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Charles Simonyi reveals production use of Intentional Software @ JAOO

by Floyd Marinescu on Sep 24, 2007 |
At the JAOO conference in Denmark today, Charles Simonyi (recent space tourist, and ex-Microsoft lead architect of Word & Excel) summarized a brief history of software as a struggle between the separation of the problem and the solution, referring to the mismatch between how domain experts think about and store their domain knowledge and how programmers have to store and rewrite that knowledge to build software to serve those domains.

The vision of Intentional Software, the company Charles founded is a world in which domain experts can write their requirements in any notation or input form that is familiar/comfortable to them (boxes, lines, tables, formulas,etc) and this "domain code" is used as a first class citizen within the software development project, used as an input around which the rest of the application gets generated. Business users write the domain code, developers write the program generators.

The vision has been developed into the "Domain workbench" product by Intentional Software, who has been working on it for over 5 years and is currently going through private beta testing and production use at a couple of consultancies, including Capgemini.  The domain workbench fits all the requirements of a Language Workbench as defined by Martin Fowler.

Domain code is represented behind the scenes in a tree structure called the "intentional tree" which can be projected into multiple notations to allow business users to express domain code in different ways most suitable for them. 

Domain code is likened to domain specific languages but are not executable, and can be much simpler since they do not need to be formal parsable languages and they can be ambiguous. Problems in ambiguity can be solved by using multiple notations/projections of the underlying domain code that can capture different subsets of data - Charles gave an example of CAD systems, in which you can draw a circle but then in a separate view define what the circle is.

Charles invited Henk Kolk, VP of Technology from Capgemini, to show some of the work they've done with Intentional's tools. Henk spoke about the pension space where pension plans are extremely complex and also change frequently over time.  One company tried to build a general data model for a pension plan and it took them several years.

Henk mentioned that Intentional's tool allowed the capture of complex pension plan information in the same notations used by the business experts who prefer the use of Word and Excel combined with a home grown formula/notation. The pic below shows an identical table-UI built in the domain workbench as the original source in Word:


Domain workbench allows code completion and also multiple projections of the same domain code:


Business users can even embed executable testing in the domain workbench right next to their own definitions:


Henk mentioned how the business users were naturally able to go in and begin "coding" on their own and all of that business knowledge was then preserved and used to generate the rest of the application. Capgemini initially tried to build a general DSL for pension plans but now using Intentional they intend to release a Domain Workbench as a product for all of their pension firms clients.

Not much has been published about Intentional Software yet but InfoQ will publish a video interview with Charles Simonyi (recorded at JAOO) and also filmed the session mentioned in this post.  A research paper also goes into more depth about Intentional Software. The tool does not have a set launch schedule but we'll be watching closely for any changes.

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