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Information Architecture

For many applications, information architecture and data modelling is limited to providing the application logic a means of robust persistence. Thus the design of the information architecture is driven purely by application logic and programming concerns. However for effective business management systems of the class we are concerned with, we must assume that the data is valuable in its own right and carries uses beyond the simple transaction processing logic of the system.

Data is a first class concern for our overall approach to business management system design. We predicate this elevation of importance on the following assumptions:

  • The business management system database will be the system of record for the majority of material business records. This may be on a company, divisional, or departmental basis.

  • Third party applications will need to consume data and may produce data which properly is recorded in the system of record database. There may be many such applications.

  • We expect that the third party reporting and business intelligence tools will be used to provide specialized presentations and insights into the data.

  • The business management system we build may be subordinate to more fundamental business management system which acts as the system of record. This will likely be true if our application is only supporting a division or department of a larger organization.

In all of these cases we’re describing scenarios where our business management system is planned to be part of a larger ecosystem of collaborating applications. This is called the “best-of-breed” approach to business systems architecture and is common feature of enterprise applications deployments.

1 - Data Organization

Business Management Systems often contain a large number of relations, often into the hundreds of database tables, with some systems exceeding one thousand relations. And while the number of relations required to support the broad functional concerns of the typical business management system can be large, this data can be generalized into a relatively small handful of categories of data.

Principal Classifications

Most broadly speaking, our basic data breaks down into “business domain objects”: the records defining customers, products, warehouses, etc. which the application users maintain as needed; and “transactions” records: the recorded actions which are taken by the business referencing the business domain objects. We can refine these broad definitions further.

Master Data

Master Data are relations which enumerate business domain objects along with the attributes which configures each object for use by the system. The Master Data establishes the definition of the business domain object in the system. Examples of Master Data include relations defining Entities, Relationships, and Products.

The primary trait of each Master Data record is that it represents information which is true “now”, meaning in the current moment. If the business domain object represented by a Master Record changes, such as a customer changing its mailing address, the Master Data record is changed to reflect the new reality so that at any given moment a Master Data record represents the authoritative definition of the specific business domain object being described. When the Master Record changes, there is no sense of history kept; the record behaves as if the updated data was always the data.

Master Data records have life-cycle stages which determine how they can be used by the system. These stages can be generalized as:

  • Preliminary Planning

    In this stage the record exists, may be needed for certain longer range planning usage, but isn’t available for regular transaction processing or reporting. This life-cycle stage indicates future intention.

  • Regular Use (Active)

    Records in this stage are actively used in daily business activities and reporting.

  • Obsolescence

    Over time, some records will represent specific business domain objects which are planned to go out of use. As that time approaches, certain transaction processing should cease (e.g. purchasing transactions), while others remain available as the Out of Use stage approaches.

  • Out of Use (Inactive)

    At the end of the Obsolescence stage, the record is not available for use in regular transaction processing. The record will still be visible to business users as there is expected to be historical/reporting relevance.

  • Purge Eligible

    Once the record is no longer referenced by prior transaction histories, the record may become eligible to be deleted from the database outright. It is important to reiterate that any existing transaction history referencing the record should prevent this stage from being reached to keep the data integral.

While all Master Data follows these general stages, any specific Master Data record or relation may only do so informally within the business nor will the business management system always have well defined recognition of these stages. The business management system may provide alternative stage names, subdivide the stages, or allow the definition of the recognized stages to be configured as suits the specific purpose at hand. In all cases however, the stages as listed are the functionally distinct stages which will matter during the course of executing application logic.

Because Master Data records are reused during the course of multiple business activities, Master Data relations will constitute significantly less of the overall application data retained when compared to other kinds of data. Record counts may be low, in the tens of records, but may commonly be in the thousands of records. It is feasible, though rare, for some Master Data relations to grow into the

Supporting Data

Supporting Data relations carry records which exist to support other, more fundamental, kinds of data such Master Data or Transaction Data. Supporting data is Master Data-like in that the records also posses the Master Data primary trait of being a representation of the present state of the Supporting Data.

Supporting Data comes in some basic sub-types:

  • Simple Enumerations

    Most (if not all) business management systems use “lists of values” to provide predefined acceptable values used by attributes in our primary data records. Examples of these Simple Enumerations include, lists of available order statuses, approval process states, and product categorization.

    It is not uncommon for business management systems to allow many of these Simple Enumerations to be configured, as needed, by the user as current business requirements dictate. While user management of Simple Enumerations suggests the possibility of life-cycle stages, most often the business management system mandates that all values existing as records of the Simple Enumeration are considered “Active” and the records are simply deleted when no longer of use. Naturally, systems which recognize all existing records as “Active” should only allow for the deletion of Simple Enumeration records when such records are no longer referenced.

  • Quantitative Data

    For certain Master Data records, it can be convenient to track summarized Quantitative Data. Consider the simplified example of a Master Data relation defining products sold from a single warehouse. While the Master Data records for a product will define the configuration of the product, there is also Quantitative Data such as how much quantity on hand of the product is currently present, the value of the product on hand, etc.

