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Selecting the right business rules management system

At first glance, most business rules management systems look alike. Dig deeper to uncover niche capabilities and appropriate prices, experts say.

Although business rules management system (BRMS) tools are maturing, not all of them are created equal. Enterprise...

architects and developers can choose from about 20 BRMS products among large vendors, open source projects, standalone platforms and integrated suites. Experts say only a few features differentiate each from the other, with price being the most obvious one.

The competition between products revolves around relationships with vendors or price competition, according to Forrester analyst John Rymer. "People get a lot of the same features, regardless of price, vendor, or .NET versus Java," said Rymer, Forrester's vice president and principal analyst for application development and delivery.

Typically, businesses choose business rules management tools tailored to their legacy environments or their markets, said Rymer. For example, InRule offers the richest .NET choice. IBM and Red Hat (JBoss) have the strongest feature sets in standalone products. Some financial firms favor FICO Blaze Advisor. Those looking for simplicity often choose Open Rules, which lets users keep their business rules in Google Docs or Excel spreadsheets. And those are only a few of the vendors providing a BRMS. Here are points to consider when evaluating a BRMS tool.

Examine the vendor roadmap. Although BRMS products have similarities, be careful when evaluating each one, Rymer said. One thing to be aware of is the vendor's roadmap. Is the vendor investing in additional functionality? "You want to be satisfied that the vendor's approach will meet your needs," he added.

Another consideration is the product's ability to scale, Rymer said. The product you choose needs to support high scale in terms of rule sets, volumes of cases and numbers of users. "Some vendors have more experience than others with very high scales," he said.

Weigh the cost of a BRMS product. Many organizations choose a BRMS product based on cost. That's not a terrible idea in this area. "If the products have a high degree of parity, why buy the Cadillac?" Rymer said.

IBM's BRMS line, called Operational Decision Manager (ODM), has a very rich feature set and relatively high price tag, said Rymer. For many organizations, that might be overkill, he said. In some cases, the lower-cost commercial versions of open source products may be enough. Then again, said consultant Justin Phillips, IBM ODM suits those looking for more analytics and complex event processing. "You can look at different streams of data and act on rules," said Phillips, senior business rules consultant at BP3 Global Inc., a business process management (BPM) consultancy. IBM's analytics -- and analytics in general -- are still a new area for BRMS, he added.

If the products have a high degree of parity, why buy the Cadillac?
John RymerForrester analyst

Red Hat's JBoss is the commercial distribution of the open source BRMS tool Drools, and Open Rules is pure open source. Both of these have administration tools and other functions that make them viable options, but without the richness of IBM, Corticon or FICO, Rymer said.

"Open source rules engines and rules management suites tend to be more developer-focused," said Rob Dunie, research director, BPM at Gartner. Although some platforms offer community versions, most also offer a pay-for-support enterprise version -- which can dilute cost savings but add peace of mind if the BRMS is part of a mission-critical application, he said.

Know the users before purchasing. The identity of the target user plays a major role when deciding to buy BRMS products, according to Dunie. Some tools are more citizen-developer focused, allowing end users to work with forms and visual composition environments to create, test, simulate, manage and administer the software. Others are more IT-developer focused and may not have the simulation, testing and integration capabilities beyond an API, he said.

Performance, platform choices need attention. The last thing an organization needs is a service layer that can slow down decisions being invoked frequently or using a lot of data. In those cases, it may not make sense to implement business rules as a service and to head straight for a direct integration with an API, according to Dunie.

In addition, platforms are a consideration. The majority of tools are Java-based, with a much smaller number being in .NET, Dunie said.

Ultimately, for enterprise architects and developers who may not be using the product beyond implementation, considering business requirements and end users may be the smart way to go. Performance and environment are also important, as is cost, but it does come down to the comfort level of business users to change rules.

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What do you think is the most crucial element of a business rules management system?
I think it's the ability to create, implement and execute test cases for apps in development. This helps the engineers find and pinpoint the areas where code needs cleaning.

Being business user friendly is in my mind the most important element of a BRMS along with ease of porting rules from current application to the BRMS system

The ability to process large collections of facts both up and down the hierarchy from the transaction with complete testability. The ability to process and access these facts within the decision goes beyond and mitigates the limitations of the quite primitive decision table rules implementations. There are not many BRMS that I know have this depth of capability but there is one that I use that does have this capability.
SteveWalkley1, what do you use and what do you see as its pros/cons?
To my mind, BRMS tools are only as valuable as the level of operational integration they can provide. BRMS tools alone aren't terribly valuable otherwise.