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Couple of weeks back I attended a conference on business rules. Needless to say there were technologies on display that were brilliant to say the least.

There were presentations by some of the most well known people in the business rules community. Personally I found Professor Simchi-Levi and Steve Demuth’s presentations quite brilliant. Both of them emphasized on the need of using optimization tools alongwith business rules to make a business more agile. And I totally agree with them. Agility is of utmost importance in today’s world and it should be considered by each and every business.

Professor Jan Vanthienen’s presentation on decision tables was simply brilliant. He was lucid in his explanations and easily got across to people, some of whom did not have much experience in business rules. Sun Microsystem’s presentation on how they used a rules based strategy for risk mitigation was also very interesting. 

The ones I mentioned above were the ones that I found particularly interesting. But all the presentations had to offer some pearls of wisdom.

And of course, there were some fantastic products on display. The big ones like Ilog and Fair Isaac’s Blaze Advisor displayed their latest versions that offered many advanced features. Also there were some smaller players like Delta-[R] and InRule whose products were also equally interesting. Open source was represented by JBoss Drools and Open Rules. Needless to say, the guys at Drools and Open Rules have quite compelling propositions. Open Rules for instance allows business rules to be specified in spreadsheets and have application code evaluted against these spreadsheets!!! Quite a novel way of thinking and doing things. Spreadsheets are, after all, the most popular tool amongst business users.

A common drawback of all the systems was the lack of migration capabilities. For instance if you are running Ilog and want to switch to Open Rules, there isn’t any easy migration paths available. Most of the vendors did offer to do the migrations for me but none had a software solution. The question is why? And the answers seems to be lying in the lack of standards in business rules.

Till now every rules engine vendor has its own proprietary way of handlling rules. There are no standards for this. The Object Management Group (OMG) is currently working on a specification for business rules. This is called Semantics of Business Vocabulary and Business Rules or SBVR. SBVR seems to be a step in the right direction but it is still far away from being accepted as the standard by all the vendors. 

Quite a few people are of the opinion that standards would hurt the profitability of the rules engine vendors. I think its actually the opposite. Standards always give the users a certain peace of mind when using technology products. Take for instance the Java Enterprise Edition platform or JEE. JEE is essentially a specification and different vendors like Red Hat, Oracle and IBM offer servers that are compliant with this specification. Are these companies any less profitable? The benefit of standards far surpasses the disadvantages. A standards based approach is always more attractive to users since they can choose to move on to a different product in future. This flexibility, even though not commonly exercised, is very important. 

Business rules should adopt the path taken by JEE and have a community driven process to develop standards and also coax vendors to make their products compliant. The vendors, on their part, can offer added features and services that can make the life of a user easier. That’s what would determine which product is better than the others. For now, due to the lack of standards, an apples-to-apples comparison of different rules products is difficult.

Business rules are used by some of the largest companies in their mission critical applications. The potential that business rules has is huge. However, to live up to its full potential, business rules needs to have standards and they need those standards soon.