Experimentally-motivated non-trivial intermodel links between conceptual models

I am well aware that some people prefer Agile and mash-ups and such to quickly, scuffily, put an app together, but putting a robust, efficient, lasting, application together does require a bit of planning—analysis and design in the software development process. For instance, it helps to formalise one’s business rules or requirements, or at least structure them with, say, SBVR or ORM, so as to check that the rules obtained from the various stakeholders do not contradict themselves cf. running into problems when testing down the line after having implemented it during a testing phase. Or analyse a bit upfront which classes are needed in the front-end application layer cf. perpetual re-coding to fix one’s mistakes (under the banner ‘refactoring’, as if naming the process gives it an air of respectability), and create, say, a UML diagram or two. Or generating a well-designed database based on an EER model.

Each of these three components can be done in isolation, but how to do this for complex system development where the object-oriented application layer hast to interact with the database back-end, all the while ensuring that the business rules are still adhered to? Or you had those components already, but they need to be integrated? One could link the code to tables in the implementation layer, on an ad hoc basis, and figure it out again and again for any combination of languages and systems. Another one is to do that at the conceptual modelling layer irrespective of the implementation language. The latter approach is reusable (cf. reinventing the mapping wheel time and again), and at a level of abstraction that is easier to cope with for more people, and even more so if the system is really large. So, we went after that option for the past few years and have just added another step to realising all this: how to link which elements in the different models for the system.

It is not difficult to imagine a tool where one can have several windows open, each with a model in some conceptual modelling language—many CASE tools already support modelling in different notations anyway. It is conceptually also fairly straightforward when in, say, the UML model there is a class ‘Employee’ and in the ER diagram there’s an ‘Employee’ entity type: it probably will work out to align these classes. Implementing just this is a bit of an arduous engineering task, but doable. In fact, there is such a tool for models represented in the same language, where the links can be subsumption, equivalence, or disjointness between classes or between relationships: ICOM [2]. But we need something like that to work across modelling languages as well, and for attributes, too. In the hand-waiving abstract sense, this may be intuitively trivial, but the gory details of the conceptual and syntax aspects are far from it. For instance, what should a modeller do if one model has ‘Address’ as an attribute and the other model has it represented as a class? Link the two despite being different types of constructs in the respective languages? Or that ever-recurring example of modelling marriage: a class ‘Marriage’ with (at least) two participants, or ‘Marriage’ as a recursive relationship (UML association) of a ‘Person’ class? What to do if a modeller in one model had chosen the former option and another modeller the latter? Can they be linked up somehow nonetheless, or would one have to waste a lot of time redesigning the other model?

Instead of analysing this for each case, we sought to find a generic solution to it; with we being: Zubeida Khan, Pablo Fillottrani, Karina Cenci, and I. The solution we propose will appear soon in the proceedings of the 20th Conference on Advances in DataBases and Information Systems (ADBIS’16) that will be held at the end of this month in Prague.

So, what did we do? First, we tried to narrow down the possible links between elements in the models: in theory, one might want to try to link anything to anything, but we already knew some model elements are incompatible, and we were hoping that others wouldn’t be needed yet other suspected to be needed, so that a particular useful subset could be the focus. To determine that, we analysed a set of ICOM projects created by students at the Universidad Nacionál del Sur (in Bahía Blanca), and we created model integration scenarios based on publicly available conceptual models of several subject domains, such as hospitals, airlines, and so on, including EER diagrams, UML class diagrams, and ORM models. An example of an integration scenario is shown in the figure below: two conceptual models about airline companies, with on the left the ER diagram and on the right the UML diagram.

One of the integration scenarios [1]

One of the integration scenarios [1]

The solid purple links are straightforward 1:1 mappings; e.g., er:Airlines = uml:Airline. Long-dashed dashed lines represent ‘half links’ that are semantically very similar, such as er:Flight.Arr_time ≈ uml:Flight.arrival_time, where the idea of attribute is the same, but ER attributes don’t have a datatype specified whereas UML attributes do. The red short-dashed dashed lines require some transformation: e.g., er:Airplane.Type is an attribute yet uml:Aircraft is a class, and er:Airport.code is an identifier (with its mandatory 1:1 constraint, still no datatype) but uml:Airport.ID is just a simple attribute. Overall, we had 40 models with 33 schema matchings, with 25 links in the ICOM projects and 258 links in the integration scenarios. The detailed aggregates are described in the paper and the dataset is available for reuse (7MB). Unsurprisingly, there were more attribute links than class links (if a class can be linked, then typically also some of its attributes). There were 64 ‘half’ links and 48 transformation links, notably on the slightly compatible attributes, attributes vs. identifiers, attribute<->value type, and attribute<->class.

