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Title: An Overview of production rules in database systems
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Title: An Overview of production rules in database systems
Alternate Title: Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering Technical Report ; 92-031
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Language: English
Creator: Hanson, Eric N.
Widom, Jennifer
Affiliation: IBM Corporation -- Almaden Research Center
Publisher: Department of Computer and Information Science, University of Florida
Place of Publication: Gainesville, Fla.
Publication Date: October 7, 1992
Copyright Date: 1992
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An Overview of Production Rules

in Database Systems

Eric N. Hanson
Dept. of Computer and Information Sciences
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL 32611 USA

Jennifer Widom
IBM Almaden Research Center
650 Harry Road
San Jose, CA 95120 USA

University of Florida CIS-TR-92-031

7 October 1992

Database researchers have recognized that integrating a production rules facility
into a database system provides a uniform mechanism for a number of advanced
database features including integrity constraint enforcement, derived data mainte-
nance, triggers, protection, version control, and others. In addition, a database sys-
tem with rule processing capabilities provides a useful platform for large and efficient
knowledge-base and expert systems. Database systems with production rules are re-
ferred to as active database systems, and the field of active database systems has indeed
been active. This paper summarizes current work in active database systems and sug-
gests future research directions. Topics covered include database rule languages, rule
processing semantics, and implementation issues.

1 Introduction

Database systems provide persistent storage for massive amounts of data and powerful in-
terfaces for querying and modifying this data. Even so, most database systems are passive,
since all data manipulation occurs in response to user or application commands. Database
researchers have observed for some time that if a database system also provides mechanisms
for creating and processing production rules (also referred to in this context as triggers or
alerters), then the database system becomes active, and many useful capabilities can be
provided by this active behavior [17, 34].
The production rule paradigm originated in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) with
expert systems rule languages such as OPS5 [4]. While some work has been done on using
database systems to provide efficient underlying support for OPS5 (e.g. [38, 42]), in this
paper we focus on database systems with fully integrated production rules facilities, often
referred to as active database sill, i,, The AI production rule paradigm has been modified
for the active database context so that rules can respond to database operations, occurrences
of database states, and transitions between states, among other things.
Database researchers have discovered that with the addition of production rules facili-
ties, database systems gain the power to perform a number of useful database tasks with
one uniform mechanism: they can enforce integrity constraints, monitor data access and
evolution, maintain derived data, enforce protection schemes, maintain version histories,
and more. (Previous support for these features, when present, provided little generality
and used special-purpose mechanisms for each.) In addition, the inference power of produc-
tion rules makes active database systems a suitable platform for building large and efficient
knowledge-base and expert systems.
One could argue that the functions performed by database production rules could instead
be performed by the database's application programs. In fact, application programs can be
and are being used in this way. One approach is for an application program to poll the
database periodically to check for relevant conditions. However, if the polling frequency is
too high, this can be inefficient, and if the polling frequency is too low, conditions may not
be detected in a timely manner. A second approach is to include condition checking in every
program that modifies the database, but such decentralization is a poor approach from the
software engineering perspective. Integrating a production rules facility directly into the
database system provides the same functionality as these application program approaches
but does not suffer from their obvious disadvantages.
While the power of active database systems was recognized some time ago, a true research
field did not emerge until relatively recently. However, the field has quickly blossomed, and it
currently enjoys considerable activity and recognition. A number of powerful prototype sys-
tems have been built in the research context, while more limited production rule features are
appearing in products and proposed standards. Important research projects, all of which are
described in this paper to some extent, include (alphabetically) Ariel [24], HiPAC [9, 11, 32],
Ode [19], POSTGRES [40, 41], RPL [13], and Starburst [45, 46]. A number of other research
projects are not described in detail in this paper, either because the projects are fairly pre-
liminary, because their features do not differ significantly from projects that are covered, or
simply for lack of space; these are described in [3, 10, 15, 31, 37, 39]. In the commercial

realm, some production rule capabilities are provided in Ingres [2], InterBase, Oracle [36],
Rdb [16], and Sil.,,1. '-j]. Finally, very simple rule capabilities have been incorporated into
the SQL2 standard, while somewhat more general capabilities have been proposed for SQL3.
Products and standards are not covered in this paper since their capabilities are subsumed
by research projects that are covered.
There is a substantial body of work on another kind of database system with rules
deductive database systems. Deductive database systems are similar to conventional database
systems in that they are passive, responding only to commands from users or applications.
However, they extend conventional database systems by allowing the definition of PROLOG-
like rules on the data and by providing a deductive inference engine for processing recursive
queries using these rules. Deductive and active database rule systems are fundamentally
different, and both types of rules could theoretically be present in a single system. We focus
on active database systems and do not cover deductive database systems here. Readers
interested in deductive database systems can consult the extensive literature on the subject,
e.g. [6, 43].
This paper provides a broad survey of current work in active database systems, covering
general issues and concepts as well as describing the several research projects mentioned
above. (As a default, the Ariel system is used for illustrative purposes when appropriate.)
The paper is organized as follows. Preliminary concepts and terminology necessary for
non-database experts to understand the remainder of the paper are provided in Section 2.
Technical coverage of active database systems is divided into three major areas: database
rule language design in Section 3, rule processing semantics in Section 4, and implementation
issues in Section 5. Finally, Section 6 contains concluding remarks, discussion of current and
potential application areas, and predictions and recommendations for future research.

2 Preliminaries

Until recently, most database systems research has considered relational database systems,
which now enjoy prominence among commercial vendors. However, some drawbacks of
relational systems have led to the emergence of object-oriented database systems, which are
prevalent among researchers and very recently have emerged as products. Some work in
database production rules has focused on relational database systems, while other work has
focused on object-oriented database systems. In particular, among the projects covered in
this paper, Ariel, POSTGRES, RPL, and Starburst are relational, while HiPAC and Ode
are object-oriented. Some active database concepts and issues are common to both types
of database systems, while others are particular to one or the other, as will become evident
in subsequent sections. As a default, we consider relational systems when the distinction
is unimportant. In the remainder of this section we briefly introduce basic concepts and
terminology for relational and object-oriented database systems. For further details see, e.g.
In a relational database system, all data is stored in tables (or relations). Associated with
each table is a fixed number of columns (or attributes). In a given state of the database, each
table contains zero or more tuples (or rows), where each tuple assigns a value to each column
of the table. Queries are posed against the database using a declarative database language

such as SQL or Quel. A query can perform a variety of operations, including retrieving the
entire contents of a table, retrieving data matching a particular predicate, and retrieving
data in multiple tables joined by value comparison. Modifications to the database also use
a query language such as SQL or Quel; data can be inserted (sometimes called appended),
deleted, or updated (sometimes called replaced).
In an object-oriented database system, all data is stored as objects. Rather than adhering
to a fixed format such as rows in tables, objects may have arbitrarily complex structure. Sets
of objects with the same structure are grouped into classes. Typically, objects may refer
to other objects through pointers (or object .'1, ,/./il), rather than by comparing values as
in the relational model. No prominent languages have emerged for querying object-oriented
databases; some languages strive for similarity to declarative relational query languages,
while others adopt a more "navigational" approach. In all languages, modifications to
database objects are made through method invocations. A set of methods is associated
with each class; methods are named procedures that operate on database objects in that
class. Again, note that methods provide arbitrary operations rather than a fixed set of
system-defined operations as in relational systems. Finally, classes can be arranged into
hierarchies, so that classes inherit structure and methods from their ancestors.
In both relational and object-oriented database systems, database operations (queries
and modifications) are issued either directly by users or, more commonly, by application
programs. Operations typically are grouped into transactions. Transactions are executed by
the database system in such a way that either all operations in a transaction are executed
or, in the case of system failure or inconsistency, none of them are; i.e. transactions are
atomic. Furthermore, if multiple users or applications operate on the same database at the
same time, execution is guaranteed to appear as if each transaction is executed in isolation
from other concurrent transactions, i.e. the transactions are serializable. When a transaction
completes we say it has committed; when a transaction is interrupted (and its partial effects
are undone) we say it has aborted or rolled back. Synchronization of simultaneous transactions
is performed by the database system's concurrency control mechanism, and atomicity of
transactions is guaranteed by the system's crash recovery facility.

