Application Development Concepts

1. Summary

This chapter discusses how the declarative approach can be applied to application development by utilizing the logical model exposed by a relational database management system. It describes how this approach addresses the issues discussed in the Application Development Considerations chapter of this part, and how a declarative platform provides a foundation for Automated Application Development (AAD).

2. Application Schema

The logical model presented by a relational database management system allows for the complete definition of the structural components of any application. It allows for the definition of data types, operators, tables, views, and business-rules that together constitute the schema (or business model) of the application, and completely model the structure of the data, the integrity constraints to be enforced, as well as any process logic specific to the application. Collectively, this declarative definition of the application is called the application schema.

2.1. Data Types

Data types provide the fundamental unit of data representation within the logical model. They allow the developer to describe the types of data of interest to the application. Of course, the database system provides some basic data types such as strings and integers, but it should also allow for the definition of new data types of arbitrary complexity. For example, if the application must deal with spatial data, a coordinate type could be introduced to model geographic coordinates.

Conceptually, a data type is a set of values. These values have various kinds of representations such as the physical representation of the value that is internal to the system, and the logical representation of the value that is exposed in the application schema. This distinction allows the implementation, or physical representation, of values to be changed without affecting the usage of the value in the application schema. An ideal platform would allow not only for the definition of data types, but the description of the various representations of values of those types as well.

Once a data type is available in the schema of an application, that data type can be used anywhere within the application. It can serve as the type of a column in a table or view, it can be used within the definition of an operator as the declared type of a local variable, and it can also be used as the declared type of a parameter to an operator. By defining a data type, the application developer allows the system to model values of the type in question.

2.2. Operators

Operators allow the developer to define and reuse the behavior of the application. Conceptually, an operator is just a predefined set of steps to be taken. Once defined, an operator can be invoked from anywhere within the application. From an imperative programming standpoint, operators provide an abstraction over statements and expressions of the language, meaning that anywhere statements and expressions can appear, operator invocations can appear in their place.

For example, a distance operator could be defined to determine the distance between two coordinates. The entire application can then make use of the distance calculation, simply by invoking the operator. Whether in a restriction clause in a view definition, or deep within the processing logic of the application, the same operator can be used.

Operators generally come in two varieties, those that return values, and those that do not. Some languages make the distinction explicit by defining functions as operators that return values, and procedures as operators that do not. Others simply introduce a special void type to indicate that a given operator does not return a value. In either case, the concept is the same.

Operators are also allowed to take parameters, and can optionally update the values of those parameters (if the parameter is a variable, of course). Operators can take any number of parameters, including none, and those parameters are allowed to be of any type. The result of an operator, if any, is also allowed to be of any type.

Some operators are generally considered part of the language definition. These are generally called built-in operators and include such functions as + and -.

Because operators can appear anywhere statements and expressions can appear, they can be used to define other elements of the application schema. For example, operators can reference other operators, constraint and view definitions can invoke operators, and so on. Using operators, the developer can completely describe the required behavior of any application.

2.3. Tables and Views

Tables and views (or derived tables) provide the fundamental unit of structure within the logical model. Tables and views are both relation variables, differing only in how they are defined. A table is defined in terms of the columns it contains, while a view is defined in terms of some relational expression. Once defined, tables and views behave the same. They are interchangeable, meaning that anywhere a reference to a table can appear, a reference to a view can appear. In particular, this is true of data modification statements.

This feature of a relational system is called logical data independence and is one of the key enabling factors in automated application development. In particular, it means that the client portions of the application can always deal with data in the database in the same way. Whether that data is defined in terms of a base table, or an arbitrarily complex view, the application will always see a relation. This uniformity of data access allows much of the presentation layer to be completely automated.

As an example of logical data independence, consider a simple contact management application. Suppose the applications contains a customer table with a column for the associated region such as East Coast or West Coast. A view of east coast customers can be created using a simple restriction. The resulting view behaves exactly the same as the actual customer table, except that only east coast customers are available.

