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Business Rules Forum: Full Fledged Kickoff!

Today the Business Rules Forum (BRF) kicked off for its 12th year.  Gladys Lam welcomed us and set the stage for an enlightening and engaging three days.  Jim Sinur (Gartner) gave the keynote address.  His expertise surrounding the entire field of Business Process Management (BPM), Business Rules Management (BRM) and Complex Event Processing (CEP) gives him significant insight into the industry and trends.

Jim’s talk was a call to action for product vendors and practitioners that the world has changed fundamentally and being able to leverage what he called “weak signals” and myriad events from many sources was becoming a requirement for successful business operations.  As always his talk was accompanied with a little humor and a lot of excellent supporting material.

During the day I attended three sessions and two of the vendor “Fun Labs”.  For me, the most interesting session of the ones I attended was given by Graham Witt (Ajlion).  He discussed his success with creating an approach of allowing business users to document rules using a structured natural language.  His basis was SBVR, but he reduced the complexity to create a practical solution.

Graham did a great job of walking us through a set of definitions for fact model, term, fact types and so forth. Using our understanding of the basic components of a structured rule he explored how one can take ambiguous statements, leverage the structure inherent in the fact model, and create an unambiguous statement that was still completely understandable to the business user.

His approach of creating templates for each type of rule made sense as a very effective method to give the business user the flexibility of expressing different types of rules while staying within a structured syntax.  This certainly seems like an approach to be explored for getting us closer to a DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself) process that moves rules from the requirements into the design and implementation phases of a rules-based project.

The vendor labs were also interesting.  I attended one run by Innovations Software Technology and another by RuleArts.

Innovation’s rule authoring and execution environment, called Visual Rules, turned out to be an interesting tool.  It is in its fourth major version, in this case being rewritten so that its development environment is within Eclipse.  The tool seemed well designed and mature.  It is certainly focused solely on BRM and really seemed more like a tool for developers or very technology-savvy business people.

Their hands-on lab was nicely designed so that students could work at their own pace and explore features of interest.  I dug around, particularly interested in refactoring capabilities, an area that I often find is weak in these tools, and was pleasantly surprised that refactoring works very well.  In fact the refactoring capabilities hook into the Eclipse API so that supporting Java code (object models being used by the rules) can be kept in sync as the rules are refactored.

Two other really great features are its integrated debugger where you can step through the rules, tracing visually through each part of the rule flow and its testing facility that monitors rule execution counts.  This essentially gives you a test coverage report.  This capability extends to the runtime environment so that you can get statistics on all rule executions from the deployed rules.

I ended my day by attending the fun lab for RuleXpress.  I have heard about RuleArt’s RuleXpress product for several years but since I am on the implementation end of rule projects I had never been in a position to use it.  I attended their lab and had the opportunity to see how it works.  It has a ways to go in order to be flexible enough to implement something like Graham Witt’s templates, but it certainly does a great job of allowing the business user to formalize vocabulary and rules.

Although users typically attend a three day course, we were able to try out several of its primary features in the two hour session.  It was clear that there were a lot of capabilities that we did not have the chance to explore.  For me, the major point of interest is RuleXpress’ XML-based export ability.  Receiving the rules in a structured form as input to a design phase would be valuable.  This is something I hope to have a chance to test over the next year.

Tomorrow I’m looking forward to attending another set of interesting sessions and at least one more fun lab.  My presentation is also tomorrow so I’ll have a chance to add my thinking to the ongoing BRF conversation.

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