Business Rules Management Part I - The Value of Externalizing Business Rules

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One of the signs that middleware is maturing is the market-driven architectural layering of functionality in the middleware stack. This advance mirrors the initial design purpose of isolating and partitioning functionality into a middleware layer separate from that of an application. Similarly, the resulting middleware component itself benefits from this separation process in which functionality can be efficiently and effectively shared across multiple calling applications. (An earlier example of this type of architectural maturation was the separation of portal applications (i.e. portlets) from portal framework infrastructure.)

Middleware maturation is now apparent in the specification and maintenance of business rules within a business process management (BPM) platform. Originally, the specification of business rules in a BPM application was accomplished through custom programming. Later those specifications were made through a forms-driven interface that enabled the creation of rules for routing of tasks, and validation and aggregation of data from application databases or the metadata being maintained in the BPM system. However, even after the introduction of forms-driven interfaces the specification of complex, decision-intensive business rules in a BPM application still required custom programming.

The ability to specify and execute sophisticated business rules without programming first evolved in the standalone Business Rules Engine (BRE) market, which initially served decision support systems and application developers. This market was the first to demonstrate the value of externalizing rules outside of a business application in enabling an increasingly agile business operation.

The BPM market has recently embraced external BREs. Evidence of this change is the fact that a number of BPM suppliers have formed partnerships with BRE suppliers such as Fair Isaac, ILOG, and Corticon. The goal is to seamlessly integrate more sophisticated BRE technology into BPM products enabling the separation of decision-making rules from the business process specification. The resulting advantages to the IT buyer include lowered business transaction costs, elimination of errors from implementing complex decisions, simplified process specifications, lower development costs, and faster deployment times. Additionally, simplified ongoing maintenance eases IT’s efforts to keep pace with a business’ changing operational policies for customer service, supply chain management, and financial management.

BPM applications such as healthcare claims processing, securities trading, taxation, telecommunications order management, and insurance policy underwriting are being built using a separate BRE to execute complex decision-making. In healthcare claims processing, the BRE handles processing rules such as claims pre-adjudication, pending claims resolution, and coordination of benefits. In securities trading, the BRE handles processing rules such as trade compliance, electronic trade matching, and event prioritization. In taxation, the BRE handles processing rules such as taxpayer classification, allowable exemptions, and tracking of non-filers. In telecommunications order management, the BRE handles the complex processing rules involved in service provisioning, activation/deactivation, and billing. In insurance policy underwriting, the BRE handles rules for assessing the risk factors of the applicant.

In each case, the BRE cuts the time needed to customize the final decision-making solution and stores the rules in a centralized repository that promotes easier maintenance and sharing of consistent rules across multiple BPM applications. Providing this rapid change capability enables companies to react to new requirements and opportunities as well as lowering the total cost of maintenance over the life of a BPM application.

The externalization of business rules processing in BMP applications represents one of a number of significant innovative steps toward delivering process-aware applications in a service-oriented-architecture. In this environment, developers and business analysts can deliver applications from a service layer that contains components directly mapped to distinct business domains. Service-oriented architectures are well documented to reduce the cost, complexity, and time to deploy flexible business applications.

Enabling externalized business rule processing to be defined as discoverable services will further advance the agility of a company’s operations. Part II will discuss the promise of deploying BRE applications as web services, what is still missing from current BRE-enabled BPM applications, what standards initiatives are underway to improve the interplay between BRE and BPM, and an emerging concept called “business rules modeling.”

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