Product review: Changing the rules

Defining, implementing, and maintaining business rules in the enterprise typically is left up to developers and database administrators, who include such rules in software applications and data sources across the enterprise. The effort needed to maintain accurate business rules this way can increase costs and create resource bottlenecks along the way. For example, when market dynamics call for price changes and you need to wait for IT to adjust your sales rules, you could lose revenue while waiting for resources to make the needed changes.

HNC Software Inc.’s Blaze Advisor 4.0 is a unique rules management solution that enables business users and IT to work together to manage the business rules of multiple enterprise applications and data sources in a unified way. By giving IT and business users the ability to jointly maintain rules, along with the capability to reuse rule logic across the enterprise, Blaze Advisor will help reduce the cost of maintaining business rules in the enterprise. This is an improvement over other approaches, such as using tools available in individual midtier and back-end solutions because Blaze Advisor manages rules for all enterprise apps and data sources in a single solution. This will save IT and business users a lot of time.

But Blaze Advisor is a bit pricey for some budgets. At US$25,000 per developer and with deployment costs that can range from US$150,000 to upwards of a million dollars, the solution is best suited to larger enterprises with frequently changing business processes and rules. For these types of enterprises, Blaze Advisor is a good investment as it will significantly save costs over the long term.

Blaze Advisor includes a development environment that is relatively easy to understand and learn, whether it is implemented on Unix or Windows platforms. The included tutorials and detailed documentation gave us a jump-start on creating and maintaining the business rules for our test apps. HNC does provide a weeklong training session for customers.

The development environment is appropriate for IT staffers or experienced business analysts. The interface metaphor is similar to many IDEs (integrated development environments) with a navigational pane, workspace pane, and an output pane that contains information during operations, such as a compilation.

Business analysts using the development environment will like that they can use a view when defining or maintaining rules that supports an English-like syntax, which makes rule definition and management that much easier. For example, we were quickly able to define multiple rule sets that determined the lines of credit that different customers might be offered.

Perhaps Blaze Advisor’s most impressive functionality is its support for the generation of rules maintenance applications. Once generated, these applications enable business users to maintain business rules over time via easy-to-understand Web-based interfaces.

For example, once we defined the rules for credit line availability at our test company, we used options available in the development environment to generate a rules maintenance application. We then could access and make changes to rule definitions, such as income levels and liability amounts, which might flux over time, via easy-to-use browser-based interfaces.

Support for rule maintenance apps reduces dependency on IT for rule management over time, thus reducing costs. In addition, businesses can more easily adjust business rules to meet changing market dynamics in less time.

Blaze Advisor supports a repository-based approach to rules definition and creation. Storage options include relational databases, such as Oracle or DB2, as well as JNDI (Java Naming and Directory Interface), LDAP, or file system-based repositories. We had no trouble implementing Oracle, JNDI, and file system-based implementations in our test environment.

New in this release of Blaze Advisor is support for Decision Tables. Using Decision Tables enables developers and business analysts to define business conditions and rule actions in a tabular form rather than writing rule sets.

Using rule sets to define our various lines of credit worked well. But when we wanted to define the conditions that affected pricing of various enterprise products, using a decision table was much easier and faster. This was due to the fact that the same product would be priced differently given certain customer conditions (such as volume).

Although a tad on the expensive side, Blaze Advisor is a powerful solution that promises to help enterprises gain the upper hand on business rules.

Ruling the Roost

Gartner Inc. outlines the key technical requirements for rules engines as they mature.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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