3 Database Rule Languages

This section describes the many issues involved in designing a database production rule
language and explains how those issues have been addressed in various active database
system projects. The semantics of rule processing at run-time is then discussed in Section 4.
As mentioned in Section 1, database production rule languages have their roots in AI
production rule languages such as OPS5. Generally speaking, AI production rules take the

pattern -- action

We call such rules pattern-based. The rule is triggered when the pattern is matched by data
in the working memory, and the action modifies the working memory, possibly according to
the matched data. (The pattern also may be referred to as a condition or predicate.) As
mentioned in Section 1, some work has been done on using database systems to support

such rule languages, but we focus here on the modification of these rule languages for fully
integrated active database systems.
In most pattern-based rule languages, there is an implicit assumption that during rule
processing a rule is triggered only when there is new data in the working memory that
matches the pattern (or, in the case of negated rule conditions, when data matching the
pattern is deleted from the working memory). Hence, rules implicitly are triggered by events
such as the insertion, deletion or modification of data. The most obvious difference between
AI rule languages and database rule languages is that in many database rule languages the
t!;.L-. !;I.- event or events are specified explicitly. Such rules take the form:
on event
if condition
then action
We call such rules event-based. The rule is triggered when the event occurs. Once the rule is
triggered, the condition is checked on the data. (We call it a condition rather than a pattern
since the notion of pattern-matching is less appropriate here.) If the condition is satisfied,
the action is executed.
Most database production rule languages are event-based, although some are pattern-
based and some support both forms. Database rule languages vary considerably in the
complexity of specifiable events, conditions, and actions. In addition, some languages provide
mechanisms whereby data can be bound in the event and/or condition part of a rule, then
passed to the condition and/or action. Finally, some languages provide mechanisms for
rule ordering, to determine which rule is executed when multiple rules are triggered. (This
usually is referred to as conflict resolution.) In the remainder of this section we address each
of these issues in further detail.

3.1 Event Specification

The most common t!' --. ;.i events in database production rule languages are modifications
to the data in the database. In relational database systems, these modifications take place
through insert, delete, and update commands; in object-oriented database systems, these
modifications take place through method invocations. All active database systems support
rules that are explicitly or implicitly triggered by database modifications. In a relational
database system, a rule explicitly triggered by database modifications might look like:
define rule MonitorNewEmps
on insert to employee
if ...
then ...
where ,,/l. -i., is a table of employee information. In an object-oriented database system,
a rule explicitly triggered by database modifications might look like:
define rule CheckRaises
on employee.salary-raise()
if ...
then ...

where .I ,,, ii-raise is a method defined over objects in an ,,/.1..l;, class.
Some database production rule languages also allow rules to be triggered by data re-
trieval. A different class of ti-,--. !ii-i events proposed in some systems is timing events.
Rules with timing events might be triggered at particular times or time intervals. Finally,
a number of database rule languages allow composite events, ranging from simple disjunc-
tions of modification events to arbitrary combinations of data and timing events specified
by powerful event languages.
We first survey the t!i--'. !ii-i events allowed in the relational active database system
projects. In Ariel and Starburst, each rule is triggered by insertions, deletions, or updates
on a particular table. In the case of updates, a subset of the table's columns may be specified,
so that the rule is triggered only when those columns are updated. In Starburst, a rule may
specify more than one ti(-- !i I- operation (on the same table); the rule is triggered when
any of the operations occur, i.e. the events behave as a disjunction. In Ariel, the event may
be omitted from a rule, in which case t! -,-. iii- is defined implicitly by the rule's condition
(i.e. the rule is pattern-based), as will be described in Section 3.2. POSTGRES allows single
explicit ti,-,-. iii- events as in Ariel; in addition, rules in POSTGRES may be triggered by
data retrieval operations. In RPL, rules are purely pattern-based, so no t!i --. i i-I events
are specified.
We next consider the object-oriented systems. In Ode, rules are purely pattern-based.
(Recent work in the context of the Ode project has i-'-, -1, ,1 a rich event specification
language [20], but this event language has not been integrated with Ode's rule language.)
The HiPAC project allows by far the most complex ti-- -. !i ii events of any database rule
language, although it must be stated that the HiPAC language has not been implemented
to the same extent as the other projects covered here. In HiPAC, rules can be triggered by
generic database operations (retrieve, insert, delete, update), by method invocations, by
transaction operations such as commit and abort, by temporal events (absolute, relative,
and periodic), and by external events such as messages or sensor information. A rule also
may be triggered by various compositions of these events, including disjunction, sequence,
and repetition.

3.2 Condition Specification

In all database production rule languages, the condition part of a rule specifies a predicate or
query over the data in the database. When the condition is a query, the meaning usually is
that if the query produces any data then the condition is satisfied. In event-based rules, the
condition usually may be omitted, in which case it is always satisfied. Many database rule
languages have a mechanism whereby conditions in rules triggered by data modifications may
refer to the modified data, or to the database state preceding the t!i. -,_ !- modification.
These mechanisms are described in Section 3.4. With such mechanisms, transition conditions
may be expressed, which are conditions over changes in the database state.
We first consider conditions in purely event-based rule languages. In POSTGRES, rule
conditions are arbitrary predicates over the database state, and transition conditions cannot
be specified. In Starburst, rule conditions also are arbitrary predicates over the database
state. Starburst has a mechanism for referencing modified data, so transition conditions

may be specified. In HiPAC, rule conditions are sets of queries on the database; if all of the
queries are non-empty then the condition is satisfied. Transition conditions may be expressed
in HiPAC using a special mechanism for passing parameters (such as modified data) from a
rule's t!i.- iii, event to its condition.
In Ariel, a rule may be event-based, pattern-based, or both. A purely event-based rule
specifies only a ti--- !ii,.-I event (and an action). A purely pattern-based rule specifies only
a condition (and an action). Rule conditions in Ariel are arbitrary predicates over the
database state, similar to POSTGRES and Starburst; transition conditions are expressible
using a mechanism for referencing modified data. An example of a rule in Ariel that is both
event- and pattern-based is:

define rule MonitorNewBobs
on insert to employee
if = "Bob"
then ...

This rule is triggered whenever a new employee tuple is inserted whose value in column
name is "Bob". Purely pattern-based rules in Ariel are triggered whenever new data in
the database satisfies the rule's condition (similar to expert systems rule languages such as
OPS5). An example of a purely pattern-based rule in Ariel is:

define rule MonitorNewBobs2
if = "Bob"
then ...

This rule is triggered whenever there is new data in the employee table whose value in column
name is "Bob", regardless of what data modification command created that data (i.e. insert
or update). Finally, an example of a pattern-based rule in Ariel with a transition condition

define rule RaiseLimit
if employee.salary > 1.1 previous employee.salary
then ...

