Modeling Processes in a Browser with Appian

For those BPM vendors out there who say that you can’t create a fully-featured browser-based process modeling tool: YOU’RE WRONG. Appian does it, they do it well, and if you don’t get moving on this soon, they’ll kick your butt.

I was going to just stop there, but that would be mean, so I’ll continue on with a more complete review of the Appian 1-1/2 hour, open-the-firehose demo that I received last week via Webex, compliments of Phil Larson (director of product marketing) and Malcolm Ross (über demo god) at Appian.


In case this is the first time that you’ve read my blog, let me iterate my view that a browser-based process modeler is the way to go if your goal is to lower the barriers to enabling process modelling and design across an enterprise — this is one of the ways that Web 2.0 is impacting BPM, as I discussed in a presentation at the BPMG conference earlier this year. Appian is the only mainstream BPM vendor that provides a lightweight (dare I say, zero footprint?) browser-based process modeler; the only other mainstream vendor that even has a browser-based process modeler is FileNet, but it’s a rather weighty Java applet that downloads with some degree of trouble, in my experience. [btw, if you want to debate the term “mainstream BPM vendor” with me, first of all check if you’re anywhere in Gartner’s BPMS Magic Quadrant except for the “niche players” quadrant, or anywhere at all in Forrester’s Human-Centric BPMS Wave.]

I’d never had the Appian corporate overview until this session, and I found it quite telling that 3 of the 4 founders were from Microstrategy, a business intelligence vendor. Analytics and reporting are baked into everything in the product, including the user interface: all of the grid-based UI screens such as inbox views are actually report views driven straight out of their own reporting/analytics engine, which makes it easy to do things like switch any view to a chart (if it makes sense to do so). It also means that KPIs and business thresholds can be easily built into a process and seen in a number of different views, not just a siloed BAM dashboard, including viewing process execution stats right in the modeler while you’re viewing the model. This makes for a more seamless integration between design, execution, monitoring and analytics than you’ll find in many vendors’ products, although some customers may find a proprietary reporting and analytics engine, as well as their proprietary and built-in rules engine, to be problematic in the face of corporate standards for these types of platforms.

Although nothing to do with process design, but very cool and Web 2.0-y, is the ability for a user to flag a process instance or a task within a process instance as a favourite. Although this isn’t quite the full process tagging paradigm that I’ve written about previously and talked about in my Web 2.0/BPM presentation, it’s a great start.

I won’t talk too much about the specific functions within the Appian process modeler, except to say that it does everything that I would expect from a process designer, and more: full BPMN-compliant modeling including more complex constructs such as ad hoc activities (i.e., those that aren’t attached to the process flow, see section 5.2.3 of the BPMN spec if you want to understand what this means); the ability to chain activities in a process so that they’re locked to the same user and present them as steps in a wizard-type interface rather than having to reopen each sequentially from a task list; a full forms designer that will be released next month; import/export to XPDL (which allows you to model offline with Zynium’s add-on to Visio and interchange models with the Appian process modeler); different views and capabilities within the process modeler for business analysts and developers; and web services introspection and mapping. And it does it all in a completely AJAX environment, although due to support for VML but not SVG, it’s not supported in Firefox yet. Furthermore, all you need to cross the firewall from the modeler to the server is port 80 (i.e., standard HTTP) or port 443 (for HTTP over SSL).


If Appian really wanted to kick some butt, they’d create the browser-based equivalent of a free process modeler download: a free process modeling site exposed on the internet, available for anyone to sign up and try it out. Who would download and install a process modeling tool to try out if you could have the same functionality available online?

I’ve heard the comment from a couple of BPM vendors that a full AJAX process modeler is “hard”. Duh, of course it’s hard; if it was easy, everyone would do it. Appian started out with a Java applet process modeler, then ended up building their own AJAX library of JAVA Struts objects and moving over to AJAX in 2003 — two years before the term “AJAX” was even coined. They’ve invested a huge amount of time to make their browser-based process modeler every bit as functional and responsive as a desktop application, and it shows. It reminds me of the quote about how Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels: yeah, it’s hard, but it looks great.

