Linas Vepstas <firstname.lastname@example.org> September 2003
The GnuCash Engine implements a set of financial constraints so that a set of basic/core accounting rules are obeyed. The best known example is the "double-entry" constraint: the total value of a transaction must always be zero. A more mundane example is that cap gains are recorded on the date that they occur: or, more plainly: the posted date on the transaction that records cap gains is the same as the posted date of the transaction that caused the gains. At this time, these constraints are implemented in an ad-hoc manner. The goal of this document is to list and document as many of these constraints as possible, and to review the framework in which they operate. A possible future direction is to formalize the framework, so that it becomes easier to add and work with new types of constraints.
There are three very different classes of constraints within GnuCash, which should not be confused with each other. They work in very different ways and have very different goals. First, there are the "GUI Constraints", which are implemented as events: they make sure that the the GUI displays the data in the engine as it currently stands. Next are the "Multi-User Constraints", which are implemented in the Postgres SQL backend: They make sure that as one user alters data, that it is reflected in what the other users see. Finally, there are the "Financial Constraints", implemented in the engine, that make sure that the financial data recorded in the engine meets a set of core and extended accounting rules. This document deals primarily with this third class.
Note that some financial constraints are so core, so key to GnuCash that they are woven into the object design itself. For example, the posted date is a part of the transaction: different splits cannot possibly have different posted dates, as there is no mechanism to represent this. All splits get their posted date from their parent transaction.
The constraints that we are most interested in are the ones that are implemented as 'triggers' or 'scrubbers': these are not reflected in the core structure, but are rather implemented as routines that run at specific times and alter the data to be self-consistent in certain ways. The 'double-entry' constraint belongs to this class: it computes the total value of all the splits in a transaction, and adds one, if needed, to bring the total to zero. This constraint runs when the transaction is committed. Although this is an important cosntraint, there is no (easy) way to reflect it directly in the object design; thus, it acts as a rule that must be periodically imposed.
At this time, the financial constraints within gnucash are impelmented in an ad-hoc manner, with no governing framework. This may change, as there is pressure to support more complex constraints that vary by region/country, by account type, by industry, etc.
Lazy evaluation is superficially like constraints, but differs in an important way. With lazy evaluation, when something changes (e.g. the posted date) it is marked dirty. Later, when something else needs something (e.g. the posted date on a gains split), the dirty flag is examined, and, if dirty, the new/corrected value is computed and returned.
Simple/ad-hoc lazy evaluation works well when data dependencies are simple, but it breaks down when there are too many/circular relationships. It becomes all too easy to get trapped in inifite loops of corrections. The goal of moving to a formal constraint system is to introduce specific, well-defined sync points where constraint checking can be done, without incuring circular deopendencies. At this time, the sync point is the xaccTransCommitEdit() subroutine.
The following is a list of the constraints that are currently implemented in the GnuCash Engine, with a short description of what they are, and how they work.