Oracle BPM 11g – The View From Afar

You know where I’m not this week? Oracle OpenWorld. You know why? Because after an email conversation where I said that I could attend if my travel expenses were covered, and having them register me for the conference, I was informed that “PR doesn’t cover any hotel rooms or air travel”. Whatever.

However, I did have an in-depth briefing and demo recently on the latest release of Oracle BPM 11g, covering their Business Process Composer modeling tool and the integrated WebCenter Portal for end-user experience, and this seemed like a timely week to publish it.

Front and center is the new release of the Business Process Composer, targeted at business/process analysts, used for modeling and collaborating around business processes. As with many other BPMS, Oracle BPM has one (web-based) tool for the semi-technical analysts to do process discovery and modeling, then another (Eclipsedesktop) environment for the technical developer to complete the design and implementation of the process application. In previous versions, the process could be modeled in the Composer, but the UI could only be created in the JDeveloper IDE; with this release, the analyst can now create the UI directly in the Composer, and play it back as a prototype to show to users and other stakeholders. The Composer functionality doesn’t include complex data transformations or integration requirements, or creating web services, which must still be done in JDeveloper, but it moves the bar considerably for what can be done before developers are (inevitably) engaged in an Oracle BPM project. The Composer also includes simulation based on manual scenarios or runtime data, although it doesn’t show the animations as in the IDE.

We went through a travel request process application to demonstrate some of the UI and modeling capabilities of the Composer:

  • Portal view of projects, with links for favorites, projects owned by me, and projects shared with me. From within an open project, there is a presence indicator for other active viewers on the project.
  • Supports most of the BPMN 2.0 standard, except for some of the less-common activities, such as conversation handler and escalation handler. What the analyst uses is not fully standard BPMN, however: there are some obvious extensions in the “Interactive” (human) tasks, and in fact, the human task management is very reminiscent of their BPEL4People implementation heritage although they claimed that they are executing BPMN natively.
  • The properties available for any given task can be quite technical, although there appear to be some logical defaults if the analyst doesn’t want to (or can’t) specify all of the details in the Composer.
  • A UI form can be created for a human task, and can either be based on the payload (process instance parameters) or completely freeform. Although eventually many of the form parameters have to be attached to instance variables, business analysts often think about UI before data, so it’s good not to have to keep jumping out to define an instance variable just to put a field on a form.
  • The UI form composer is pretty standard: drag and drop controls, including a wide variety of formatted controls such as email addresses and telephone numbers; dropdowns can be populated with values entered at design time, or called from a database or REST service.
  • The process and forms can be played back within the Composer, making it a good tool for prototyping and reviewing with end users: it animates the path through the process, provides the option to launch the form at each human task as a specific user, and can discover and invoke services .

The general idea, as with many other BPMS, is that the business analysis will create the initial forms and processes, then a technical developer will add rules, invoke services, and generally make the application executable. The Composer and IDE can share process models via a common repository, but if I understood it correctly, there’s a bit of a kludge: the IDE must manually move models back to the repository since it uses a different format.

The second major enhancement in this release of Oracle BPM 11g is production case management functionality, enabled through greater integration of ECM capabilities into the BPM product. We went through a demo of the end-user case management functionality within the WebCenter Portal (a restricted-use license of the portal is provided with BPM), which has several panels of information:

  • Case information, with tabs for the audit trail (events and comments), data, attached documents (WebCenter Content based on Stellent acquisition, restricted license included with BPM, or any CMIS-compliant ECM), and discussion (forums/wikis).
  • Milestones and status; these can be marked complete or reopened based on user permissions.
  • Stakeholders, for access control to this class of cases. Permissions are defined in the context of case design, not predefined for entire system.
  • Activities, which can be filtered by status, where “Available” means activities that the current user is permitted to start.
  • Linked and referred cases; cases can be linked automatically by a model-driven parameter (e.g., account number), or by the user searching and creating a manual connection at runtime.

The JDeveloper IDE is used for modeling cases: defining milestones, outcomes, instance variables, user events and stakeholders, then defining rulesets (either in decision tables, or if-then code) and enabling each rule for different milestones within the case definition. Rules can be self-contained, or can invoke services or trigger processes. Case activities can be manually or automatically activated, and may be human tasks, BPMN processes, or exit to Java. Unfortunately, the case definition environment is still pretty technical, so unlikely to be done by a non-technical analyst.

Oracle is allied with the CMMN case modeling notation standards efforts, which puts them at about the right time in the CM standards wave, although I think that we may eventually see this merge with the BPMN standard.

It feels like Oracle is doing a bit of catching up with the competition: analyst tools for form-based UI design as part of a process application have been available in other BPMS for some time, and the technical nature of the case management designer is behind the times. However, these significant improvements in the Business Process Composer now allow for a complete prototype model to be created and approved by the business before developer involvement.

