Another rift in the open source BPM market: @FlowableBPM forks from @Alfresco Activiti

Photo of Berries On Forks by my talented friend Pat Anderson (digiteyes)In early 2013, Camunda – at the time, a value-added Activiti consulting partner as well as a significant contributor to the open source project – created a fork from Activiti to form what is now the Camunda open source BPM platform as well as their commercial version based on the open source core. As I wrote at the time:

At the end of 2012, I had a few hints that things at Alfresco’s Activiti BPM group was undergoing some amount of transition: Tom Baeyens, the original architect and developer of Activiti (now CEO of the Effektif cloud BPM startup announced last week), was no longer leading the Activiti project and had decided to leave Alfresco after less than three years; and camunda, one of the biggest Activiti contributors (besides Alfresco) as well as a major implementation consulting partner, was making noises that Activiti might be too tightly tied to Alfresco’s requirements for document-centric workflow rather than the more general BPM platform that Activiti started as.

Since then, Effektif became Signavio Workflow and Camunda decided to use a capital letter in their name; what didn’t change, however, is that as the main sponsor of Activiti, Alfresco obviously has a need to make Activiti work for document-centric BPM and skewed the product in that direction. That’s not bad if you’re an Alfresco ECM customer, but likely was not the direction that the original Activiti BPM team wanted to go.

Last month, I heard that key Activiti people had left Alfresco but had no word about where they were heading; last week, former Activiti project lead Tijs Rademakers and Activiti co-founder and core developer Joram Barrez announced that they were creating an Activiti fork to form Flowable with a team including former Alfresco Activiti people and other contributors.

To be clear to those who don’t dabble in open source, forking is a completely normal activity (no pun intended…well, maybe only a little) wherein a copy of the source code is take at a point in time to create a new open source project with its own name and developer community. This may be done because of a disagreement in product direction – as appears was the case here – or because someone wants to take it in a radically different direction to address a different need or market.

I heard about all of this from Jeff Potts, who has been involved in the Alfresco open source community for a decade, via his blog. He wrote about the Activiti leads leaving Alfresco back in September, although he reported it as three people leaving independently that just happened to occur at the same time. Possibly not completely accurate, in hindsight, but that was the word at the time. He then saw the Flowable announcement (linked above) and wrote about that,  which is where I first saw it. Potts has been involved in the Alfresco open source community for a decade.

Alfresco’s founder and CTO, John Newton, posted about the team departure and the fork:

Unfortunately, some of my early friends on the Activiti project have disagreed with our direction and have taken the step of forking the Activiti code. This is disappointing because the work that they have done is very good and has generally been in the spirit of open source. However, the one thing that we could not continue to give them was exclusive control of the project. I truly wish that we could have found a way to work with them within a community framework.

This seemed to confirm my suspicion that this was a disagreement in product direction as well as a philosophical divide; with Alfresco now a much bigger company than it was at the time that they took Activiti under their wing, it’s not surprising that the corporate mindset wouldn’t always agree with open source direction. Having to spend much more effort on the enterprise edition than the open source project and seeing BPM subsumed under ECM would not sit well with the original Activiti BPM team.

Newton’s comments are also an interesting echo of Barrez’ post at the time of the Camunda fork. In both situations, a sense of disappointment – and maybe a bit of betrayal? – although now Barrez is on the other side of the equation.

Flowable was quick to offer a guide on how to move from Activiti to Flowable – trivial at this point since the code base is still the same – and Camunda jumped in with a guide on moving from Activiti to Camunda, an update on what they’ve done to the engine since their fork in 2013, and reasons why you should make the switch.

If you’re using Activiti right now, you have to be a bit nervous about this news, but don’t be.

  • If you’re using it primarily for document workflow with your Alfresco ECM, you’re probably best to stay put in the long run: undoubtedly, Activiti will be restaffed with a good team and will continue to integrate tightly with Alfresco; it’s possible that some of the capabilities might find their way from the Activiti project to the Alfresco project over time. There’s obviously going to be a bit of a gap in the team for a while: the project shows no new commits for a month, and questions on the forum are going unanswered.
  • If you use Activiti without Alfresco ECM (or with very little of it), you still don’t need to do anything right now: as Camunda showed in their post, a migration path from Activiti to Flowable or Camunda or any other fork will still exist in the future because of the shared heritage. It will get more complex over time, but not impossible. Sit tight for 6-12 months, and reassess your options then.
  • If you’re considering Activiti as a new installation, consider your use cases. If you’re a heavy Alfresco ECM user and want it tightly integrated, Activiti is the way to go. For other cases, it’s not so clear. We need to hear a bit more from Alfresco on their plans, but it’s telling that Newton’s post said “Business Process Management is one of those critical components of any content management system” which seems to place ECM as the primary focus and BPM as a component. He also said that they would be more explicit in their roadmap, and I recommend that you wait for that if you’re in the evaluation stage for a pure (non-ECM) BPM platform.

In the meantime, Flowable has released their initial 5.22.0 engine, and have plans for version 6 by the end of November. They haven’t published a product roadmap yet, but I’m expecting significant diversions from Activiti to happen quickly to incorporate new technologies that bring the focus back to BPM.

Note: the photo accompanying this post was taken by my talented photographer friend, Pat Anderson, with whom I have eaten many delicious and photogenic meals.

2 thoughts on “Another rift in the open source BPM market: @FlowableBPM forks from @Alfresco Activiti

  1. Love the photogenic meals part, Sandy! But seriously, even though I don’t follow the BPM market, I just follow you, I found the article an interesting read on the topic of forking open source projects. Thanks for writing such an insightful piece.

    1. Thanks – I’m not much involved in open source, but I like the community collaboration aspect. Forking is interesting because it’s usually caused by some sort of disconnect in that collaboration.

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