BonitaSoft Open Source BPM

I recently had my first briefing with BonitaSoft about their open source BPM product. Although the project has been going on for some time, with the first release in 2001, the company is only just over a year old; much of the development has been done as part of BPM projects at Bull. Their business model, like many open source companies, is to sell services, support and training around the software, while the software is available as a free download and supported by a broader community. They partner with a number of other open source companies – Alfresco for content management, SugarCRM for CRM, Jaspersoft for BI – in order to provide integrated functionality without having to build it themselves. They’ve obviously hit some critical mass point in terms of functionality and market, since their download numbers have increased significantly in the past year and have just hit a half million.

A French company, they have a strong European customer base, and a growing US customer base, mostly comprising medium and large customers. They’ve just announced the opening of two US offices, and the co-founder/CEO Miguel Valdés Faura is moving to the San Francisco area to run the company from there; that’s the second European company that I’ve heard of lately where the top executives are moving to the Bay area, indicating that the “work from anywhere” mantra doesn’t necessarily pan out in practice. They’ve hired Dave Cloyd away from open source content management company Nuxeo as a key person in the building the US market; he was VP of sales at Staffware prior to the TIBCO acquisition, so knows both the open source and BPM side.

Open source BPM solutions have been around for a while, but the challenges are the same as with any open source project: typically, it takes greater technical skills to get up and running with open source, especially if it doesn’t do everything that you need and has to be integrated with other (open source or not) products. In many cases, open source BPM provides the process engine embedded inside a larger solution created by a systems integrator or business process outsourcing firm; in other words, it’s more like a toolkit for adding process capabilities into another application or environment. BonitaSoft considers jBPM, Activiti and ProcessMaker to be in this “custom BPM development” camp, as opposed to the usual commercial players in the “standalone BPM suites” category; they see themselves as being able to play on both sides of that divide.

Taking a look (finally, after 35 minutes of PowerPoint) at a product demo, I saw their four main components of process modeling, process development, process execution, and process administration and monitoring.

The modeler is a desktop Eclipse-based application providing BPMN 2.0 modeling, including importing of BPMN models from other tools. There is starting to be less distinction between these tools, as all the vendors start to pick up the user interface tricks that make process modeling work better: auto-alignment, automatic connector creation, and tool tips with the most likely next element to add. The distinguishing characteristics start to become how the non-standard modeling aspects are handled: data modeling and integration with other systems using proprietary connectors that go beyond the capabilities of a simple web services call, for example.

Bonitasoft BPM - Alfresco connector actionsI like what they’ve done with some of the out-of-the-box connectors: the Sharepoint and Alfresco connectors allow you to browse and select a specific document repository event (such as check in a file) directly from within the process designer, and associate it with an activity in the process model. I saw a fairly comprehensive database connector that allowed for graphical query creation, and this connection can be used to transfer a data model from a database to the process model to build out the process instance data. There’s a wizard to create your own connectors, or browse the BonitaSoft community to find connectors created by others – a free marketplace for incremental functionality.

You can create a web form for a particular step in the process, which will auto-generate based on the defined data model, then allow new fields to be added based on external database calls, and reformatted in a graphical editor. Effectively, this capability allows a quick process-based application to be created with a minimum of code, just using the forms designer and connectors to databases and other systems.

Key performance indicators (KPIs) can be defined in process modeler; these are effectively data objects that can be populated by any step of the process, then reported on via a BI engine such as the integrated Jaspersoft.

Although they describe their modeling as collaborative, it’s asynchronous collaboration, where the model and associated forms are saved to the Bonita repository model, where they are property versioned and can be checked out by another user.

Bonitasoft BPM - user inbox viewThe end-user experience uses an inbox metaphor in a portal, with the forms displayed as the user interacts with the process. Individual process instances (or entire processes) can be tagged with private labels by a user – similar to labels applied to conversations in Gmail – and categories can be applied to processes so that every instance of that process has the same category, visible to all users. Love the instance and process tagging: this is a capability that I’ve been predicting for years, and just starting to see it emerge.

I was surprised by the lack of flexibility in runtime environment: the only change that a user can make to a process at runtime is to reassign a task, although they are working on other features to handle more dynamic situations.

The big product announcements from last month, with the release of version 5.3, included process simulation and support for cloud environments with multi-tenancy and REST APIs. However, by this time we were getting to the end of our time and I didn’t get all the details; that will have to wait for another day, or you can check out the brief videos on their site.