I haven’t heard any updates on the BPM product coming out of OpenWorld this week, but if you’re there in person, you’ll hear about it before I do. :-)

Oracle accidentally tweets about ALBPM

Two weeks ago, Peter Shankman broke the story about a social media “expert” who twittered unflatteringly about a customer’s home city while on his way to visit them, and how the expert was slapped in the face with it by his customer. If you’re using social media such as Facebook and Twitter for business purposes, you’d better be aware of who can see your updates so as not to commit a similar faux pas.

For example, a search for “albpm” (the BEA BPM platform acquired by Oracle, and positioned as strategic in their product strategy even though it’s not clear how they intend to converge ALBPM and BPEL Process Manager into a single runtime engine without obsolescing at least one of them) shows an interesting tweet made yesterday by Paul Cross at Oracle:

Oracle tweets about ALBPM

It looks like he didn’t understand (prior to that point) that if he wants to use Twitter for making possibly controversial sales strategy statements like this, it’s important to protect his updates so that only the people who he follows can see them. By this morning, his updates were protected, but Twitter search keeps all unprotected tweets available for all time.

I haven’t heard much lately about the Oracle BPM product convergence; I’m sure that there are a lot of ALBPM customers out there who are hoping that this internal directive doesn’t mean the end of ALBPM.

Oracle-BEA Strategy

Oracle’s been taking a bit of a beating lately, with Gartner stating that their middleware suites are “assemblies of convenience”, and that they are unlikely to offer any surprising innovations in the short term as they’re attempting to resolve the overlap and incompatibilities between the Oracle and BEA product lines. Gartner’s saying “watch this space”, but some of Oracle’s competitors are interpreting that as “they’ve got a big bunch of SOA stuff they have to integrate, and you know it’s going to hurt, so delay the pain”.

I discussed Oracle’s Borg-like acquisition of BEA back in June, and Bruce Silver recently agreed that Oracle knows how to do acquisitions right, and discussed the Oracle middleware product strategy outlined at Open World last month.

I did a review of the product strategy in early days shortly after the acquisition, then had a chance to attend an in-person briefing more recently at an BEA “customer welcome day” in Toronto along with about 120 attendees, with Mason Ng of Oracle as the main speaker. This followed the same lines as the web briefing that I’ve already written about, with the products marked in red for “strategic” (immediate adoption, minor redesign), blue for “continue and converge” (limited development, converge/merge with another product, 9-year support cycle), and white for “maintenance” (end of life). The AquaLogic brand is being discontinued, but not (necessarily) the products; other brands, such as WebLogic, are being maintained for their marketing value.

There were some misleading comments from Ng: he stated that BPMN is for human-centric workflow BPM and BPEL is for system-centric BPM, which certainly planted the wrong message about BPMN (a graphical notation) and BPEL (a serialization/execution language) in the minds of anyone in the audience who didn’t already have an opinion on this. I’m not sure if he doesn’t get it, or he wanted to create a reason for why multiple BPM products are required, but he positioned BPMN and BPEL as competing standards in his presentation; I think that he’s really talking about XPDL, since AL-BPM natively executes XPDL from the BPMN serialization.

Some mysteries remain, such as how Oracle ESB and AquaLogic Service Bus can both be considered strategic, when they are being merged into a single product, Oracle Service Bus. Realistically, both original products will be modified significantly to create OSB, but it was stated that AL-SB will be the core, with features from O-ESB rolled in. Good news for AL-SB customers, not so much for O-ESB customers. Ditto with Oracle BPM, which will be a merging of AL-BPM and Oracle BPEL Process Manager: both of the constituent products are considered “strategic” (which is supposed to mean “minor redesign” only), but they stated that the core will be AL-BPM with BPEL capabilities rolled into a single engine, which will mean major changes to Oracle BPEL Process Manager and, most likely, AL-BPM in order to create the merged product.

The attendees at this event were primarily BEA customers, which means fairly deep inside the IT organization, and not necessarily innovators. I saw a lot more old Blackberries than new iPhones. And in this conservative development environment, there’s a big perception problem as well: Oracle positions the 9 years of support for the blue products as being incredibly long, but organizations starting out on 5-year development projects (as was one audience member) see that as being just around the corner, and likely to be biting them just as they’re rolling out the last bits of the project. There’s the bigger question of why anyone is planning a 5-year portal development project, but when the guy beside me admitted that 50% of their desktops are still on Windows 2000, I started to see the gap between the starry-eyed vendors and the reality of the slow pace of enterprise development.

At the end, we had the obligatory appearance of the regional sales team — 5 white guys in suits — stating that “nothing has changed” and “it will be a good thing in the end”. In other words, resistance is futile.

Enterprise 2.0: Oracle’s Initiatives for Enterprise 2.0

Steve Diamond, an Oracle product manager for on-demand CRM, led a breakout session on their Enterprise 2.0 initiatives. I’m attending a dinner tonight with Oracle executives tonight and will undoubtedly hear more about this.