This rule is triggered whenever there is new data in column salary whose value is at least
111' more than the previous value in that column.
In RPL, rules are purely pattern-based, and rule conditions are expressed as arbitrary
queries over the database. If the query produces any data then the condition is satisfied.
Similar to Ariel, it is implicitly understood that a rule is triggered only when new data "satis-
fies the condition", i.e. new data is produced by evaluating the query. There is no mechanism
for referencing modified data in RPL, so transition conditions cannot be expressed.
In Ode there are two types of rules, constraint rules and trigger rules. In both cases, each
rule is associated with a particular class. (Recall that Ode is an object-oriented database.)
In the case of constraint rules, each rule associated with a class is implicitly triggered by
any invocation of any method on any object in that class. In the case of trigger rules, a
rule remains dormant (i.e. it cannot be triggered) until one or more commands are issued
to activate the rule. Each command to activate a trigger rule specifies a particular object

and particular parameters; hence, a single trigger rule may be activated multiple times on
multiple objects. Once activated on an object, a trigger rule is implicitly triggered by any
invocation of any method on that object. In both constraint and trigger rules, the rule
condition is a predicate over the value of the object on which the t!i.--. iii- method has
been invoked. In constraint rules, the condition is true if the predicate is false; in trigger
rules, the condition is true if the predicate is true, and the rule's activation parameters
may be referenced in the condition. Transition conditions are not expressible in either case.
Examples of constraint and trigger rules in Ode are given in Section 4.3

3.3 Action Specification

The action part of a database production rule specifies the operations to be performed when
the rule is triggered and its condition is satisfied. In expert systems rule languages, the
action part of a rule usually inserts, deletes, or updates data in the working memory based
on data matching the rule's pattern. This same approach is taken in RPL.1 However, most
database production rule languages allow more general rule actions. In Ariel, POSTGRES,
and Starburst, rule actions can be arbitrary sequences of retrieval and modification com-
mands over any data in the database. Rule actions also may specify rollback, to abort the
current transaction. (Details on run-time rule processing are given in Section 4.) All three
systems have a mechanism whereby rule actions can refer to the data whose modification
caused the rule to be triggered (see Section 3.4). Hence, if desired, rule actions can be based
on ti;--. !;I.i data as in expert systems rule languages. An example of this is:

define rule FavorNewEmps
on insert to employee
then delete employee where =

This (purely event-based) rule is triggered whenever a new employee is inserted; its action
deletes any existing employees with the same name. In POSTGRES, a rule's action may be
1., i-- d with the keyword instead, indicating that the action is to be executed instead of the
ti '_ :. i II change.
In Ode, rule actions are single statements, but since a statement can be a method invoca-
tion, this essentially allows arbitrary rule actions. With respect to rule actions, HiPAC again
has the most generality (but again we observe that HiPAC has not been fully implemented).
Rule actions in HiPAC can contain arbitrary database operations, signals that user-defined
events have occurred, or calls to application procedures.

3.4 Event-Condition-Action Binding

In expert systems rule languages such as OPS5, there is a link between the data that matches
a rule's pattern and the behavior of the rule's action. Each time an OPS5 rule is executed (or
fired), there is an instantiation associated with that execution: a data item, or combination of

1To some extent, the RPL project falls into the class of database support for OPS5. However, we include
RPL in this survey because it modifies OPS5 for the database setting and hence represents a bridge between
expert systems and database rule languages.

items, that matches the rule's pattern. At rule execution time, the values of the instantiated
items can be referenced in the rule's action through the use of variables specified in the rule's
pattern. That is, at run-time, variables are bound in the pattern and passed to the action.
Since database production rule languages may have explicitly specified events, and since
they have different and more varied conditions and actions than expert systems rules, the
notion of binding also is different and more varied. The most general approach once again is
taken by HiPAC. In HiPAC, the t!i --. i;iI event of a rule may be parameterized, and these
parameters may be referenced in the rule's condition and action. For example, a rule may be
triggered by inserted(i), where i in the condition or action then refers to the inserted value;
a rule may be triggered by invocation of a method GiveRaise(o), where o in the condition
or action then refers to the object on which the method is invoked; a rule may be triggered
by a sensor signal Detected(x,y,z), where x, y, and z in the condition or action then refer to
the values detected by the sensor. Recall that rule conditions in HiPAC are sets of queries.
Through an additional mechanism, the results of these queries can be referenced (along with
the event parameters) in rule actions. In Ode, there is no special mechanism for condition-
action binding. Note, however, that since a rule in Ode is triggered by a method invocation
on a particular object, the value of that object is available to the rule action.
In RPL, condition-action binding is similar to OPS5-rules are executed for particular
instantiations of the rule condition (query), and these instantiations can be referenced in the
rule action. In Ariel, POSTGRES, and Starburst, rules are (explicitly or implicitly) triggered
by insertions, deletions, and/or updates on a particular table. Hence, each rule language
has a mechanism whereby the inserted, deleted, or updated tuples can be referenced in rule
conditions and actions. In Ariel, when a rule is triggered by a change to a table T, then any
reference to T in the rule condition or action implicitly references the changed tuple. This
is illustrated by the following rule, part of which appeared as an example in Section 3.2:

define rule MonitorNewBobs
on insert to employee
if = "Bob"
then retrieve (employee)

This rule is triggered whenever a new employee named "Bob" is inserted; its action retrieves
the new tuple.
The binding feature in Ariel does not preclude rule conditions and actions from referenc-
ing the entire table on which the change occurs; this is achieved by using tuple variables. As
an example, the following Ariel rule is triggered whenever an employee is deleted; its action
raises the remaining employees' salaries by 1il' of the deleted employee's salary:

define rule DistributeWealth
on delete to employee
then update employee e (e.salary = e.salary + .1 employee.salary)

Finally, when an Ariel rule is triggered by an update command, the keyword previous can
be used in the rule condition or action to reference the old value of the updated tuple. A
rule illustrating this was given in Section 3.2:

define rule RaiseLimit
if employee.salary > 1.1 previous employee.salary
then ...

In POSTGRES, the notion of event-condition-action binding is similar to Ariel but the
syntax is somewhat different. In the condition part of a POSTGRES rule, a reference to the
table whose change triggered the rule implicitly references the changed tuple, as in Ariel.
However, in the action, a reference to the table whose change triggered the rule produces the
entire table. To reference the changed value, POSTGRES uses keywords new and old. If a
rule is triggered by inserts, then new references the inserted value and old is undefined. If
a rule is triggered by deletes, then old references the deleted value and new is undefined. If
the rule is triggered by updates, then new and old reference the new and old values of the
updated tuple, respectively. For example, the Distribute Wealth rule above would be written

define rule DistributeWealth
on delete to employee
then update employee (employee.salary = employee.salary + .1 old.salary)

In Starburst, a single rule t!;-'-. i n may involve arbitrary combinations of inserted,
deleted, and updated tuples (as will be described in Section 4). These changes may be refer-
enced in the condition and action part of a Starburst rule using transition tables. Transition
tables are logical tables that are referenced just like database tables. At rule execution time,
transition table inserted contains the tuples that were inserted to trigger the rule, transition
table deleted contains the tuples that were deleted to trigger the rule, and transition tables
new-updated and old-updated contain the new and old values, respectively, of the tuples
that were updated to trigger the rule. As an example, the following Starburst rule aborts
the transaction whenever the average of updated employee salaries exceeds 100:2

define rule AvgTooBig
on update to employee.salary
if (select avg(salary) from new-updated) > 100
then rollback

3.5 Rule Ordering

When we discuss the semantics of run-time rule processing in Section 4, it will be seen that
one important aspect, also present in expert systems rule languages, is conflict resolution: the
choice of which rule to execute when multiple rules are triggered. In many active database
systems this choice is made more or less arbitrarily; however, some database production rule
languages provide features whereby the rule definer can influence conflict resolution.
Ode and RPL provide no language features for conflict resolution. Various features have
been considered for POSTGRES, including numeric priorities and exception hierarchies, but

2In our examples we try to approximate the query language of the system being described. For example,
Starburst uses SQL while Ariel uses Quel. Regardless, all of the examples should be understandable even
for readers unfamiliar with database query languages.