Armed with these insights from the experiment, a general intermodel link validation approach [3] that uses the unified metamodel [4], and which type of elements occur mostly in conceptual models with their logic-based profiles [5,6], we set out to define those half links and transformation links. While this could have been done with a logic of choice, we opted for a clear step toward implementability by exploiting the ATLAS Transformation Language (ATL) [7] to specify the transformations. As there’s always a source model and a target model in ATL, we constructed the mappings such that both models in question are the ‘source’ and both are mapped into a new, single, ‘target’ model that still adheres to the constraints imposed by the unifying metamodel. A graphical depiction of the idea is shown in the figure below; see paper for details of the mapping rules (they don’t look nice in a blog post).

Informal, graphical rendering of the rule AttributeObject Type output [1]

Informal, graphical rendering of the rule Attribute<->Object Type output [1]

Someone into this matter might think, based on this high-level description, there’s nothing new here. However, there is, and the paper has an extensive related works section. For instance, there’s related work on Distributed Description Logics with bridge rules [8], but they don’t do attributes and the logics used for that doesn’t fit well with the features needed for conceptual modelling, so it cannot be adopted without substantial modifications. Triple Graph Grammars look quite interesting [9] for this sort of task, as does DOL [10], but either would require another year or two to figure it out (feel free to go ahead already). On the practical side, e.g., the Eclipse metamodel of the popular Eclipse Modeling Framework didn’t have enough in the metamodel for what needs to be included, both regarding types of entities and the constraints that would need to be enforced. And so on, such that by a process of elimination, we ended up with ATL.

It would be good to come up with those logic-based linking options and proofs of correctness of the transformation rules presented in the paper, but in the meantime, an architecture design of the new tool was laid out in [11], which is in the stage of implementation as I write this. For now, at least a step has been taken from the three years of mostly theory and some experimentation toward implementation of all that. To be continued J.

 

References

[1] Khan, Z.C., Keet, C.M., Fillottrani, P.R., Cenci, K.M. Experimentally motivated transformations for intermodel links between conceptual models. 20th Conference on Advances in Databases and Information Systems (ADBIS’16). Springer LNCS. August 28-31, Prague, Czech Republic. (in print)

[2] Fillottrani, P.R., Franconi, E., Tessaris, S. The ICOM 3.0 intelligent conceptual modelling tool and methodology. Semantic Web Journal, 2012, 3(3): 293-306.

[3] Fillottrani, P.R., Keet, C.M. Conceptual Model Interoperability: a Metamodel-driven Approach. 8th International Web Rule Symposium (RuleML’14), A. Bikakis et al. (Eds.). Springer Lecture Notes in Computer Science LNCS vol. 8620, 52-66. August 18-20, 2014, Prague, Czech Republic.

[4] Keet, C.M., Fillottrani, P.R. An ontology-driven unifying metamodel of UML Class Diagrams, EER, and ORM2. Data & Knowledge Engineering, 2015, 98:30-53.

[5] Keet, C.M., Fillottrani, P.R. An analysis and characterisation of publicly available conceptual models. 34th International Conference on Conceptual Modeling (ER’15). Johannesson, P., Lee, M.L. Liddle, S.W., Opdahl, A.L., Pastor López, O. (Eds.). Springer LNCS vol 9381, 585-593. 19-22 Oct, Stockholm, Sweden.

[6] Fillottrani, P.R., Keet, C.M. Evidence-based Languages for Conceptual Data Modelling Profiles. 19th Conference on Advances in Databases and Information Systems (ADBIS’15). Morzy et al. (Eds.). Springer LNCS vol. 9282, 215-229. Poitiers, France, Sept 8-11, 2015.

[7] Jouault, F. Allilaire, F. Bzivin, J. Kurtev, I. ATL: a model transformation tool. Science of Computer Programming, 2008, 72(12):31-39.

[8] Ghidini, C., Serafini, L., Tessaris, S., Complexity of reasoning with expressive ontology mappings. Formal ontology in Information Systems (FOIS’08). IOS Press, FAIA vol. 183, 151-163.

[9] Golas, U., Ehrig, H., Hermann, F. Formal specification of model transformations by triple graph grammars with application conditions. Electronic Communications of the ESSAT, 2011, 39: 26.

[10] Mossakowsi, T., Codescu, M., Lange, C. The distributed ontology, modeling and specification language. Proceedings of the Workshop on Modular Ontologies 2013 (WoMo’13). CEUR-WS vol 1081. Corunna, Spain, September 15, 2013.

[11] Fillottrani, P.R., Keet, C.M. A Design for Coordinated and Logics-mediated Conceptual Modelling. 29th International Workshop on Description Logics (DL’16). Peñaloza, R. and Lenzerini, M. (Eds.). CEUR-WS Vol. 1577. April 22-25, Cape Town, South Africa. (abstract)

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