Lunatech

Decision service architecture with JBoss Rules

By Peter Hilton on 14 December 2009  Drools

This article describes an architecture for implementing a decision service with JBoss Rules, a business rules engine. This is a high-level description, without code, for architects who are considering using JBoss Rules or implementing a decision service.

This article is part 1 of a series:

  1. Decision service architecture with JBoss Rules - this article
  2. Decision service business rules in JBoss Rules - how to implement the decision service logic
  3. How to build a decision service using JBoss Rules Execution Server - how to get this working, with example rules - a RESTful decision service with no Java code required.

Decision services

A decision service is some kind of software component that acts as a business logic black box: other parts of a system present it with data, it makes potentially-complex business 'decisions' and returns some result. Typically, this is a component of a service-oriented architecture that encapsulates the business logic required to make business decisions, and which is called by applications that do not contain this logic themselves. In such an architecture, this communication typically uses web services.

For example, imagine a hypothetical retailer that has point of sale systems in many locations, as well as a web shop. A decision service would be useful for calculating which discounts apply to a particular sale, using rules that could change daily based on time-limited special offers. (Aren't they always?) The 'checkout' system would send details of the order to the decision service, which would apply business rules and calculate a result in the form of a percentage discount.

Another example is product configuration, such as a web site that allows you to build your own PC by choosing components such as motherboard, processor, graphics card and enclosure (case). A user-interface would allow the buyer to make selections, the business rules would work out which combinations are valid, and tell the user-interface which options to disable. For example, if you select a powerful graphics card with its own fan, then you cannot select the smallest PC enclosure: only a larger tower has room.

Note that this is about accessing remote business logic rather than accessing remote data, such as a particular customer's purchase history.

JBoss Rules

JBoss Rules (also known as Drools), part of the JBoss Enterprise Business Rules Management System, is a business rules platform built around a rules engine. There are many different usage scenarios for this kind of platform: building a decision service is perhaps the simplest.

There are several reasons why JBoss Rules is an especially useful component in a decision service architecture. For example, it can run in a high-performance stateless mode, for use in a request-response pattern from multiple simultaneous clients. Secondly, the Drools Rule Language has a clear syntax for authoring rules, which are the core of the decision service implementation. Declarative business rules are usually far easier to read and verify than traditional procedural code. It is also possible to implement complex business logic as a large number of small independent rules, which also makes them easier to read and test.

In addition, JBoss Rules provides both an Execution Server that you can use as a simple/prototype decision service out of the box, as well as a flexible Java API (programming interface) for integrating the rules engine into your own application.

In this scenario, JBoss Rules is a rules engine in the form of a Java library. Your decision service accepts web services request and uses the rules engine's API to execute the business rules.

Technical architecture

JBoss Rules provides an out-of-the-box way to get started with this architecture, without writing any Java code. The Execution Service is included in the JBoss Rules distribution as drools-server-5.0.1.war - a web application that you can run in any Servlet container, such as Apache Tomcat. This web application provides a default RESTful web services interface to your business rules, which you write using the Drools Rule Language.

To use this service, you send data as XML in an HTTP POST request to the execution server, which takes care of passing the data to the rules engine, executing the rules, and formatting the results as an XML response. The Execution Server also supports JSON as an alternative to XML.

Either way, this is ideal for calling the decision service from a non-Java client, such as an Ajax web page or another programming language.

In this design, JBoss Rules executes the rules using a stateless session. This means that no state is preserved between requests to the decision service. Instead, if you repeat the same request, you get the same response each time, which allows the rules engine to optimise performance and makes testing far easier.

The Execution Server is just a single Servlet with a fixed data model for input and output. If you look at the code, it is not difficult to imagine replacing it with extended functionality and customising it for your needs.

Extending the architecture

Once beyond a proof of concept, or an initial version, various kinds of enhancement are interesting and possible. To have more control over the external web services API, you can replace the Execution Server with your own RESTful (JAX-RS) or SOAP (JAX-WS) interface.

You may also want to improve performance or simplify the API by embedding the decision service directly as a component in another application, such as a web application, that will call your Java code directly.

Or perhaps you want all of the above.

On a recent implementation project with one of our customers, we used just the far-right path: application uses SOAP API to call decision service facade.

Either way, you would encapsulate the rules engine API and your rules as a single service interface or facade class.

Domain fact object model

The data model, defined as a Java class model, is the common factor across the architecture components. You will need a set of JavaBeans that define this data model for use in several places.

  1. The classes define an XML representation for sending data across web services. This is typically based on a mapping from the JavaBeans using JAXB.
  2. The classes are used as Data Transfer Objects between the decision service's external (web services) interface and the rules engine.
  3. Instances of these classes will be used as 'working memory facts' in the rules session. When the rules execute, the working memory is the set of data that the rules reason about and modify, consisting of facts, which are Java objects that each represent some assertion.

In another application, these same JavaBeans may also define a persistent data model for storing data in a database - typically an object-relational mapping using JPA. A decision service, however, is usually stateless and has no persistent data store because.

Although in some sense this is necessarily an Anemic Domain Model, because the business logic resides in the rules, these need not be entirely bare JavaBean classes. When writing rules, it is frequently easier to implement derived data as additional JavaBean properties in the object model. For example, if a fact JavaBean has a (date) 'start date' property, it may be more convenient to add a transient Boolean property for whether the start date is a weekday that rules can refer to directly, without having to calculate it.

Conclusion

A decision service can be an effective way to extract business logic from multiple applications and system components, in order to reduce duplication and make testing easier. When implemented using a rules engine, these rules may be expressed more clearly and concisely, which makes them easier to read and maintain.

JBoss Rules provides an Execution Server that allows you get started quickly, either as a proof of concept or in order to implement a basic decision service without writing any Java code. The same rules can be accessed using the JBoss Rules Java API, which allows you to embed this decisions service in a Java application, or to customise the decision service's external interface by making it into a new Java application with a Java web-services interface.

Peter Hilton is a senior software developer at Lunatech Research.