none have been incorporated to date. In Starburst, rules are i',,, l.i,,1i ordered. That is, for
any two rules, one rule can be specified as having higher priority than the other rule, but
an ordering is not required. In Ariel, rules have numeric priorities. Each rule is assigned a
floating point number between -1000 and 1000; if no number is specified explicitly then a
default of 0 is assigned. (Further details on Ariel's conflict resolution strategy are given in
Section 4.1.) HiPAC departs from other active database systems in that multiple triggered
rules are executed concurrently (see Section 4.2). Even so, HiPAC includes a mechanism
whereby rules can be relatively ordered to influence the serialization order of concurrent

4 Rule Processing Semantics

The semantics of a database production rule language determines how rule processing will
take place at run-time once a set of rules has been defined; it also determines how rules
will interact with the arbitrary database operations and transactions that are submitted by
users and application programs. Even for relatively small rule sets, rule behavior can be
complex and unpredictable, so a precise execution semantics is essential. As with the rule
language itself, there are a number of alternatives for rule execution, and different database
rule systems have taken different approaches. We begin by describing the recognize-act
< ;. /, which is the semantics used by most AI production rule systems, including OPS5. We
then consider extensions and alternatives to this semantics taken by various database rule
systems. We also briefly discuss how active database systems recover from errors during rule
In expert systems, rules usually are processed using the following algorithm, known as
the recognize-act cycle:

initial match (test rule conditions)
repeat until no rules match or halt is executed
perform conflict resolution (pick a triggered rule)
act (execute the rule's action)
match (test rule conditions)

In the match phase, rule patterns are matched against data in the working memory to
determine which rules are triggered and for which instantiations. The entire set of triggered
rule instantiations is called the conflict set, and one instantiation is chosen from this set
using a conflict resolution strohi, lil In the act phase, the selected rule's action is executed
for the selected instantiation, then the cycle repeats.
As explained in Section 3, RPL has modified the OPS5 language for the database setting
by replacing pattern-oriented rule conditions by database queries. Each tuple produced by
the query in a rule condition is an instantiation for that rule. Rule processing in RPL uses
the following variation on the recognize-act cycle:

initial match (execute rule conditions)
repeat until no rule conditions produce tuples
perform conflict resolution (pick a triggered rule)
act (execute the rule's action for each tuple produced by the condition)
match (execute rule conditions)

Notice that here, in a single act phase, the selected rule's action is executed for all instan-
tiations of the rule, rather than for only one instantiation as in the original recognize-act
cycle given above. Firing the selected rule for all instantiations in each phase rather than
only one is sometimes known as firing rules to saturation [12]. The semantic and practical
differences between firing single instantiations and firing rules to saturation are explored in
RDL1, a production rule implementation of a deductive database system [12, 30]. A related
modification to the recognize-act cycle is set-oriented firing, in which the selected rule's ac-
tion is executed once for the entire set of instantiations [21]. Ariel and Starburst both use a
form of set-oriented firing; see Sections 4.1 and 4.5.
In active database systems, where production rule processing is fully integrated with con-
ventional database activity (e.g. queries, modifications, transactions), a pure recognize-act
semantics is not always appropriate or adequate. Furthermore, in addition to the rule pro-
cessing algorithm itself, it must be determined what exactly during database activity causes
rule processing to be invoked. For example, in relational systems, operations generally are
performed in sets, e.g. a set of tuples is inserted into a table, or the set of tuples satisfying
some condition is updated. Multiple operations generally are grouped into transactions.
Hence, rule processing could be invoked by single tuple-level changes, by sets of changes cor-
responding to one or more operations, or by entire transactions. We call this the granularity
of rule processing; this issue arises in object-oriented systems as well.
There is considerable variance in the semantics of rule processing taken by existing active
database systems. In the remainder of this section we separately consider each of the projects
we have been discussing and describe its approach to run-time rule processing. For conve-
nience, in these descriptions we use the term database i -. i" to mean user or application

4.1 Ariel

In Ariel, rules are triggered by transitions, which are database modifications induced either
by a single database command or by a sequence of commands grouped together by the user
to delineate rule processing. Since a single data modification command in relational systems
such as Ariel is a set-oriented insert, delete, or update operation, the minimum rule
processing granularity in Ariel is a set of tuple-level operations. Commands grouped together
may constitute an entire transaction, but they may not span transactions, so the maximum
rule processing granularity is an entire transaction. Rule processing is invoked automatically
at the end of each transition and takes place as part of the transaction containing the
transition. Of all the active database systems (excluding RPL), Ariel's rule processing is
closest to that of expert systems rule languages; it uses a recognize-act cycle identical to
that of OPS5.

Recall from Section 3.4 that Ariel rule actions can reference the data whose modification
triggered the rule. Since Ariel rules may be triggered by sets of changes, these references
may correspond to sets of tuples rather than single tuples. As an example, consider again
the MonitorNewBobs rule:

define rule MonitorNewBobs
on insert to employee
if = "Bob"
then retrieve employee

If multiple tuples are inserted into the employee table before this rule is executed, then the
rule's action will retrieve all of the inserted tuples whose value in column name is "Bob".
In general, when a triggered rule is executed in Ariel, the rule processes the entire set of
t!;.-. !;ii- (matching) changes, including both the user-generated changes that initiated rule
processing and any subsequent changes made by rule actions. If a rule is executed multiple
times during rule processing (e.g. because it is re-triggered by another rule's changes, or
because it t!i -. i -; itself), then each time it executes, it processes all matching changes since
the last time it executed. If rollback is executed in a rule action, then rule processing
terminates and the transaction is aborted.
Regarding conflict resolution, recall from Section 3.5 that each Ariel rule is assigned a
numeric priority, but that the assignments need not be unique. In the case of rules with the
same priority, Ariel uses a mechanism similar to that used by OPS5 [4]. Conflict resolution
in Ariel proceeds as follows:

1. Pick the rules) with highest numeric priority
2. If there's a tie, pick the rules) most recently matched by changes
3. If there's still a tie, pick the rules) whose condition is the most selective
4. If there's still a tie, pick a rule arbitrarily

One intent of Ariel's conflict resolution strategy is to simplify rule programming by causing
rules to execute "at the right time" even after new rules have been added. In addition,
selection criterion 2 helps enable rules to simulate loops and procedure calls.
Finally, note that when Ariel rules are processed after a transition, the rules actually
consider the net effect of the modifications in the transition, rather than the individual
modifications. In most cases the net effect is the same as the individual modifications,
however in some cases there is a difference: If a tuple is updated several times in a transition,
the net effect is a single update; if a tuple is updated then deleted, the net effect is deletion
of the original tuple; if a tuple is inserted then updated, the net effect is insertion of the
updated tuple; if a tuple is inserted then deleted, the net effect is no modification at all.
Further details on Ariel's rule language and rule processing semantics appear in [24].