2.4. Business Rules

Business rules allow the developer to declaratively specify the meaning of the data in the model. Once the system knows what business-rules must be enforced, it is responsible for rejecting any modifications that would violate those rules.

Business-rules generally come in two varieties: constraints, and stimulus-response rules. Constraints specify some condition that must always hold, while stimulus-response rules allow the system to take action in response to some event such as a data modification.

2.4.1. Constraints

Constraints generally take the form of some expression that must evaluate to true. Constraints can be placed on data types, as well as on the database as a whole. For practical reasons, database constraints can be declared at many different levels. The following list illustrates these possibilities:

  • Type Constraints

  • Column Constraints

  • Row Constraints

  • Table Constraints

  • Transition Constraints

  • Database Constraints

Type constraints are concerned with defining the set of valid values of a given data type. For example, the SSN type could ensure that values of type SSN have 9 digits, with dashes in the appropriate places.

Column constraints are concerned with defining the set of valid values for a given column. Of course, this constraint is in addition to the implicit constraint defined by the data type of the column.

Row constraints allow the developer to specify constraints that are concerned with multiple columns in a single row. For example, the ToDate must be greater than the FromDate.

Table constraints define the valid values for a particular table. A common example of a table constraint is a key constraint, indicating that no two rows in the same table may have the same values for the columns in the key.

Transition constraints define the valid transitions for data in the database. For example, a person’s marital status may change from married to divorced, but not from married to single.

Database constraints allow rules to be enforced that involve multiple tables in the database. A common example of a database constraint is a referential integrity constraint, indicating that every row in one table must have a corresponding row in another table.

The majority of business-rules are constraints, and a system which allowed for the declarative enforcement of all these types of constraints would eliminate a significant amount of development effort. Rather than enforcing these rules on a case-by-case basis within the presentation layer, the system would simply ensure that no modification is allowed that would violate any declared rule. The result is that the presentation layer can be developed without regard for enforcing integrity.

2.4.2. Stimulus-Response Rules

Stimulus-Response rules allow the developer to participate in the decisions to be made when modifications occur in the system. For example, an inventory control system could automatically place an order whenever the in-stock quantity of an item falls below a certain level.

2.5. Metadata

In addition to these elements of the logical model, the schema of a given application could be extended with additional data about the data or metadata. These attributes (or tags) would allow application-specific information to be associated with any level of the application schema. For example, a phone number data type could include a metadata tag indicating that the display title for columns of this type is Phone #.

By associating this metadata directly with the application schema it becomes available anywhere within the application, rather than tucked away in the definition of various forms in the presentation layer. This centralization improves the maintenance cycle as well. For example, if the title is supposed to be Phone #/Ext, the change can be made one time in the application schema, and the presentation layer would react to the change appropriately.

This association with the application schema would also allow the relational system’s type inference mechanism to be extended to include metadata inference. For example, the metadata associated with a column definition in a table could be inferred through any view that involved that column.

3. Presentation

The presentation layer of any application is responsible for interaction with the users. It must provide services to allow users to enter, retrieve and maintain data, and perform the processes involved in the application. In short, it must provide a consistent and intuitive interface to the schema of the application.

Many of the most difficult and tedious issues in application development arise in this layer. The presentation layer is responsible for retrieving the data from the database, presenting it to the user, allowing the user to interact with the data, and then updating the data in the database. In general, this process presents many difficult challenges. However, by layering the solution on top of the relational model and building on existing rapid application development techniques, a highly automated solution can be achieved.

3.1. Data Access LayerPresentationData Access LayerData Access Layer

The first layer that must be automated is the data access layer. This is often called push/pull code, because it involves pulling data out of the database, changing or presenting it in some way, and then pushing it back into the database. This process necessarily involves the transformation of data from the values that the system understands, into a format suitable for presentation purposes, and back again. It also involves buffering the data in the client while it is being presented to or manipulated by users, and maintaining various state such as whether or not the data is being edited, the position within the result set, and so on.