After 30+ minutes of lightweight “here’s what Enterprise 2.0 is and why it’s important”, he finally started to talk about what new and exciting things that they’re doing, but I’d mostly nodded off by then. Guess I will have to pay attention tonight. He did talk about their Social CRM application and about what’s happening in their internal AppsLab skunkworks, but it just wasn’t enough to hold my attention and I slipped out early.

The buzz around here seems to be that Oracle doesn’t have enough of their Enterprise 2.0 story sorted out yet, and I’m still waiting for Oracle to prove that notion wrong.

Oracle-BEA versus IBM-FileNet: the Borg versus death by a thousand cuts

Almost two years ago, I reported on the IBM acquisition of FileNet, wherein I quoted their plan to “integrate IBM’s BPM and SOA technologies with the FileNet platform”. I interpreted this to mean that FileNet BPM could finally get separated from its document-centric chains, and become the product that it should have been years ago. Just as Jessica Rabbit said “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way”, the FileNet BPM wasn’t (isn’t) document-centric, it’s just marketed that way. As the former director of e-business evangelism for FileNet in 2000-1 when they were launching this generation of the BPM product, I had some idea of what I was talking about — I saw that 40% of the BPM installations in some countries did not involve documents at all, and that this was due to the local sales and marketing messages and techniques rather than any inherently different BPM requirements between countries. So several years after I left FileNet, when the acquisition occurred and I saw that initial press release, I imagined that the best possible thing would be if the BPM product were to be separated out and made part of the IBM WebSphere suite, in order to flesh out the badly-needed human-facing workflow side of things over there. I realized that would mean some major surgery on the product, but a stronger unified BPM suite would emerge from that.

A few days later, an analyst call with IBM set me straight on that: the GM of the IBM Information Management unit that would be absorbing FileNet referred to FileNet’s BPM as “content-centric”. Uh-oh. I knew that couldn’t mean anything good for the product. I still have a lot of friends inside IBM-FileNet, and at first, it seemed like they were being allowed some degree of autonomy. Then, they gradually started being pulled into the “IBM way”, and a lot of people started getting unhappy, and many eventually left. There were few explicit purges, except for some redundant administration, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t losses.

Recently, IBM announced its grand plan for BPM; Bruce Silver covered it here, describing how they plan to bring together process and content:

[T]he steps that involve content operations (e.g. adding/revising/securing documents) are done by a FileNet P8 process, which is invoked via WSDL as a subprocess in the end-to-end WebSphere process.

In other words, after more than a year, my premonition about the FileNet BPM product was realized, and it became — from a marketing standpoint — a shadow of its former self. I’m sure that customers using FileNet BPM for end-to-end processes (which IBM thinks are more suitable for WebSphere Process Server) cringed as they see the future of their installed product atrophy. I can only imagine the impact on the (still fairly segregated) sales team: one day, they’re selling FileNet BPM as a full BPM solution, the next day, it’s a document-centric subprocess handler, to be called from WPS. In much the same way that other BPEL vendors handle human-facing tasks as second-class citizen, calling a subsystem using WSDL to manage them, IBM is demoting FileNet BPM to the same realm. Although I predicted this right from the first analyst call, it doesn’t give me much satisfaction when I think about what it could have been.

The current monster acquisition in this space is Oracle and BEA, and it’s interesting to see the contrast in acquisition styles. Unlike the death-from-a-thousand-cuts method inflicted by IBM on FileNet, Oracle is more like the Borg: BEA is being assimilated, and fast. The acquisition — from the first rejected offer last October to the final accepted offer this January — was completed in late April, less than two weeks before the BEA Participate user conference. At the conference, I found that many of my BEA acquaintances were not staying on with Oracle; many others have announced that they’re leaving since then as well.

The Register reported yesterday on how Oracle is dismantling the AquaLogic product line: the AquaLogic web products (portals and Web 2.0) and, it appears, the WebLogic products will go one direction (hypothesized by the Register to be the Stellent team), with some rationalization of AquaLogic and WebLogic finally occurring; AquaLogic BPM will be moved under the Fusion middleware team. I haven’t dealt much with the WebLogic side of BEA, but when I dared to suggest that AquaLogic Pages could be used as a lightweight replacement for WebLogic Portal, I was “corrected” on the official party line. Given my confusion over this, I have to assume that some part of the market has also been confused over why BEA offers two different portal products. If it takes Oracle’s firm hand to finally merge them, that’s a good thing.

Oracle is doing exactly what I thought IBM should have done with FileNet: split up the product where it made sense and merge those pieces into similar teams that already exist, rather than try to maintain an intact semi-autonomous unit and brand, then gradually re-jig the product, potentially misleading customers about the final outcome.

As a member of the Enterprise Irregulars, I’ve been invited to a dinner hosted by Oracle next week at the Enterprise 2.0 conference; it will be interesting to see if BEA is so completely assimilated that the name isn’t even uttered.