    Any one Quantitative Data record will always correspond to a single Master Data “parent” record. This data could be stored in the same relation as the corresponding Master Data, and in some business management systems it is. However, there can be technical considerations for storing this quantitative data separately using Quantitative Data relations. Quantitative Data tends to be updated much more frequently than the corresponding Master Data; this can give rise to lock contention in the database due to the competing uses. In addition Quantitative Data usually consists of a small number of numeric fields taking much less space per row than the corresponding Master Data, which can have many more fields including text fields; since updating a row causes the copying of all row data, we can be more efficient by separating our frequently changing data from our infrequently changing data.

    Quantitative Data doesn’t express any sort of life-cycle stages. Any Quantitative Data record will assume the life-cycle stage of its corresponding Master Data parent record.

Supporting Data retention needs are of trivial concern in the broader context of the application as a whole.

Transaction Data

Transaction Data relations describe specific instances of business activity. Examples of Transaction Data include sales orders, order fulfillment and shipping, customer and vendor invoices, and customer support tickets. Transaction Data records depend on Master Data and make use of Supporting Data to describe these business activities.

The primary trait of Transaction Data is that each Transaction Data record represents an instance of a business activity which is finite in time. While the business activity is underway, the Transaction Data records allow for the coordination of the business operations required to execute the business activity. Once the business activity is concluded the Transaction Data acts as a historical reference as to what business operations were performed, to provide data for later analysis, and the support the resolution of any later disputes that might arise related to the performance of the business activity.

Transaction Data has a generalized life-cycle consisting of the following stages:

  • Preliminary Planning

    During this stage, a Transaction Data record is being authored, awaiting approvals, or otherwise not yet actionable. During this time the Transaction Data record is not generally visible to business operations or involved third parties.

  • In Progress (Open)

    Once all preliminary work is completed the Transaction Data record may be opened and made visible/usable to the various business operations, including third parties if appropriate, that will work the transaction to completion. Arriving in this stage may be given a number of names: “opening”, “releasing”, “posting”, etc. they all indicate that the Transaction Data record is actionable.

  • Cancelled

    Certain kinds of opened business activities may be terminated prior to successful completion. When this happens the Transaction Data record is no longer actionable and becomes part of the historical record, but only insofar as unsuccessful activities are concerned.

    Note that this ending stage is only appropriate for business activities which never reached any state of completion. Some business activities may be partially successful, for example a sales order which shipped 5 out of 10 units of an ordered item. All business activities which are partially completed prior to termination are, for our purposes, not considered cancelled.

    At the point of being Cancelled, the Transaction Data record should be considered immutable, except for the possibility of deletion once the record is no longer useful for reporting or analytics.

  • Closed

    Upon the successful, or partially successful, completion of a business activity, the associated Transaction Data record will be considered “Closed”. Closed transactions are not eligible for further business operations to be performed and the Transaction Data becomes part of the historical record for analysis and reference purposes.

    Closed Transaction Data records may be referenced by new, related Transactions. For example a closed sales order reference may be required to process a new customer return transaction.

    At the point of being Closed, the Transaction Data record should be considered immutable, except for the possibility of deletion once the record is no longer useful for reporting or analytics.

  • Purge Eligible

    Transaction Data records may be purged when their history is no longer relevant to supporting business reporting or analysis. Such records may be set as eligible to be purged by any process or batch job which runs to delete the records from the database. The conditions which allow Transaction Data records to become Purge Eligible are:

    1. Either already in the Preliminary Planning, Closed, or Cancelled life-cycle stages.

    2. Are not referenced by other Transaction Data records which are not themselves Purge Eligible.

    In practice, Transaction Data in the Preliminary Planning and Cancelled stages have little barrier to being purged from the system, but Closed transactions will usually have time based constraints on Purge Eligibility; detailed Transaction Data must be retained for various periods of time to support financial and tax audits and for reference when communicating with different business partners.

Transaction Data constitutes the majority of the data retained by the application. Care must be taken in structuring and managing this data at the database level to ensure acceptable application performance in operations, reporting, and analytics. Transaction Data relations can reach into the billions of records for the class of application contemplated here.

Secondary Classifications

There are some classes of data which exist for technical reasons and/or are optional components which are not essential to business management system operations.

Analytic Data

Analytic Data exists to facilitate reporting and analytic workloads. The Analytic Data consists of summarized Transaction Data with some facts drawn from the Master Data. In terms of structure, Analytic Data resembles typical data warehousing tables which serve the same purpose.

The goals of Analytic Data in the business management system includeL

  • Allowing for the long term reporting of otherwise Purge Eligible Transaction data.

  • Providing the means to reporting contextually relevant Analytic Data within the user interface of the business management system. Examples might include monthly customer sales on a customer form or weekly sales of items on an item form.

