static (or structural) view: emphasizes the static structure of the system using objects, attributes, operations and relationships. The structural view includes class diagrams and composite structure diagrams.
  • Dynamic (or behavioral) view: emphasizes the dynamic behavior of the system by showing collaborations among objects and changes to the internal states of objects. This view includes sequence diagrams, activity diagrams and state machine diagrams.

Diagrams Overview

In UML 2.2 there are 14 types of diagrams divided into two categories. Seven diagram types represent structural information, and the other seven represent general types of behavior, including four that represent different aspects of interactions. These diagrams can be categorized hierarchically as shown in the following diagram:

Structure Diagrams

Structure diagrams emphasize the things that must be present in the system being modeled. Since structure diagrams represent the structure, they are used extensively in documenting the software architecture of software systems.

  • Class diagram: describes the structure of a system by showing the system's classes, their attributes, and the relationships among the classes.
  • Component diagram: describes how a software system is split up into components and shows the dependencies among these components.
  • Composite structure diagram: describes the internal structure of a class and the collaborations that this structure makes possible.
  • Deployment diagram: describes the hardware used in system implementations and the execution environments and artifacts deployed on the hardware.
  • Object diagram: shows a complete or partial view of the structure of a modeled system at a specific time.
  • Package diagram: describes how a system is split up into logical groupings by showing the dependencies among these groupings.
  • Profile diagram: operates at the metamodel level to show stereotypes as classes with the <<stereotype>> stereotype, and profiles as packages with the <<profile>> stereotype. The extension relation (solid line with closed, filled arrowhead) indicates what metamodel element a given stereotype is extending.

Behaviour Diagrams

Behavior diagrams emphasize what must happen in the system being modeled. Since behavior diagrams illustrate the behavior of a system, they are used extensively to describe the functionality of software systems.

  • Use case diagram: describes the functionality provided by a system in terms of actors, their goals represented as use cases, and any dependencies among those use cases.
  • Activity diagram: describes the business and operational step-by-step workflows of components in a system. An activity diagram shows the overall flow of control.
  • state machine diagram: describes the states and state transitions of the system.

Interaction Diagrams

Interaction diagrams, a subset of behaviour diagrams, emphasize the flow of control and data among the things in the system being modeled:

  • Sequence diagram: shows how objects communicate with each other in terms of a sequence of messages. Also indicates the lifespans of objects relative to those messages.
  • Communication diagram: shows the interactions between objects or parts in terms of sequenced messages. They represent a combination of information taken from Class, Sequence, and Use Case Diagrams describing both the static structure and dynamic behavior of a system.
  • Interaction overview diagram: provides an overview in which the nodes represent communication diagrams.
  • Timing diagrams: a specific type of interaction diagram where the focus is on timing constraints.

UML Modelling Tools

To draw UML diagrams, all you need is a pencil and a piece of paper. However, for a software engineer that seems a little outdated, hence most of us will use tools. The simplest tools are simply drawing programs, like Microsoft Visio or Dia. The diagrams generated this way look nice, but are not really that useful, since they do not include the code generation feature.

Hence, when deciding on a UML modelling tool (sometimes also called CASE tool) you should make sure, that it allows for code generation and even better, it should also allow for reverse engineering. Combined, these two are also referred to as round-trip engineering. Any serious tool should be able to do that. Finally, UML models can be exchanged among UML tools by using the XMI interchange format, hence you should check that your tool of choice supports this.

Since the Rational Software Corporation so to say 'invented' UML, the most well-known UML modelling tool is IBM Rational Rose. Other tools include Rational Rhapsody, Visual Parardigm, MagicDraw UML, StarUML, ArgoUML, Umbrello, BOUML, PowerDesigner, Visio and Dia. Some of popular development environments also offer UML modelling tools, i. e. Eclipse, NetBeans, and Visual Studio.

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Last modified: Thursday, May 13, 2021, 9:13 PM