8 thoughts on “BonitaSoft Open Source BPM”

  1. Hi Sandy,

    I understand that ‘BonitaSoft considers jBPM, Activiti and ProcessMaker to be in this “custom BPM development” camp’. Seeing though how fast growing the community surrounding Activiti is, still before releasing the first GA version, I think that Activiti is going to be a player on both sides of the divide as well. On one side being more customizable than the relatively closed strategy of BonitaSoft and on the other side gathering lots of contributions like connectors or specific activities from the community. Tools like Activiti Modeler and Cycle, together with Activiti’s plans concerning monitoring capabilities in the Activiti project make me confident that Activiti is going to be the first full-blown truly open source BPMS in the Java space. Have you checked out the project already and what is your opinion in this early stage on it?

    Best regards,

    Ron van Liempd

  2. Hi Sandy,

    Like Ron, I am a little baffled by the idea that “BonitaSoft considers ProcessMaker to be in the custom BPM development camp.” That really couldn’t be farther from the truth. ProcessMaker is focused on simple, out-of-the-box workflow.

    We believe that there are plenty of BPM vendors today offering overly complex products filled with catch phrases and acronyms that represent features that users simply don’t ever use. The explanation of how this happened is not hard to understand. Most BPM products are purchased through competitive bid situations. The system admins and process VPs running these bids tend to use the same RFP documents. Over the years, lots of catch phrases have crept into these documents as sales reps from the big vendors have looked to create line items and categories which help them stand out from the competition. So you see, this list focused buying has moved away from a customer centric approach. Quite to the contrary, it has become a rather incestuous cycle of vendors chasing vendors instead of truly focusing on customers. The result is the bloat ware we see today in the BPM market today not surprisingly with lots of Java based products that all look identical.

    At ProcessMaker most of our roadmap meetings are focused around deciding which features we can take off our roadmap instead of which ones to put on. Our focus is on workflow usability from the customer’s perspective, i.e. not custom BPM development. Even our choice of programming language, PHP, reflects this core focus of keeping things simple. So far, this has worked quite well for us and our plan is to keep our focus.

    Regards,

    Brian Reale

  3. Ron, I’ve had a PowerPoint briefing on Activiti, but a real demo hasn’t materialized yet. They’re promising me something in 2011. I can’t really comment on what I haven’t seen yet.

  4. I’ve been using BOS 5.4 in evaluation, and am impressed. I agree that the toolkit is far more integrated, and easier to use, than Activiti and jBPM.

    The BAM and CM features you describe are not in the free version. Instead, they require the purchase of a support package. The price of the support package is not public information.

    The list of connectors is impressive, but it is not clear how capable the connectors are or the breadth of compatibility with various versions of the systems that they intend to connect to.

    Are there any commercial toolkits that combine the ease of use and feature set of BOS 5.4? The Gartner BPM report does not seem to include FOSS solutions, but I see Lombardi, Appian (sp?), and Pega as leaders. Are those viable alternatives to BOS in terms of development and run-time experience, and what about cost? One must still take the toolkit and build something that has business value. A big capital outlay upfront is generally not a good thing if the first deployment doesn’t happen for 6-12 months.

  5. Dave, thanks for your comments — always good to hear from someone who is using the tool in practice, and valuable info on what’s not available in the free version since I obviously forgot to ask that explicitly during the briefing. I think that we’ll see a lot of advancement from Activiti in the coming months, they are moving fast, but they do have a ways to go to catch up with Bonitasoft.

    Gartner tends to focus on commercial solutions rather than FOSS. Obviously, there’s going to be a greater up-front cost for on-premise commercial software, but there are cloud alternatives that can make the initial project much less costly. For example, Appian, which has been well-ranked in the BPM reports for quite a while, also has a cloud version; you can start with that for quite a low cost, and migrate your applications to an on-premise version later.

    Although commercial solutions tend to have much larger suites of functionality, the big question is whether you will use that in your projects. For example, many commercial products have simulation, but I rarely see that used in practice. You’ll need to do some feature comparison to figure out whether the commercial solutions add enough functionality out of the box to make it worth the cost, depending on your projects.

  6. It was good for me and also for those who didnt use 6th version. Bonitasoft recently released version 6 of its software, which it describes as the biggest upgrade in three years. The product is officially known as Bonitasoft BPM 6.

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