Revving the engine

At FreeAgent we deal with a lot of accounting data - every invoice, bank transaction, expense and VAT return in the system must be processed, and its tax and accounting effects calculated and recorded.

In the early days of FreeAgent this was something that was baked directly into the business objects – reporting data was pulled directly from the day-to-day business records. As the number of users grew and the software became more complex this evolved into a fully fledged double-entry bookkeeping system – the best practice for accounting that has its origins over 700 years ago.

This is the brain of our application, constantly working away behind the scenes to generate profit and loss reports, balance sheets and tax returns for over 25,000 small businesses, sole traders and partnerships who use our accounting software, in the UK, USA and worldwide.

Recently we’ve picked this apart and separated it from our main code base into a separate project – the FreeAgent Accounting Engine. This has been designed to encapsulate all this logic and act as a black box, working the same way every time - business data comes in, accounting data is generated and cached for easy access and speedy calculations.

Define Your Interfaces

The business data is used to generate plain old Ruby objects, simple non-persisted classes with a set of attributes containing the bare minimum of information required to model the accounting effect. These are defined in the accounting engine and these definitions are included back into FreeAgent – Super DRY!

class Invoice < FreeAgent::AccountingEngine::SourceItem::Base
  attr_reader :net_value, :sales_tax_value

  def initialize(attributes = {})
    @net_value       = attributes[:net_value]
    @sales_tax_value = attributes[:sales_tax_value]
  end

  def gross_value
    net_value + sales_tax_value
  end
end

These lightweight objects can be passed into the accounting engine in a number of ways – directly from the application, via background jobs, over DRb, or, as is our ultimate goal, pushed onto a message queue for fully asynchronous processing.

Ride on Time

Our accounting engine is a classic black box which means we can test it separately from the main FreeAgent code base. Modelling our simple source items in memory and passing them into the accounting engine produces a test suite that is lightning quick to run, and also allows us to remove these accounting tests from the FreeAgent project, simplifying and speeding up our main test suite.

Using our own custom Shoulda matcher we can write simple, expressive tests that allow us to verify that the correct accounts are generated for any given item.

should_generate_ledgers_for Invoice.new(
  :net_value => BigDecimal('100.00'), 
  :sales_tax_value => BigDecimal('20.00')) do |ledger|

  ledger.count  3
  ledger.exists 'Trade Debtors', BigDecimal('-120.00')
  ledger.exists 'Sales', BigDecimal('100.00')
  ledger.exists 'VAT Outputs', BigDecimal('20.00')
end

Slow, Slow, Quick Quick, Slow

Some of the features that we’re adding to FreeAgent are spread between the application and the accounting engine – recent improvements to the way we handle foreign currency transactions and capital assets, for example. Because of this we need to keep the versions in lockstep with each other, something that Bundler allows us to do easily by specifying a git SHA for every release we deploy.

gem 'freeagent-accounting-engine', 
    :git => 'git@github.com:fac/freeagent-accounting-engine.git', 
    :ref => 'a74001c50a5099936cb17e4fdf4eca348ce70ad0'

Zooooooom

The most exciting thing about these changes is the fact that it puts us in a great position to supercharge FreeAgent, making it even faster, more responsive and allowing us to efficiently handle the increased demand caused by our rapid growth. As we gain more users we can simply add more engines to FreeAgent, delegating the calculations to an array of dedicated accounting servers.

Because the changes our users make to their business data don’t need to be reflected in their accounts in absolute real-time (a second or two delay is generally acceptable, provided we’re clear in the UI when the underlying data is being recalculated), we can begin to decouple the engine from our front end. This architectural separation will allow us to keep FreeAgent as snappy as an angry crocodile, and our users happy and productive for the foreseeable future.

This entry was filed under Accounting Code Platform Ruby on rails by Paul. Bookmark the permalink.

About Paul

Paul has been programming computers for longer than he'd care to admit. Before joining FreeAgent, he has worked for small digital agencies & corporate multinationals developing ecommerce platforms and other web applications.

If he wasn't busy democratising accounting then he'd probably quite like to be a chef.

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