Modelling processes without a BPMS

An article by Bruce Silver in Intelligent Enterprise discusses the recent spate of BPM vendors releasing their process modelling tools for free. He lists Savvion, Oracle and Intalio, but the trend is widening — TIBCO just announced the availability of their modeling tool, and although the press release doesn’t specify, I heard a rumour that it’s free as well (how could it not be, considering the competition?). These offerings, from companies who make their money on the BPMS engine side so can afford to give away the modelling tools, will certainly make a dent in the market share of some of the dedicated modelling tools, such as Proforma, although many of the dedicated tools provide more extensive enterprise architecture-type modelling, not just process modelling.

One significant problem with these free tools is that although the vendors assume that they will just spread to all the desktops in an organization like wildfire, most corporate IT departments lock down user desktop configurations so that you can’t install applications. Although this might seem like a bit of Big Brother, there’s a good reason for this: it’s completely impossible for a corporate IT department to support several thousand PCs if the users can just install anything that they want on them. A case in point: a few years ago, a workstation at a client of mine started freezing “randomly”, which they blamed on the BPM software that we had installed on it. After several service calls where the problem did not recur, followed by uninstalls and reinstalls, one of my engineers finally just hung around until the problem occurred. The culprit? A non-corporate-standard screen saver that showed an animated football game; the machine hung right around the first down when the cheerleaders came out. When we reverted to a standard Windows screen saver, the problem disappeared. Since then, I’ve never complained about the restrictions that corporate IT makes on standard user desktops, even though it keeps me from using Firefox at most customer sites.

What this means is that even if a vendor makes their software available for free, that doesn’t assure acceptance, because it’s not free for an organization to regression test that against their standard desktop environment(s) and all of the other applications with which it might coexist. There’s two possible solutions to this:

  • Create an entirely web-based process modelling tool. (Do BPMS vendors know about Web 2.0 yet?)
  • Use a modelling tool that is already on most users’ desktops, namely Microsoft Visio.

I had a chat with one of the BPMS vendors recently about the first option, and he asked if I felt that web-based was the way to go (I love it when BPMS vendors ask me my opinion on product direction 🙂 ). My reply:

I like web-based since it lowers the barrier to use… many people of the type that I see in my customers who are doing process modelling are doing so at their office location and could be doing it much more easily if they don’t have to get permission from their IT department to install something on their PC, but use a purely web-based tool.

We also discussed how an installed version was necessary for people who aren’t always connected, but most real process modellers aren’t doing it from 35,000 feet or at a trade show, they’re doing it from their desk with a high-speed corporate internet connection. Yes, you have to have something for the road warriors and your sales people, but ultimately you’ll be most successful if you build what’s best for the target audience.

Which brings me to the second solution: Visio. Last year, Bruce Silver had a couple of articles on using Visio for process modelling, referencing the itp-commerce product. I just had a demo of a competing product, Byzio from Zynium (which sounds like a fictional space alien and his planet, sort of like Mork from Ork), another Visio add-on that allows for more robust process modelling in that ubiquitous tool. Yes, you still need to install the add-on, but chances are that a corporate IT department will find it much easier to approve a Visio add-on for installation than a full application.

Basically, Byzio allows you to draw a process model in Visio, then export it to XPDL for import into a BPMS’ process modelling tool. [In case you’re not up on XPDL, it’s an XML file format used to store BPMN; BPMN is the graphic modelling notation.] You can use a BPMN stencil in Visio so that you’re using the standard BPMN shapes, but the real power of Byzio is in the ability to map from any shape to a BPMN/XPDL construct, so if you already have a corporate standard for what shapes to use in a process model, you don’t have to change that, you just have to set up the mapping. The really cool thing is that Byzio has the ability to use the text within a shape to assist in the mapping, for example, detecting the words “and” or “or” in a decision shape and choosing the correct decision type. The mapping setup, which includes a regular expression parser, is not something that you’ll want every user to be playing around with, but as long as everyone in a department is using some standard notation, you should be able to set up the mapping once and replicate it around.

Although XPDL is supposed to be a standard, every BPMS vendor has their own flavour of XPDL, so the Byzio installation has to be specific to the target BPMS: the version that was demonstrated for me was for Fujitsu Interstage, but they also list Appian and DST on their website and I know that there are others in the works. In the case of Interstage, after the XPDL file is exported from Visio using the Byzio add-on, it’s opened in the Interstage process designer, where it can be further enhanced with engine-specific parameters. Byzio also plans to support round-tripping, where the XPDL can be exported back from the BPMS process designer for import into Visio for rework — I think that there’s some serious challenges in making this happen, but it’s doable. Not as integrated as using the BPMS’ process designer directly, but it has the huge advantage of using software that’s already installed on every business analysts’ desktop.

I’m still torn on the best solution in the long run. I feel strongly that there’s a place for BPMS vendors to create fully web-based versions of their process modelling tools intended for use by business users: namely, versions of the tools that don’t include all the yucky technical details, but provide a business view of the process models as they exist in the BPMS — no importing/exporting required. However, Visio is used for so much more than just what’s going to be automated in a BPMS that it will retain its dominance in process modelling by business users for the foreseeable future. That being said, I’ll give the edge to Visio paired with add-ons such as Byzio or itp-commerce.