3.1.1. Representations

Recall that the logical model provides for the definition of representations of types. This mechanism provides an excellent solution for the presentation layer, in that the display representation of a particular type of value can be defined in the application schema. If the client consuming the data is aware of the concept of a representation, an appropriate representation can be selected for use in the presentation layer. It could even download the code to translate values to and from the display representation to the client so that the development could remain on the server, while the transformation actually takes place on the client.

For example, suppose the coordinate type exposes a string representation suitable for presentation layer usage. The logic required to transform a string to and from a coordinate value is contained within the definition of the representation. The client could simply access this definition and use it to perform the required translation. The user sees a presentation layer representation of the coordinate value such as 100 10' 5.4", and is allowed to enter a coordinate value using the same format.

Because the implementation for the representation is housed centrally with the application schema, changing the presentation layer format is simply a matter of updating the definition of the representation. The automated presentation layer reacts to the change appropriately.

3.1.2. Table-Level Access

Because the logical model exposes data as tables, all presentation and manipulation can be accomplished through a table-level access mechanism. One possible mechanism for this interaction is known as a cursor. A cursor provides a row-level interface for accessing the data from an arbitrary result set. Cursors expose navigational functionality such as moving to the next row, and support retrieving the currently selected row. In addition, a cursor could expose functionality for searching and updating data.

One distinct advantage of using cursors over other potential data access mechanisms is that they provide a relative, rather than an absolute positioning mechanism. This allows the client to deal with result sets of arbitrary size, and enables more general searching and buffering mechanisms. These in turn allow more of the data access layer to be automated within the client framework.

3.1.3. Client-Server Interaction

In addition to these basic services, the data access layer of a declarative platform could provide extensive mechanisms for interaction between the client and the server. The application schema exposes a tremendous amount of detail about the data. What it should look like, how it should be displayed, what other data is related, default values, business-rules, and so on. Clearly, any application that deals with such a model should, as much as possible, be based on the structures of the application schema.

In order to enable more automation in the clients, the data access layer could expose services for server participation in client interfaces. For example, when inserting a new row, the client could ask the server to provide default values for any columns in the table. Validation rules could also be checked in this way, enabling a much more sophisticated user interface, without additional developer effort. The data access layer could automatically invoke these services when necessary.

3.2. Enforcing Business Rules

Even a moderately complex application will likely include business-rules that span table variables in the database. For example, an employee cannot belong to a department that does not exist, and so on. However, these types of constraints necessarily involve some mechanism for deferred constraint checking, usually transactions. The constraints are allowed to be violated within the transaction, and then checked at transaction commit. If the constraint is violated, the transaction is rolled-back, and an error is raised.

While this approach to enforcement works when developing server-side logic, the data entry patterns produced by the natural navigation of the relationships in the database tend to violate these types of constraints. For example, when entering an employee, an item in the list of phone numbers for the employee is "posted" through the data access layer while the employee itself is still being "inserted" in the client interface. This leads to a constraint violation, and the developer is usually left to resolve the problem in client-side code.

In a declarative system, the system could determine which constraints would be violated by such a transaction, and provide an optimistically concurrent transaction to buffer the input of the data until all data is present, then utilize a standard transaction to post the entire batch. If the data access layer then exposed these services, the clients could automatically take advantage of them, all without developer intervention.

3.3. Search Interfaces

One of the most difficult interfaces in any application is the generic search. For example, provide the user with the ability to locate an arbitrary contact by name or SSN within the entire organization. If the contact table contains millions of rows, this becomes a non-trivial task, usually resolved by filtering on a case-by-case basis within the presentation layer.

If the data access layer provided a mechanisms for relative positioning of the cursor, and sufficient services for searching within the result set, then the clients could provide a "sliding window" over a given result set, ordered by some criteria. The client and server could work together to ensure that only the data the client actually requested was retrieved (not the whole table). This solution not only provides the end-user with an intuitive incremental search, but utilizes network and database resources efficiently and scales well both in terms of users and data volume, all without developer intervention.

3.4. User-Interface Derivation

If all these services could be provided generically for arbitrary perspectives of the application schema, then the benefits of logical data independence can be applied not only to expressions and statements within the server-side process logic, but to the user interfaces produced in the presentation layer consuming the application schema. In other words, the declarative approach, if properly realized, enables the automation of user interfaces based on the definitions contained within the application schema.

