GnuCash  2.6.15
Engine Architecture (old)

API: Backend

Introduction

This document is becoming obsolete. Please refer to the design documentation in src/doc/design for a complete description of the Engine architecture.

The only remaining architecture flaw is related to the GnuCash XML v2 backend modularisation. QofSession includes a dynamic method of loading a QofBackend that supersedes the use of gnc_module_load that currently loads the module using guile/scheme. When the old XML backend is replaced by Sqlite, this will be resolved.

Note that this flaw does not appear in QOF itself. The C code enabling the entire guile/scheme load mechanism is GnuCash only.

Architecture Flaw

What does Architecture Flaw really mean? There is a Soviet joke from the 1960's:

A westerner in Moscow stops a man to ask him the time. The man puts down his breifcase, and flicks his wrist to look at his watch. "The time is 7:03, the temperature is 12 degrees C, the air presssure is 950 mmHg and falling." The westerner remarks with considerable interest, "Why, that's a mighty fine watch you have there! We don't have anything like that in the America!" The Soviet responds, "Why yes, this demonstrates the superiority of Soviet engineering over decadent captalist design." Stooping to pick up his briefcase, he mumbles half to himself, "If only these batteries weren't so heavy."

There is only one place where the engine requires the use of guile. This is the remaining architecture flaw, see above.

Accounting Engine

This document reviews the operation of, and various design points pertinent to the GnuCash accounting engine. The latest version of this document can be found in the engine source-code directory.

Stocks, non-Currency-Denominated Assets

The engine includes support for non-currency-denominated assets, such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds, inventory. This is done with two values in the Split structure:

double share_price; double damount;

"damount" is the number of shares/items. It is an "immutable" quantity, in that it cannot change except by transfer (sale/purchase). It is the quantity that is used when computing balances.

"share_price" is the price of the item in question. The share-price is of course subject to fluctuation.

The net-value of a split is the product of "damount" and "share_price". The currency balance of an account is the sum of all "damounts" times the latest, newest share-price.

Currency accounts should use a share price of 1.0 for all splits.

To maintain the double-entry consistency, one must have the following hold true:

0.0 == sum of all split values.

If all splits are in the same currency, then this becomes:

0.0 == sum of all ((split->damount) * (split->share_price))

Thus, for example, the purchase of shares can be represented as:

source:
debit ABC Bank for $1045 (1045 dollars * dollar "price" of 1.00)

destination:
credit PQR Stock for $1000 (100 shares at $10 per share) credit StockBroker category $45 in fees

If the splits are in mixed currencies and securities, then there must be at least one common currency/security between all of them. Thus, for example:

source:
debit ABC Bank for $1045 (1045 dollars * dollar "price" of 1.00)

destination:
credit VolkTrader for 2000 DM (1000 dollars at 2.0 mark per dollar) credit Fees category $45 in fees

If the "currency" field is set to "DM" for the VolksTrader account, and the "security" field is set to "USD", while the currency for ABC bank is "USD", then the balancing equation becomes:

0.0 = 1045 * $1.00 - $1000 - 45 * $1.00

Note that we ignored the price when adding the second split.

Stocks, non-Currency-Denominated Assets

A stock price may be recorded in a brokerage account with a single split that has zero value: (share price) * (zero shares) == (zero dollars) This transaction does not violate the rules that all transactions must have zero value. This transaction is ideal for recording prices. Its the only transaction type that may have a single split; everything else requires at least two splits to balance. (at least when double-entry is enabled).

Recording a Stock Split

Stock splits (i.e. when a company issues x shares of new stock for every share already owned) may be recorded with a pair of journal entries as follows:

(-old num shrs) * (old price) + (new num shrs) * (new price) == 0.0

where each journal entry credits/debits the same account. Of course (new num shrs) == (1+x) * (old num shrs) and the price goes inversely.

Stocks, non-Currency-Denominated Assets

Stock options are not currently supported. To support them, the following needs to be added:

A stock option is an option to purchase stock at a specified price. Options have an expiration date. When you purchase an option it is pretty much like buying stock. However, some extra information needs to be recorded. To fully record an option purchase, you need to record the underlying stock that the option is on, the strike price (i.e. the price that the underlying stock can be purchases for), an expiration date, and whether the option is a put or a call. A put option is the option to sell stock at the strike price, and a call option is the option to purchase stock at the strike price. Once an option is bought, it can have one of three dispositions: it can be sold, in which case, it is pretty much just like a stock transaction. It can expire, in which case the option is worthless, and (IIRC) can be/is treated as a sale at a zero price. Thirdly, it can be exercised, which is a single transaction whereby stock is purchased at the strike price, and the option becomes worthless.