4.2 HiPAC

Before describing run-time rule processing in HiPAC, it is necessary to introduce the concept
of coupling modes. Coupling modes originated in the HiPAC project but subsequently have
been discussed in the context of other active database systems, e.g. [19, 37]. Coupling modes

____C-A Mode
E-C Mode immediate deferred decoupled
immediate condition checked condition checked af- condition checked af-
and action executed ter event, action ex- ter event, action ex-
after event ecuted at end of ecuted in separate
transaction transaction
deferred not allowed condition checked condition checked at
and action executed end of transaction,
at end of transaction action executed in
separate transaction
decoupled condition not allowed condition checked in
checked and action one separate transac-
executed in separate tion, action executed
transaction in a different sepa-
rate transaction

Figure 1: Coupling modes in HiPAC

determine how rule events, conditions, and actions relate to database transactions. Whereas
in Ariel (and most other active database systems), rule conditions are evaluated and actions
are executed in the same transaction as the t!;.--. ;ii.- event, in HiPAC this is not always
the case.
Let E, C, and A denote the events, conditions, and actions of rules, respectively. As-
sociated with each HiPAC rule is an E-C coupling mode and a C-A coupling mode. The
E-C coupling mode determines when the rule's condition is executed with respect to the
t!;.-'-, !.- event, and the C-A coupling mode determines when the rule's action is executed
with respect to the condition. Each coupling mode is either immediate, indicating immediate
execution, deferred, indicating execution at the end of the current transaction, or decoupled,
indicating execution in a separate transaction. Not all combinations of coupling modes make
sense; Figure 1 shows the seven combinations that are allowed and the two that are not. For
each of these combinations, it is relatively easy to construct an active database application
for which that behavior seems most appropriate.
Rule processing in HiPAC is invoked whenever any event occurs that t!;.-. i .; one or
more rules. As mentioned in Section 3.5, HiPAC differs considerably from most other active
database systems in its handling of multiple triggered rules. Rather than selecting one
triggered rule to execute using some form of conflict resolution, HiPAC executes all triggered
rules concurrently. If, during rule execution, additional rules are triggered, they also are
executed concurrently. To do this, HiPAC uses an extension of the nested transaction model
of execution [35], which lends itself well to this rule processing semantics and to the realization
of coupling modes.
The basic rule processing algorithm in HiPAC is described as follows:

1. Some (user- or rule-generated) event t!i --. i -; rules Ri, R2, ..., R,

2. For each rule Ri schedule a transaction to:
a. Evaluate Ri's condition
b. If the condition is true, schedule a transaction to execute Ri's action

Transaction scheduling in step 2 is based on Ri's E-C coupling mode, while transaction
scheduling in step 2b is based on Ri's C-A coupling mode: Immediate mode causes a nested
sub-transaction to be spawned immediately, deferred mode causes a nested sub-transaction
to be spawned at the commit point of the current transaction, and decoupled mode causes
a separate (top-level) transaction to be spawned. Note that both condition evaluation and
action execution (steps 2a and 2b) can generate events that recursively invoke this rule
processing algorithm. Finally, as mentioned in Section 3.5, HiPAC rules may have relative
ordering, and this ordering is used to influence the serialization order of concurrently execut-
ing nested sub-transactions. Further details on HiPAC's rule language and rule processing
semantics appear in [9, 11, 32].

4.3 Ode

As described in Section 3.2, there are two types of rules in Ode, constraint rules and trigger
rules, hereafter referred to as constraints and triggers. Constraints and t!;--. i -; have very
different execution semantics, so we describe each in turn.
Recall that in Ode, constraints are associated with a class, are triggered by any method
invocation on any object in that class, and consist of a condition and a single action (where
the action is executed if the condition is false). As an example, the following constraint
specifies that for each object in the ,,,1. ;i,, class, if the salary is greater than 100 then it
should be set to 100:

class employee

constraint: salary < 100 salary = 100

Each constraint is specified as either hard or soft. All hard constraints triggered by a method
invocation are processed immediately following the method invocation (in HiPAC terminol-
ogy, they have immediate E-C coupling mode). All soft constraints triggered by a method
invocation are processed at the end of the current transaction (in HiPAC terminology, they
have deferred E-C coupling mode). The basic algorithm for processing a set of constraints
in Ode is described as follows:

For each triggered constraint C1, C2, .., n:
1. Evaluate Ci's condition
2. If the condition is false, execute Ci's action
3. Evaluate Ci's condition again
4. If the condition is still false, abort the transaction

The ordering of Ci, C2, ..., is arbitrary. Note that action execution (step b) can invoke
a method that recursively calls this rule processing algorithm (for the same or for different

objects and constraints). Also note that this rule processing semantics is particularly de-
signed to be used for enforcing database integrity constraints: either the rules successfully
establish a state in which all rule conditions are true, or the transaction is aborted.
Recall that like constraints, Ode t!-- i -; are associated with a class and consist of a
condition and a single action. However, a trigger cannot actually be triggered until it is
activated on a particular object; once activated on an object, a trigger is triggered by any
method invocation on that object. As an example, the following trigger can be activated
on objects in the department class; it reduces the department's budget if the number of
employees falls below a threshold specified by the trigger's activation parameter:
class department

trigger: budget(threshold): num-employees < threshold -- reduce-budget(this)
(When the trigger's action executes, "this" refers to the object for which the rule is trig-
gered.) When a method invocation t!i ;. i -; one or more t!i -.i -;, each of the trigger's condi-
tions is evaluated. For those t!i -. i -; whose conditions are true, when the current transaction
commits a separate transaction is spawned to execute the trigger's action. (In HiPAC ter-
minology, t!;--. i -; have immediate E-C coupling mode and a variation of decoupled C-A
coupling mode.) Ordering of trigger condition evaluation is irrelevant since no additional
operations are performed during trigger processing. Once activated, a trigger can be deac-
tivated; if a trigger is designated as once-,. ,ii then it is deactivated automatically after it is
triggered. Further details on Ode's rule language and rule processing semantics appear in


In POSTGRES, unlike in other relational active database systems, rule processing is invoked
immediately after any modification to any tuple that t! ---. i ; and satisfies the condition of
one or more rules. (This sometimes is referred to as tuple-oriented rule processing, as op-
posed to set-oriented as in Ariel and Starburst.) Recall that rule actions in POSTGRES
are arbitrary database operations. Hence, when a rule's action is executed, it may modify
multiple additional tuples, each of which may (immediately) trigger additional rules. Conse-
quently, rule processing in POSTGRES is inherently recursive and synchronous (similar to a
procedure call mechanism), rather than sequential as in the recognize-act cycle used by the
other relational systems. The basic rule processing algorithm in POSTGRES is described as
1. Some (user- or rule-generated) tuple modification occurs
2. The modification t!i --. i and satisfies the conditions of rules R1, R2, *, R
3. For each rule Ri execute R;'s action
As mentioned above, action execution (step 3) can perform tuple modifications that recur-
sively invoke this rule processing algorithm. There is no conflict resolution mechanism in
POSTGRES-triggered rules are executed in arbitrary order. If rollback is executed in a
rule action, then rule processing terminates and the transaction is aborted. Further details
on POSTGRES's rule language and rule processing semantics appear in [40, 41].

As a simple example of the difference between tuple-oriented and set-oriented rule pro-
cessing in relational systems, consider the following rule:

define rule SetSalary
on insert to employee
then begin
starting-salary := (select avg(salary) from employee) 10 ;
update employee (salary = starting-salary) where =


This rule is triggered by insertions into the employee table; its action sets the starting salary
for inserted employees to 10 less than the average employee salary. Suppose a set of new
employees is inserted. In a tuple-oriented rule system such as POSTGRES, this rule is
triggered once for each inserted employee, so the salaries of the new employees differ. In a
set-oriented rule system such as Ariel (and Starburst), this rule is triggered only once, so
the salaries of the new employees are the same.