12 thoughts on “Modeling Processes in a Browser with Appian”

  1. Sandy
    Interesting post – I assume that business users are the target for this browser-based tool. Given that, how do Appian and you see those users accessing decisions within the process and how do those business users then maintain those decisions? Is there a way to integrate rule maintenance into this process modeling?

  2. I was part of an eval team when we were looking at BPM tools and I didn’t consider the browser-hosted modeling environment to be a “must have”. In our (large) org we were going to have 1-2 modelers in each department/division, maybe 5-10 total in the company, if ever that. Granted, it may be easier to install and upgrade a web application than to distribute a desktop app but the cost of install/maintenance/monitoring is comparable, if not greater for the web approach. From the user’s perspective, I totally agree that AJAX is neater than a desktop app but that’s about it. I would argue with (even implied) “less/more usable” label being a function of deployment mode (AJAX or desktop) – design of the app/UI has a lot more to do with it, in my experience.

  3. James, they have their own rules engine built in, but we didn’t really get to talking about that part of things, or whether they interface to other systems for decisioning. Phil promised me a follow-up session specifically on rules, so I may have an update on this at a later date.

    By the way, this modeler isn’t specifically for the business analysts: this is their ONLY process modeling environment. That’s why they provide things like different views and capabilities within the process modeler for business analysts and developers, and web services introspection and mapping.

  4. Jason, thanks for your comment. I think that in many cases in the past, a browser-based process modeler has not been considered a “must-have” in part because there were so few of them, and no one had really focussed on the benefits that they provide.

    I suppose that I’m an easy convert to this camp because I’ve used FileNet a lot in the past, and even a Java applet through a browser is a great improvement over having to install something on the desktop. It allowed me to easily poke into the repository and look at a process design regardless of whether I was at my own desk or not. It’s interesting to note that Proforma is starting to release their modeling tool in a browser-based version, although they’re not fully there yet, because they see that putting the modeling tools in the hands of anyone who has the slightest reason or inclination to try it will help to promote proper process modeling — and therefore process improvement — throughout the organization.

    Although I wasn’t the one driving the demo, I felt that the usability of the Appian modeler was every bit as good as that of any desktop process modeler that I’ve used, and better than some.

  5. James,
    Sandy is right, we do ship with a separate rules repository that integrates seamlessly with the process component. Our approach to rules is threefold:
    1) make it easy to create one off rules, policies and expressions for use in specific processes.
    2) make it easy to create reusable rules stored in a separate rules repository for reusing across processes and applications.
    3) integrate with third party rules engines like iLog and Corticon by creating Smart Nodes where users can browse rules stored in these repositories, choose one, and have them execute in the context of the process to guide process flow.

    I’m running out the door to a meeting so I apologize for the brevity of the explanation and for any typos. 🙂

  6. Thanks for the clarification, Phil (and not forcing me to quote your email instead).

    James, I did hear from Phil in an earlier email that they don’t support Fair Isaac (yet?).

  7. Cordys has a completely ‘ browser ‘ based BPM modeler which provides a comprehensive fully complaint BPMN based graphical modeler with support for even complex BPMN constructs like Intermediate message , compensate etc .Its a AJAX based environment which allows you to model , execute and monitor business process at real time .It provides a powerful environment to develop hybrid business process model capable of both human and system integration. The browser based environment supports out of box KPI and Graphs for Business Activity monitoring and supports industry standards like BPEL and BPML .

  8. Sandy, how do Appian’s process modeling tools compare to Metastorm’s (formerly Proforma) tools. Please advise. Thanks.

  9. Proforma’s ProVision is a full business process analysis tool — I don’t think that you can compare that with a BPMS’ process modeller like Appian. I covered ProVision extensively from their user conference last year at

    BPA tools like ProVision include modelling of many aspects of a business besides just the parts of a process that will be automated, whereas Appian’s tool (and that of all other BPMS vendors) is intended to model those processes — and the steps within them — that will be automated in their execution environment.

    ProVision includes other functionality that you’re not going to find in a BPMS process modeller, such as full modelling of enterprise architecture (not just processes) and publishing of the models along with a great deal of background information and metadata to a web version that can be made available for training purposes on an organization’s intranet.

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