TIBCO and AJAX first look

I spent this morning at a seminar co-hosted by TIBCO and Intelligent Enterprise, featuring Michael Melenovsky from Gartner. One of my reasons for attending was to find out more about TIBCO’s newly-released version of General Interface, which they purchased a year ago, and find out just how tightly that it’s integrated with the TIBCO BPM product. In other words, I was on the BPM mashup hunt that I talked about here.

Jeff Kristick, TIBCO’s Director of Product Marketing, gave a presentation where he showed a screenshot of an AJAX-based rich client interface to their BPM product (I would have loved to have seen a demo rather than PPT-ware). I asked if their out-of-the-box UI for BPM was AJAX-based, and he said that they had taken advantage of the acquisition of GI to rebuild their BPM interface using their own AJAX development environment, and that’s what’s shipping now. Cool.

GI is available for free for public applications, and really cheap for enterprise (inside the firewall) applications, so off I went to the TIBCO technical site this afternoon to check it out. Quick signup, wait for a password via email, then off to the download page. I noticed the page of sample projects, each with both a preview and the source code, so thought I’d check these out before installing. Clicked on the first “View Preview” link:

Yikes! You want me to give up Firefox for this? I’m sure that the 45% of my readers who don’t use IE agree with me on this one.

More on GI and the rest of the seminar after I remember where I hid IE…

Get on the map

Attention, all you Mashup Camp attendees: go to Attendr to see a cool mashup example from Jeff Marshall that allows you to link to other attendees you already know or would like to meet. If you’re going to be at MashupCamp next week, be sure to look me up and say hi.

As for the rest of you, head on over and add yourself to my Frappr map. You can see where other readers of Column 2 are located, and I’ve added the capability to use coloured pins to denote whether you’re a customer, product vendor, services vendor or “other” as it relates to BPM and integration technologies.

BPM and AJAX

Here’s an interesting tidbit from the very bottom of an article on TIBCO‘s recent upgrades to its BPM platform (formerly the Staffware product):

The company [TIBCO] has upgraded the BPM user interface, as well, to include AJAX for the development of RIA (Rich Internet Applications).

Significant that a large BPM vendor acknowledges the existence of Web 2.0.

Considering that BPM products are, by their nature, typically both consumers and providers of web services (they are, after all, orchestration tools), how long until a mainstream BPM vendor jumps into the mashup fray? There’s already companies such as The Process Factory offering BPM in a software as a service (SaaS) model, we just need a BPM SaaS provider who also opens up the functionality via web services for integration into other applications, like Salesforce.com has done.

Or should BPM remain a part of an organization’s internal backbone?

Circular quotes on BPM and SOA

All of a sudden, there’s a lot of noise around enterprise mashups. Dennis Howlett posts about BPM and SOA, quoting a post by Jeff Clavier on the same topic. Dennis’ post also quotes a post by David Berlind which is actually a quote by me from an earlier quote that David quoted, and Jeff quotes David’s post that refers to me, so it all seems to come around in a circle to my earlier post on mashups and corporate SOA. Sometimes blogging is a bit like the telephone game.

Equally interesting is Jeff’s post about a TiE SIG Software event next week on Web 2.0 in the enterprise. I would SOOOO like to be there; if I had know about this earlier, I might have left for Mashup Camp a few days early.

What it comes down to is that Web 2.0 is, or will be, all about integration. David Linthicum posts about Salesforce.com becoming a web service provider (without yammering on about how they had another outage in the past week, as everyone else has been doing, ignoring the fact that outages occur all the time inside corporate IT but you just don’t hear about it) and links to Phil Wainewright’s interview with the Salesforce.com CEO, who has the grace to admit that he didn’t visualize the integration potential back when it all started.

Who will mash?

Further to my post about enterprise mashup yesterday, I’ve been thinking about who in the BPM space will jump on the enterprise mashup bandwagon first.

In my Making BPM Mean Business course, I discuss the history of BPM, and I’ve noticed that BPM vendors who started on the workflow side of the house typically expand their capabilities through OEM agreements and partnerships (the “United Nations” approach), whereas those who started on the EAI side typically expand by building functionality in-house or buying a small company outright and submerging it into their product (the “world domination” approach). That could be because the pretty UI stuff that is usually developed for the human-facing workflow functionality is perceived as the “personality” of the BPM product, and everyone needs to author their own personality, or at least be perceived as being its author. (Okay, for a comment about technology, that’s pretty philosophical.) There’s lots of exceptions to this, but I find that’s true in many cases.

Does that mean that the BPM vendors with a workflow heritage are more likely to embrace the mashup concepts than their descended-from-EAI competitors? While the old guard thinks it over, the “nouveau BPM” vendors (who are built on web services from the ground up) are probably already demoing the integration of Yahoo Maps with back-office transaction processing, and rewriting their marketing materials to include the word “mashup”.

By the way, I signed up for MashupCamp, so if you’re headed there in February, look me up.

Mashing up the enterprise

I’ve spent the past few days mulling over the differences between mashups and the more traditional integration that’s done with enterprise applications. My initial reaction? There’s a lot more similarities than differences: in both cases, a third party uses published application interfaces to create functionality that integrates the capabilities of two or more applications/services. I know, that’s a bit of a simplification, but how soon will it be before overly complex (and expensive) enterprise integrations start taking advantage of the lessons to be learned from the mashups of web services?

Obviously, I’m not the only one thinking about this: the ZDNet SaaS blog just posted about enterprise mashups, and what’s needed to make them a reality.

Makes me want to go to MashupCamp.