4.5 Starburst

In Starburst, rule processing is invoked automatically at the end of each user transaction that
t! ;-.i -; one or more rules. In addition, users can invoke rule processing within transactions
by issuing special commands. Hence, as in Ariel, the minimum rule processing granularity is
a single relational database command (i.e. a set of tuple-level operations) and the maximum
granularity is an entire transaction.3
We first explain end-of-transaction rule processing in Starburst, then describe rule pro-
cessing within transactions in response to user commands. Recall that Starburst rules may
be triggered by inserts, deletes, and/or updates, and a rule is triggered whenever one or
more of its t!;i-. Ii-n operations occurs. During Starburst rule processing, the first time a
triggered rule is executed it considers all modifications since the start of the transaction,
including the user modifications and any subsequent modifications made by rules. If the
rule is triggered additional times, it considers all modifications since the last time it was
triggered. Like Ariel, Starburst rules consider the net effect of sets of modifications, rather
than the individual modifications (recall Section 4.1).
Starburst rule processing uses the following variation on the recognize-act cycle:

initial match (find triggered rules based on initial set of changes)
repeat until no rules are triggered
perform conflict resolution (pick a triggered rule)
evaluate the rule's condition
act (if the condition is true, execute the rule's action)
match (find additional triggered rules based on new changes)

31t is interesting to note, however, that Ariel's default is the minimum granularity while Starburst's
default is the maximum.

One important difference here is that in the match phase, Starburst determines all the rules
that are triggered, but does not eliminate those whose condition is false-a triggered rule's
condition is not evaluated until the rule is selected. Regarding conflict resolution, recall
that Starburst rules may be assigned relative priorities. Hence, when a triggered rule is
selected for condition evaluation and possible execution, it is selected such that no other
triggered rule has higher priority. If the rules are totally ordered then conflict resolution
is completely deterministic; if the rules are not ordered at all, then conflict resolution is
completely arbitrary.
In addition to automatic rule processing at the end of each transaction, rule processing in
Starburst is invoked within transactions when the user issues one of three commands: pro-
cess rules, process ruleset S, or process rule R. Command process rules invokes the
same rule processing algorithm that is invoked at transaction end. Command process rule-
set S also invokes rule processing, but only for those rules in the user-defined rule set S.
Command process rule R is similar, except only rule R can be triggered or executed. Re-
gardless of whether a rule is executed in response to one of these commands or in response
to end-of-transaction rule processing, the semantics is the same: the rule considers the entire
set of modifications since it was last considered within the transaction, or since the start of
the transaction if it has not yet been considered. As usual, if rollback is executed in a rule
action, then rule processing terminates and the transaction is aborted. Further details on
Starburst's rule language and rule processing semantics appear in [45, 46].

4.6 Error Recovery

One issue not yet fully addressed in many active database systems is the semantics of error
recovery during rule processing. A database rule may generate an error during its execution
for a number of reasons-e.g., because data it depends on (such as a table) has been deleted,
because data access privileges have been revoked, because concurrently executing transac-
tions have created a deadlock [43], because of a system-generated error, or because the rule
action itself has uncovered an error condition.
Errors such as missing data or revoked privileges can usually be avoided in any database
system with a sophisticated enough dependency-tracking facility. In such systems, when
a data item is deleted or privileges are revoked, rules that depend on their existence are
invalidated. Most database rule systems handle errors during rule processing by aborting
the current transaction, since this is how conventional database systems typically handle
errors during transaction processing. However, in the case of error conditions produced
by rule actions, this is not the only possible reasonable behavior. Other alternatives are to
terminate execution of that rule and continue rule processing, to return to the state preceding
rule processing and resume database processing, or to restart rule processing. The nested
transaction model used in HiPAC takes some of these possibilities into account [9]. Each of
these alternatives seems reasonable in various contexts; at the minimum, transaction abort
in response to errors is a reasonable expectation for any database rule system.

query language commands

Figure 2: Architecture of the Ariel system

5 Implementation Issues

Active database systems must support all of the features provided by conventional database
systems, including data definition (to describe the format of the data), data manipulation
(to perform queries and modifications), storage management, transaction management, con-
currency control, and crash recovery (recall Section 2). In addition, active database systems
must provide mechanisms for rule t!;.--. !;ii; and condition testing during database and/or
rule processing, for rule action execution, and for user development of rule applications. In
this section we describe the issues that arise and the approaches that have been taken when
integrating these features into a working database management system (DBMS).

5.1 Ariel Architecture
As an example, we begin by describing the architecture of the Ariel system, depicted in
Figure 2. The lexer/parser and query processor shown in the diagram function as they do in

a conventional DBMS, processing data definition and data manipulation commands. When
data modification commands are executed, the modified tuples are packaged as tokens and
passed to the rule network, where rule conditions are tested. The rule manager/rule catalog
handles rule definition and manipulation tasks. The rule execution monitor maintains the set
of triggered rules and schedules their execution. Finally, the rule action planner is invoked by
the rule execution monitor to produce optimized execution strategies for database commands
occurring in rule actions; these commands are executed by the same query processor that
executes user commands. Further details of rule condition testing and action execution in
Ariel are described in Sections 5.3 and 5.4.
Next, we discuss implementation characteristics of the other active database systems
covered in this survey, particularly as they differ from Ariel. We then turn to more detailed
discussions of rule condition testing, rule action execution, and programming support for
rule developers.

5.2 Implementation Characteristics of Other Systems

In RPL, rule processing is implemented on top of a commercial relational DBMS, rather
than integrated into a DBMS. (In the database context, this usually is referred to as loosely
coupled rather than tightly coupled rule processing.) Rule conditions are tested by submitting
queries to the underlying DBMS and-after the initial match phase-comparing the results
with previous results from the same query. Rule actions are executed by submitting data
manipulation commands to the underlying DBMS. While this approach is sufficient for ex-
perimenting with a database rule language, it does not provide the functionality or efficiency
of the fully integrated approach. Further details on the implementation of RPL appear in
In POSTGRES, two different mechanisms are implemented for rules, tuple level processing
and query rewrite. When a rule is created, the user selects which mechanism is to be used
for that rule. Tuple level processing places a marker on each tuple for each rule with a
condition matching that tuple. When a tuple is modified or retrieved, if the tuple has one
or more markers on it, then the rule or rules associated with the marker(s) are located
and their actions are executed. Markers must be installed and removed when rules and
data are created, deleted, and modified. In contrast, the query rewrite implementation
consists of a module between the command parser and the query processor. This module
intercepts each user command and augments it with additional commands reflecting the
effects of rules triggered by the original command. Since the additional commands also may
trigger rules, query rewrite must be applied recursively; in some cases it may not terminate.
However, when applicable, the "compile-time" approach of query rewrite can be considerably
more efficient than the "run-time" approach of tuple level processing. Unfortunately, the
semantics can differ between the two approaches, as explained in [41]. Further details on the
implementation of rules in POSTGRES appear in [40, 41].
The Starburst DBMS has as one of its primary goals , li, ,.7,'./. [23], and the rule system
implementation relies on Starburst's extensibility features. The attachment feature is used
to monitor data modifications that are of interest to rules. These modifications are stored
in a main-memory data structure called a transition log. When rules are processed at the

end of a transaction or in response to a user command, the transition log is consulted to
determine which rules are triggered. Triggered rules are indexed in a sort structure reflecting
rule priorities; rule conditions are evaluated and actions are executed through Starburst's
normal query processor. References to transition tables (recall Section 3.4) are implemented
using Starburst's table function feature: table functions for each of the four transition tables
use the transition log to produce appropriate tuples at run time. The Starburst rule system
also includes components for concurrency control, authorization, and crash recovery. Further
details on the implementation of rules in Starburst appear in [45].
While there are three different implementations of HiPAC-one in C, one in Smalltalk-80,
and one in Lisp-all are main-memory prototypes not fully integrated with a conventional
DBMS. The most substantial of these is the Smalltalk implementation, which includes both
a rule manager and a transaction manager. Concurrent transactions are implemented as
Smalltalk threads (i.e. light-weight processes). A unique feature of this implementation is
its support for bidirectional interaction between application programs and the database rule
system: applications can invoke DBMS operations, and rules running inside the DBMS
can invoke application operations. Using this implementation, a simulated financial trading
application was coded, with most control of the application embedded in rules. Further
details on HiPAC's implementation and applications appear in [9, 32].
Rule processing in Ode is built into the implementation of O++, a database program-
ming language extension to C++. For each Ode class, the hard constraints, soft con-
straints, and t!;i-.- i defined for that class are packaged into three system-defined meth-
ods: hard_constraints(), soft_constraints() and triggers(). Whenever a user-defined
method is invoked on an object in the class, it is followed by invocation of each of the three
system-defined methods. The hard_constraints() method checks constraint conditions and
executes actions as described in Section 4.3. The soft_constraints() method places the
object on a "to be checked" list; at the end of the transaction, soft constraints are checked
for each object on the list. The triggers() method checks trigger conditions and, if they
are satisfied, places trigger actions on a "to be executed" list; when the transaction reaches
its commit point (following the checking of any soft constraints), the actions on this list are
scheduled for execution in separate transactions. Further details on the implementation of
rules in Ode, including a number of -i.-'. .1 refinements, appear in [19].