Another point: with standardized options one option contract represents the ability to purchase (with a call option) or sell (with a put option) 100 shares of the underlying stock.

engineerror Error Reporting

The error reporting architecture (partially implemented), uses a globally visible subroutine to return an error. In the naivest possible implementation, the error reporting mechanism would look like this:

    int error_num;   // global error number

    int xaccGetError (void) { return error_num; }

    void xaccSomeFunction (Args *various_args) {
        if (bad_thing_happened) error_num = 42;
    }  

Many programmers are used to a different interface, e.g.

    int xaccSomeFunction (Args *various_args) {
        if (bad_thing_happened) return (42);
    }  

Because of this, it is important to explain why the former design was chosen over the latter. Let us begin by listing how the chosen design is as good as, and in many ways can be better to the later design.

  1. Allows programmer to check for errors asynchronously, e.g. outside of a performance critical loop, or far away, after the return of several subroutines.
  2. (with the right implementation) Allows reporting of multiple, complex errors. For example, it can be used to implement a trace mechanism.
  3. (with the right implementation) Can be thread safe.
  4. Allows errors that occurred deep in the implementation to be reported up to much higher levels without requiring baggage in the middle.

The right implementation for (2) is to implement not a single variable, but a stack or a ring (circular queue) on which error codes are placed, and from which error codes can be retrieved. The right implementation for (3) is the use pthread_getspecific() to define a per-thread global and/or ring/queue.

Engine Isolation

Goals of engine isolation:

Some half-finished thoughts about the engine API:

Reconciliation

The 'reconcile' state of a transaction can have one of the following values:

// Values for the reconciled field in Transaction:
#define NREC 'n'              // not reconciled or cleared
#define CREC 'c'              // The transaction has been cleared
#define YREC 'y'              // The transaction has been reconciled
#define FREC 'f'              // frozen into accounting period

(Note that FREC is not yet used/implemented ...)

The process of reconciliation works as follows:

  1. User enters new transaction. All splits are marked 'n' for 'new' or 'no, not yet reconciled'.
  2. User beleives that the transaction has cleared the bank, e.g. that a cheque written out has been deposited/cashed. User clicks in the 'R' column in the register gui, marking the split 'c' for 'cleared'. User can freely toggle this flag from the GUI with essentially no penalty, no complaints. This is a 'safe' operation. Note that the register shows the 'cleared' subtotal, which is, essentially, a guess of the banks view of the account balance.
  3. When user gets the bank statement, user launches the reconcile dialogue. This dialogue is used to match transactions on the bank statement with which is recorded locally. Reconciled transactions are marked with a 'y'. Note that once a transaction has been marked 'y', and the user has 'finished' with the reconcile dialogue, then it should be 'hard' to change the reconcile state from the ordinary register dialogue. It should be sort-of 'set in stone'. (The engine does NOT enforce this, only the gui enforces this.)
  4. When the books are closed, all splits should be marked 'frozen', and become truly un-editable. The engine should enforce 'frozen', and just plain not allow editing of closed books, period. The only wat to change this would have been to re-open the book. (and the reopening of a book would change all 'f' to 'y'.)

About storing dates associated with reconcile:

> I think that there should be a date stamp attached to the reconciliation
> field so that as well as knowing that it has been reconciled, you also 
> know *when* it was reconciled.
> 
> This isn't so important for personal finances for the periodic user; I
> have in the past wanted to know when a particular transaction was 
> reconciled.  This is useful if you want to trace back from the 
> electronic record to determine when the item actually cleared through 
> the bank.
> 
> This means that I can look at Cheque #428, written Jan 1/97, cashed in May 
> 1997 (it sat in someone's desk for a while) in the computer system and say 
> "Ah.  It was marked as reconciled on June 12th/97. That was when I did the 
> reconciliation of the May bank statements.  Ergo, the cheque cleared in May, 
> and that's the statement to go to to find a copy of the cheque..."
> 
> It's not terribly important for cheques that get cashed right away; it *is* 
> for things that hang around uncashed for a while.

If the above is implemented, what date should be stored if the user toggles the recn flag a few time? The date of the last toggle? The very first date that it was recn'ed?

