Revving the engine

Posted by on November 8, 2012

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]

  def gross_value
    net_value + sales_tax_value

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.

  :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')

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 => '',
    :ref => 'a74001c50a5099936cb17e4fdf4eca348ce70ad0'


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.

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