5.3 Condition Testing

In many active database systems, including HiPAC, Ode, RPL, and Starburst, rule conditions
are tested during rule processing by querying the database. Although this is a straightforward
approach, there is clear potential for poor performance. In the tuple level implementation
of rules in POSTGRES, markers are placed only on tuples satisfying rule conditions, so
conditions need not be tested during rule processing. However, the overhead of condition
testing still occurs, in the maintenance of markers through data modifications. The most
sophisticated approach to condition testing in a database rule system is taken in Ariel, so
we outline Ariel's condition testing mechanism here. Further details appear in [24, 25].
Ariel's condition testing mechanism uses an algorithm called A-TREAT, which is a de-
scendent of the TREAT algorithm used in some main-memory production rule systems [33].

TREAT itself is a descendant of the pioneering Rete algorithm [18], developed for OPS5.
These algorithms use discrimination networks to efficiently compare large collections of pat-
terns to large collections of data without iterating over the collections. Tokens representing
modified data items are passed through the networks. When a token emerges at the "bot-
tom" of a network, the algorithm deduces that a rule is triggered for the data represented by
that token. The TREAT approach modifies the original Rete network for improved perfor-
mance, and the A-TREAT approach modifies the TREAT network for the database context.
We briefly describe each of these in turn.
In Rete networks, there are six types of nodes:

one root node
t-const nodes, that test selection conditions (i.e. simple predicates)
a-memory nodes, that store the results of t-const nodes
and nodes, that join tokens from two a-memory and/or 3-memory nodes
3-memory nodes, that store the results of and nodes
p-nodes, that hold tokens matching an entire rule condition

Tokens enter the network at the root node; they pass through, are stored at, or are eliminated
by nodes in the network according to the type of the node and the presence of other tokens
in the network. When a token reaches a p-node, it enters the corresponding rule's conflict
set. Further details on the Rete algorithm can be found in [18].
An advantage of the Rete algorithm is its ability to reuse temporary results; a disad-
vantage is its need to maintain and store the contents of 3-memory nodes. The TREAT
algorithm eliminates the use of 3-memory nodes; for details see [33]. A simulation study has
shown that TREAT can be expected to perform better than Rete in the context of database
rule systems [44]. TREAT has also been shown to outperform Rete for a collection of OPS5
applications [33], although Rete can perform better in certain situations.
Ariel's A-TREAT algorithm is designed to both speed up rule processing in a database
environment and reduce the storage requirements of TREAT. An important performance
optimization in A-TREAT is a top-level discrimination network for testing single-table se-
lection conditions. This top layer uses a special index optimized for efficiently testing large
numbers of selection conditions. This index makes use of an interval binary search tree to
efficiently test conditions that specify closed intervals (e.g. const1 < table.column < const2),
open intervals (e.g. const < table.column), or points (e.g. const = table.column). Details of
this mechanisms can be found in [25]. A different data structure called the interval skip list
can be used in place of the interval binary search tree, with similar performance and a more
straightforward implementation [26].
As a second optimization, Ariel can reduce the amount of state information stored in its
discrimination network by replacing a-memory nodes with virtual a-memory nodes. Virtual
a-memory nodes contain only the predicate associated with the node, not the tuples matching
the predicate. This can be crucial in the database setting, since if most tuples satisfy the
predicate associated with an a-memory node, then the node may need to store almost as
much data as is stored in the database itself (which may be impossible). When a virtual
a-memory node is accessed, the predicate stored in the node is processed to derive the value
of the node; details are given in [24].

Finally, in addition to the performance enhancement techniques mentioned above, Ariel
has generalized the notion of tokens and a-memory nodes from the standard TREAT network
in order to effectively test both event- and transition-based conditions with a minimum of
restrictions on how such conditions can be used [24].

5.4 Action Execution

In all database rule systems, rule actions are executed by submitting operations to the DBMS
query processor. However, most systems need some additional mechanism for binding the
data that triggered a rule to operations in the rule's action. Each active database system
takes a somewhat different approach to this. Here we briefly survey the various approaches;
details can be found in the references for each system's implementation given in Sections 5.1
and 5.2 above.
In Ariel, at the time a rule is scheduled for execution, the tuples whose modification
triggered the rule are stored in the p-node for that rule (see Section 5.3). Recall that in Ariel
a reference in the rule action to a table specified in the rule condition implicitly references the
ti;.L-. ;Ii- data. Hence, when a command in the rule action is executed, tuples for the rule's
trigger table are derived by scanning the p-node rather than accessing the database table
itself. In POSTGRES, the binding problem is relatively simple since rules are triggered by
changes to a single tuple. In the query rewrite implementation, the notion of binding is built
into the query rewrite process itself; in the tuple level implementation, the ti .-.-. !Ii tuple is
provided to the query processor along with the rule action so references to new and old can
be evaluated. Recall that in RPL rule processing takes place outside the DBMS (Section 5.2).
The rule processor determines the tuples matching a rule by performing database queries;
identifiers for these tuples are then submitted as part of the command to execute the rule's
action. In Starburst, the tir ;-. i;i.- data is accessed through transition tables, which are
materialized during query processing as described in Section 5.2. In Ode, a rule is triggered
for a particular object, and the rule's action is executed with that object as the "current"
object, i.e. as the object referenced through keyword this (see Section 4.3 for an example).
Finally, in HiPAC t!;. "- data is passed to the rule's action through explicitly specified

5.5 Rule Programming Support

Programming tools for expert systems rule languages have evolved to include many useful
features that support the rule programmer. Many of these features, such as those found in
OPS5 [4] and KEE [27], would be valuable for database rule programming as well. These
include the ability to trace rule execution, to display the current set of triggered rules, to
query and browse the set of rules, and to cross-reference rules and data. Simple versions of
some of these features exist in a few database rule systems; more sophisticated and complete
versions will certainly emerge as active database systems mature over time.
A number of additional programming support features are valuable in database rule
systems due to the on-line nature of database applications and the fact that data may be
shared by many concurrent applications. These features include the ability to control errors

in rule programs (such as the failure of rule processing to terminate in a timely manner),
to activate and deactivate selected rules or groups of rules while the database system is
processing transactions, and to experiment with rules on an off-line subset of a working
database. (Unlike most expert systems applications, database applications often must be
available continuously for an indefinite period of time, and it may not be possible to shut
down the system to add new rules or fix bugs.) Again, simple versions of some of these
features exist in a few database rule systems, but more sophisticated and complete versions
are needed and will emerge.
In the remainder of this section we outline several important rule programming features
in active database systems, explaining what currently exists and what can be expected in
the future.