Automatic Backup

The following has been implemented:

Have (by default) xacc create a backup file filename-timestamp.xac on every save. This will eat up some disk space until you go back and kill the older versions, but it's better than not realizing that the data's subtly corrupt a week later.

A lot of small-office/home systems do this. primarily useful as a historical record, in case you accidentally wipe out something, and don't spot it until later. Limited usefulness, but very nice in case you accidentally delete an entire account.

To a limited degree, it provides atomicity/consistency/etc at the course-grained account-group level.

Transaction Processing

There is a rudimentary level of "TP" build in, via the routines xaccTransBeginEdit(), xaccTransRollbackEdit(), and xaccTransCommitEdit(), which allow changes to be made to a transaction, and then committed, or rejected at the end. Handy for the GUI, if the user makes a bunch of changes which they don't want to keep; also handy for an SQL back end, where the Commit() routine triggers the actual update of the SQL database.

Note: 'Commit' is sometimes called 'post' in other systems: The act of 'committing' a transaction is the same as 'posting' the transaction to the general ledger.

Some important implementation details to understand: the GUI currently uses begin/end as a convenience, and thus, may hold a transaction in the 'edit' state for a portentially long time (minutes or hours). Thus, begin/end should not map naively to a table-lock/unlock. Instead, an optimistic-locking scheme, as below, is preferred.

The SQL back-end should implement posting entirely in the 'Commit()' routine. The pseudo-algorithms should look as follows:

        BeginEdit () {
                // save a copy of what it was before we start editing
                old_transaction = this;
        }

        SetValue (float amount) {
                // some example editing done here
                this->value = amount;
        }

        Commit () {
                LockTable();
                current = QueryTransaction();
                // check ton make sure that what the sql db stores
                // is identical to what we have on record as the
                // 'original' tansaction.  If its not, then someone
                // got in there and modified it while we weren't
                // looking; so we better report this back toi user.
                if (current != old_transaction) Error(); Unlock(); return err;

                // otherwise, all is OK, we have successfully obtained
                // the lock and validated the data, so now just update things.
                StoreTransaction (new_transaction);
                UnlockTable();
                old_transaction = NULL;
        }

        Rollback () {
                // throw away the edits
                this = old_transaction;
                old_transaction = NULL;
        }

The GUI should check to make sure that the Commit() routine didn't fail. If it did fail, then the GUI should pop up a notice to the user stating that the fundamental underlying data has changed, and that the user should try doing the edit again. (It might be nice to indicate which other human user might have changed the data so that they could coordinate as needed.)

Journal Logs

The following has been implemented; see TransLog.c for details.

Transaction logs. The idea was that every time a transaction was called that would cause a data update, the information that was updated would be dumped out into an "append only" log file.

This somewhat parallels what better database systems do to ensure integrity; Oracle, for instance, has what is called an "archive log." You have a copy of the database "synced up" as at some point in time, and can apply "archive logs" to bring that old copy of the database up to date should something go wrong to trash today's copy.

In effect, you'd have things like

=== 97/01/01 04:32:00 === Add Transaction ==== [whatever was added] ====
=== 97/01/01 04:32:02 === Delete Transaction ==== [whatever was deleted] ====

It also is a useful debugging tool, as if you make sure that the "log_transaction()" call starts by opening the log file, writes, and then closes and syncs, you know what is going on with the data even if horrible things happen to the "master" database file.

Session Management

To allow the user of the engine some guarantee of atomic updates, serialized file I/O, related miscellany, the concept of a session is supported. No file IO can be performed until a session has been created, and file updates are not guaranteed atomic unless performed within a SessionBegin/SessionEnd pair.

Note that (in the current implementation) data can be manipulated outside of the session; its just that it cannot be saved/made persistent.

The goal of session management is to ensure that e.g. two users don't end up editing the same file at the same time, or, e.g. that an automatic stock-quote update daemon running under a different pid doesn't trash data being currently edited by the user.

Remaining Work Items

To find other remaining work items in the code, grep for the string "hack alert".

See also the Todo List.

Ideas for engine enhancements:

  1. Have (by default) gnucash immediately re-read a file after every write, and compare the two resulting AccountGroups for equality.
    During development, this is a good idea, as it will help uncover thinko's more quickly, instead of letting them hide for weeks or months (as the last one did). Its not a bad self-consistency check when monkeying with the internals, damn the performance.
    It can be removed/disabled for product versions.

Needs updating.

This document is dated May 2000

Updated the architecture flaw section, June 2005.