It is not a goal of business management system Analytic Data to make proper data warehouses and analytic tools unnecessary. Maintaining Analytic Data in the transaction processing system does come with database and application performance penalties. Taking in-application Analytic Data too far risks overall application usability; choosing what Analytic Data should be available in the application must be done with care.

When Analytic Data doesn’t enhance the normal transaction processing functions of the application, but may still be of analytic value within the business, a data warehouse solution with the appropriate reporting tools should be considered.

Analytic Data may constitute a significant portion of the overall data retained in the database, but should still be smaller than the Transaction Data (assuming the limitations on Analytic Data capture previously discussed).

System Data

There is a need to retain certain data simply to facilitate the technical operations of the business management system itself. This is the role of System Data. System Data can include relations for system oriented configurations and relations that exist to manage user logins or auditing.

Typically System Data will consume an insignificant amount of data storage space.

2 - Business Relationships

The modelling of business relationships has evolved over time, moving from rather simple and naive ideas to more correct representations of real world business relationships. Here we examine this history and establish

Historical Perspective

When working within a company, it is not uncommon to think about “our customers”, “our vendors”, “our partners”, and “our employees” as though these are specific kinds of distinct entities. However these terms are not describing classes of entities, but are describing relationships that exist between two entities, our company (an Entity in its own right) and the external party. This distinction between thinking of a “customer” as an entity vs. thinking of the “customer” as a relationship is subtle, but appreciating the nuance of the distinction can lead to important insights in how we might build business management systems.

Understanding the history of modelling business relationships can inform our approach to Business Relationships and allow for capabilities which more representative models bring.

Early Models

Many early business management systems were designed using the naive, but common sense approach of representing customers, vendors, etc. as specific kinds of entities. These systems would implement each kind of entity with different kinds of records (tables) in the system:

Early BRM Information Architecture

This works well enough in most cases, but the real world is more complicated than this model allows. For example a single external company may be a customer in some transactions, but also a vendor in others.

Under the early business systems model you would have to create two records to handle a situation like the example just discussed, one for the external company as customer and one for it as vendor; including duplicating all of the common attributes such as company name, addresses, etc. But maintenance of duplicated data is only one of the practical issues that arises out of this model. Representing single, external companies with multiple, unrelated records in the business system also partitions the knowledge of the complete relationship with the external company. The only way to create the complete picture in a such a system is to know outside of the system that the relationship with the external company is multi-faceted and to run independent (or specially constructed) reports to combine outside of the system.

Recent Models

While these complex relationships with external companies are not the most common scenario, they happen frequently enough that business systems evolved an improved model of business relationships. The updated model represents the external company as an Entity in the same sense that we defined in the Business Relationships section while associating it with a record which represents the relationship:

Later BRM Information Architecture

This recent model much more closely matches the reality of business relationships found in the real world and is probably the most common model adopted by currently popular business systems.

Many older business systems which were originally designed using the early model simply tacked on the “Entity” record type and linked it to the preexisting records representing entity classes. In these cases the business system typically only allows a single customer/vendor/etc. relationship to be defined for any single Entity. However in practice, though rare, there exist scenarios where a single, large external Entity can have multiple, simultaneously active Relationships of the same kind with the first party Entity; this happens when the corporate structure of the external Entity is organized into substantially independent divisions or departments. This forces the users of these systems to create Entities representing the divisions/departments independently; naturally incurring the cost that a full view of the Entity is effectively broken.

Indeed, while the more recent models of business relationship data do reflect real world realities of this data better, they still fail to model the most advanced scenarios and extended business organizations which are seen in practice. This weakness stems from an implicit assumption in the recent models that ideas such as customer or vendor are simply an extension of the Entity’s description: the Entity “is a” customer, the Entity “is a” vendor. While better than the old model where the customer/vendor/etc. ideas represented completely different entities, the recent models still fail to appreciate what we’re actually modelling.

Our Approach

The reason the recent models described above succeed as well as they do is that the model isn’t wrong, it’s merely incomplete. Properly understood, the recent model is not describing an Entity with its extensions into more topically focused descriptions where needed, it’s really modelling an Entity which has different Relationships with an implied, unmodelled Entity: the first party Entity or “us”.

Later Implicit BRM Information Architecture

By recognizing and being mindful that we are modelling Entities and the Relationships between them, and making that explicit in the data modelling, we can avoid the limitations of assuming too many facts about reality.

Explicit Model

Our basic modelling technique makes the complete Relationship picture explicit in the data model.

Final BRM Information Architecture

However, because we are not assuming an implicit Entity “us”, we can model relationships between arbitrary Entities. This becomes useful when we want to use our business system to manage the businesses of multiple Entities. For example, consider a company with subsidiaries; each subsidiary may operate with significant independence, yet each subsidiary’s financials are consolidated with the parent company and may act as a group in some scenarios, such as purchasing. In cases such as that, being able to explicitly model Entity/Entity Relationships allows the use of the same business system for management activities across the conglomerate while also allowing independence where needed. This same-system/independent-existence property of our model can facilitate other business structures, but those will be discussed elsewhere.