5.5.1 Rule Creation, Deletion, Activation, and Deactivation

All active database systems support creation and deletion of individual rules. In some
systems, rule creation and deletion can occur while the database system is processing other
user transactions (sometimes requiring a special concurrency control mechanism); in other
systems, it is assumed that rules are created and deleted off-line. For logically grouping
together rules associated with a particular application, POSTGRES and Starburst have
introduced the notion of rule sets. Rule sets can be created and deleted, and rules can be
added to and removed from sets. In POSTGRES, rule sets provide a mechanism whereby
groups of rules can be activated and deactivated with one command. (Rule activation and
deactivation are discussed below.) In Starburst, rule sets provide a mechanism whereby rule
processing can be invoked only for the rules in a particular set; recall Section 4.5. Note that
for object-oriented systems in which each rule is treated as a first-class object,4 the usual
structuring mechanisms of object-orientation (e.g. classes and hierarchies) are available to
rules as well as to data.
A useful mechanism in an active database system is the ability to explicitly activate a
rule (i.e. make the system start monitoring the rule's event and condition, and make the
rule eligible to be executed) and deactivate a rule (i.e. make the system stop monitoring the
rule's event and condition, and make the rule ineligible to be executed). Because rules are a
persistent part of the database and have a potentially long lifespan, such a mechanism can
greatly facilitate the task of the rule programmer and the database administrator. Activation
and deactivation are provided in several systems; in fact, in some systems (such as Ariel and
Ode), a created rule is not eligible to be triggered until it is activated. Certain semantic issues
must be addressed with respect to activation and deactivation, particularly for pattern-based
rules. For example, when a pattern-based rule is activated, it could be run immediately if
its condition matches existing data, or it could be run only when new data satisfies its
condition. The choice between these can affect the behavior of a rule application in subtle
but important ways.

40f the systems covered in this survey, only HiPAC treats rules in this way.

5.5.2 Querying the Set of Rules

Managing a collection of database rules can be a challenging task. When the collection
becomes relatively large, even simply locating a desired rule can be difficult. To effectively
manage a large collection of rules, mechanisms are needed for posing queries against the rules.
Most active database prototypes treat rules as named system objects (similar to tables) and
provide simple commands for retrieving individual rules or rule sets by name. As with rule
structuring, object-oriented systems have an advantage here if rules are treated as first-class
objects (as in HiPAC): rules can be queried using the standard query language for objects,
rather than through a separate query language provided for rules.5
Even when rules are stored as first-class objects, and certainly when they are stored as
system objects, the functionality provided by the query language may not be enough to
express all of the interesting queries on rules. For example, often it may be desirable to
express queries that cross-reference rules and data, such as:

Which rules refer to column salary of table i,,,l/.i.,, in their condition?
Which rules modify column budget of table department in their action?

This kind of query cannot be carried out without examining the internal structure of rule
conditions and actions. Some expert systems tools have utilities that support such cross-
referencing, and similar features would be useful in the database context.

5.5.3 Limiting Forward-Chaining

Rule processing is subject to infinite loops (i.e. rules may trigger each other indefinitely),
and in a database system this behavior can be catastrophic. For example, rules could
erroneously fill the disk with data by repeatedly performing inserts on a table, eventually
crashing the system. At the very least, a transaction in which rules are looping would
surely inhibit concurrency (by holding locks on data) and saturate memory buffers, slowing
system throughput. It is an undecidable problem to determine in advance whether rules are
guaranteed to terminate, although conservative algorithms have been proposed that warn
the rule programmer when looping is possible [1]. A run-time solution to detecting and
preventing infinite loops is to provide a forward-chaining (i.e. rule ti;:-. i;I.-) depth limit.
In this case, the number of rules executed during rule processing is monitored; if the limit is
reached, rule processing is terminated. Most active database systems provide such a limit,
specified by the user and/or by a system default. Unfortunately, it always may be possible
for correct rule executions to exceed the limit, for example if rules are being used to traverse
arbitrarily large list or graph data structures.

5Unfortunately, treating rules as first-class objects has a tendency to result in an awkward notation for
rule creation, but this is a syntactic problem that can be overcome by providing an additional layer for rule

6 Conclusions, Applications, and Future Directions

This survey has described the state-of-the art in active database systems, including rule lan-
guage design, rule processing semantics, implementation issues, and programming support.
Active database systems represent a unique merging of traditional passive database systems
and AI production rule processing technology. Production rules in database systems can be
used for integrity constraint enforcement, derived data maintenance, authorization checking,
versioning, and many other database system applications; they also enable more advanced
and powerful applications, and they provide a platform for large and efficient knowledge-base
and expert systems.
The theory and technology of active database systems is still maturing. There are several
areas that researchers and practitioners will likely address in the future, particularly as active
databases emerge in the commercial arena. These include:

Support for application development: In Section 5.5 we described a number of features,
not present in most active database system prototypes, that are vital for the develop-
ment of database rule applications. One -i.',. -1. .1 approach to application develop-
ment treats
database rules as ..-. ,lily language", automatically generating rules from higher
level specifications [5, 7, 8]. While this approach works well for a number of standard
applications, there will always be a need to develop applications using rules directly.
In addition, considerable work is needed on increasing the communication capability
between database rules and applications; this is discussed below.

Increasing the expressive power of rules: Some applications may need the ability to
define rules with more complex t!;'-.- !;ViI events, conditions, or actions than currently
can be expressed in database rule languages. Methods for increasing the expressiveness
of database rule languages while maintaining an efficient implementation certainly
deserve further study.

Smooth integration with the DBMS: Database rule systems interact strongly with the
query processing, authorization, concurrency control, and crash recovery mechanisms
of the DBMS. For rule processing to function successfully in a large on-line DBMS,
the rule system must be carefully and fully integrated with each of these conventional
database system components.

Improved algorithms: Highly efficient algorithms for processing rules, particularly for rule
condition testing, are crucial for delivering the functionality of active databases without
excessively degrading the performance of conventional query processing. While some
work has been done in this area, continued improvements are needed.

Applying parallelism: For some database rule languages, parallelism in rule condition
testing may be necessary to achieve desired levels of performance. Parallelism has
been used successfully to increase the performance of the OPS5 rule language both on
a shared memory multiprocessor [22] and on a fine-grain parallel machine [29]. This
work can serve as a starting point for parallel rule condition testing in active databases.

Feedback from the initial use of rule processing in large-scale database applications should
provide valuable guidance to help researchers and practitioners continue to improve the
capabilities of active database systems.
As active databases begin to be used more widely, we are likely to see the development of
new kinds of database applications in which the application program and the database rule
processor participate equally in the computation (rather than the database system acting
as a "slave" to the application, which is the conventional mode of interaction). Initial
experimentation with such applications has been performed in the context of HiPAC [32],
and the commercial Ingres system includes rule processing facilities and a mechanism for
"asynchronous multi .. -1 that make such applications possible in practice [2]. Examples of
potential application domains using this approach include:
Real-time information display: For example, an application might create a new window
on a stock trader's workstation whenever the price of a certain stock exceeds a thresh-
old. Other examples include timely displays of aircraft flight information for an air
traffic controller, or display of information related to the flow of gas in a pipeline.

Intelligent situation monitoring: This might be used, for example, in a law enforcement
database, to correlate different crime reports as they are added to the database.

Immediate applications: Traditional "batch" applications that run periodically (e.g. ev-
ery day, week, or month) could be redesigned to run automatically and immediately
whenever needed. For example, rules could be used in a warehouse database to auto-
matically reorder items when their stock level drops too low.

In conclusion, production rules in database systems have the potential to improve existing
database applications and to support new ones that are not now feasible. Moreover, database
production rules can extend the reach of knowledge-base and expert systems to let them
monitor important conditions over large, permanent on-line databases. The incorporation of
production rules into database systems is a promising new technology, and this technology
is quickly emerging in research prototypes, commercial systems, and applications.


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