In it’s simplest form, user interface derivation involves analyzing the structure and metadata of a given result set, and producing a user interface based on that structure. Note that due to the type and metadata inference mechanisms of the relational system, this process will work for arbitrary expressions, not just base tables.

In addition to these basic elements, the system could analyze the relationship of a given result set with the structures in the application schema, and provide appropriate user interface elements for navigating the relationships of the application schema. For example, because the employee types table is referenced by the type column of the employee table, the resulting user interface could provide a lookup into the employee types table, simply based on the existence of the reference constraint. Again, because of type inference, this process will work for arbitrary expressions, not just base tables. A view of the employees table will still be aware of the lookup to the employee types table.

Ideally, this process will produce a complete and intuitive user interface for manipulating the application schema. However, there may be cases where the resulting user interfaces will not meet the requirements of the application. In order to address this issue, the declarative system must provide mechanisms for steering this process. Such mechanisms may include the use of metadata in the appropriate places in the application schema, customizing the appearance of the resulting interfaces, or, in the most extreme cases, departing from the process entirely and reverting to manually building user interfaces. If the platform is layered properly, then the services enabled by the data access layer will still be available when customizing derived user interfaces or building user interfaces manually.

Additionally, as new user interface patterns are encountered, the system could be extended to handle them in future applications, resulting in continual improvement of user interface automation as the system evolves.

4. Physical Realization

In addition to the application schema and presentation layers, any application must ultimately run in some production environment. These environments often change rapidly, forcing changes in the applications. By utilizing a platform based on the declarative approach, the application can be defined one time. Changes in the software environments can be handled by the system, rather than the application. To redeploy the application onto a new platform, only the system must change, not each application built on that system.

Physical realization also involves potential integration problems. Data required by the application may already be housed in existing external sources, and the costs of migrating the data and associated logic may be prohibitive. The platform must provide the ability to treat data in the same way regardless of where it is located, or what type of system it is housed within. This would result in a high degree of physical data independence, which would allow data from any source to be consumed by clients of the system. This physical data independence would also allow an existing application to be redeployed onto a completely different storage system with little or no modification.

5. Development

In addition to the benefits already discussed in the previous sections, the declarative approach provides several benefits related to the development process itself. These benefits are chiefly due to the high degree of physical and logical data independence that are achieved by such a system. Some of these benefits include:

Productivity

Because the system can automate large portions of the development process, the obvious initial benefit is development time. Both development time and maintenance time are dramatically reduced. Developers can spend more time solving the actual problems presented by the application, rather than wrestling with the details of the implementation.

Deployment

Deployment of an application based on a declarative platform is simply a matter of deploying the definition of the application to the system.

Maintenance

The centralized schema and automated user interface derivation features of the system allow changes to the application schema to be made without necessarily having to make the corresponding changes to the presentation layer. The applications simply react to the change. These changes could be automatically coordinated with the physical layer as well.

Training

Due to platform independence, the software environment of the application can change without the need to re-train developers on the new software environment. They still utilize the same conceptual environment exposed by the system.

It is worth pointing out that the declarative approach is by no means a panacea. It is not a "silver bullet" that will automatically develop applications. It is a layer of abstraction over existing development methodologies that allows applications to be implemented at a higher conceptual level. In other words, there is no substitute for good architecture, and care must be taken to express the model completely and accurately within a given declarative framework. The goal of the declarative approach is to simplify the implementation of a given architecture by encapsulating whenever possible the details of that implementation within the system.

6. Conclusions

This chapter has focused on how the declarative approach to application development can be utilized to solve many of the issues faced in software development. As with any large systems software, the ideal declarative platform is a moving target. However, the evolution of application development depends on taking steps towards a more declarative paradigm. Once the platform exists, it will continue to improve as optimizations are made, and new application development patterns are formalized and automated. In other words, it is a platform that evolves to handle new situations, rather than re-inventing solutions to problems that have already been solved.

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