Ideas on Enterprise Information Systems Development

This blog is devoted to ideas on Enterprise Information Systems (EIS) development. It focuses on Lean Thinking, Agile Methods, and Free/Open Source Software, as means of improving EIS development and evolution, under a more practical than academical view. You may find here a lot of "thinking aloud" material, sometimes without scientific treatment... don't worry, this is a blog!
Every post is marked with at least one of Product or Process labels, meaning that they are related to execution techniques (programming and testing) or management techniques (planning and monitoring), respectively.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Enterprise Information Systems Patterns - Part V

Decorators X Subclasses
In the previous post, I redefined the level of abstraction for the framework, and now it is time to discuss a bit about Decorators. In order to facilitate the communication, a simple UML Class Diagram is provided by Figure 1, representing the structure after this redefinition.

Figure 1: UML Class Diagram of the new structure

In Figure 1, each of the (now) three abstract concepts (resource, node, movement) has two "opposite" subclasses (operation X material, person X machine, transformation X transportation) and one aggregator subclass (kit, organization, process). It is important to note that  aggregators are Composite objects.

By (re)checking the Decorator pattern documentation, both on Wikipedia and on the classic book from Gamma and colleagues, we can find that:
- While subclassing adds behavior to all instances of the original class, decorating can provide new behavior, at runtime, for individual objects. At runtime means that decoration is a "pay-as-you-go" approach to adding responsibilities.
- Using decorators allows mix-and-matching of responsibilities.
- Decorator classes are free to add operations for specific functionalities.
- Using decorators facilitates system configuration, however, typically, it is necessary to deal with lots of small objects.

Therefore, by using decorators it is possible to, during a business process realization, create an object, associate and/or dissociate different responsibilities to it - in accordance to the process logic, and log all this. In that way, I have two main benefits:
i) The same object, with the same identifier, is used during the whole business process, there is no need for creating different objects of different classes.
ii) Given (i), auditing is facilitated, since it is not necessary to follow different objects, instead, the decoration of the same object is logged. Moreover, it is possible to follow a single object during all its life-cycle, including through different business process: after an object is created and validated - meaning that it reflects a real-world business entity - it will keep its identity forever.

Thus, the benefits of using Decorators are:
i) More dynamic and flexible enterprise systems, through the use of configuration and pay-as-you-go features.
ii) Easier auditing, given the fact that objects keep their class and identification while get new responsibilities.

An example
To better understand this, I will use a simple example: a teacher & researcher career. Let's suppose in our institution we have two kinds of teachers, the 20-hour and the 40-hour. While the first one is supposed only to teach, the second is also a researcher, and therefore holds more responsibilities. Given that there is vacancy, a teacher can change from one to another category. Since both types are "teachers", the ordinary object oriented solution would be to create a basic class named Teacher, which would hold the common features of the teaching career, and two subclasses, named 20-hour Teacher and 40-hour Teacher. With this architecture, I can see no simple solution than creating objects of the different classes and copying attributes back and forth every time someone changed his/her option of working 20 or 40 hours.

Moreover, imagine that teachers can also be assigned to administrative positions, such as department dean or university president, with a lot of new responsibilities associated, while still teaching. Keeping track of all these assignments and withdraws of responsibilities would be complex and error-prone. Also, I like to think that being a dean is getting a new responsibility, instead of becoming a different type of employee, in special when we think that this is a temporary assignment.

Now imagine that we have Persons and I decorate them as they are assigned to  new responsibilities. In that way one can use the same object to register all career assignments: 20-hour, 40-hour, dean who still teaches, and even represent some administrative employee who teaches in a specific course - without loosing his/her attributions in the university's management. Teaching, researching, and administering would be decorators that could be associated and dissociated to objects as the business processes require (pay-as-you-go).

Another point is that each decorator must keep a set of rules of association, which is responsible for allowing or prohibiting objects to be assigned to responsibilities. Each "decorated" object is also responsible for keeping a record of its responsibilities (bi-directional relationship). If a given object respects the rules of association of a given decorator, it can be decorated by it, allowing a very flexible way of creating new "types" (mix-and-match).

This reasoning is also valid for other concepts, for instance, a given manufacturing cell (Machine), can run new operations as new tools are attached to it. The same is valid for organizations, as new machines and persons are associated to it.

An interesting point on using decorators is when we think of business entities ruled by laws and regulations, such as contracts, government agencies, or even governmental economic measures: as regulation or environment changes, things can be added and/or deleted from the entities' scope. Rule/Law decorators can be programmed to function during certain period of time, detaching themselves from the decorated objects when this period is over. As an example of this last case, let's think of a tax refunding mechanism that is valid only during recession periods and for specific types of sales.

Of course, a problem is that we have to deal with a potentially big set of decorators. However, given the mix-an-match possibilities of decoration, this number is smaller than the number of classes that would be created to map all possible combinations. Using an extreme example, if I have three concepts that can, each one, be assigned to four responsibilities, we would have 12 classes - and possibly by the use of multiple inheritance. By using decorators we would have 3 classes and 4 decorators, or 7 entities to manage (in 12 possible combinations, of course).

Said that, the next step is to discuss the rules of association and details for implementing decorators.

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