A Week of BPM

We’re closing out a week that’s been bookended by a couple of BPM-related announcements from IBM and upstart Active Endpoints. The common thread is the quest for greater simplicity, the difference is that one de-emphasizes the B word itself, with a focus of being a simple productivity tool that makes complex enterprise apps (in this case Salesforce.com) easier, while the other amplifies a message loud and clear that this is the BPM that you always wanted BPM to be.

The backstory is that BPM has traditionally appealed to a narrow audience of specially-skilled process analysts and modelers, and has yet to achieve the mass market status. Exhibit One? One of the larger independent BPM players (Pegasystems) still standing is a $330 million company. In the interim, there has been significant consolidation in this community as BPM has become one of the components that are expected in a middleware stack. A milestone has been Oracle’s latest Fusion BPM 11g R1, which unifies the engines and makes them first class citizens of the Fusion middleware stack. While such developments have solidified BPM’s integration story, on its own that has not made BPM the enterprise’s next ERP.

The irony is that BPM has long been positioned as the business stakeholder’s path to application development, with the implication that a modeling/development environment that uses the terms of business process rather than programmatic commands should appeal to a higher audience. The drawback is that to get there, most BPM tools relied on proprietary languages that limited use to… you guessed it… a narrow cadre of business process architects.

Just over a year ago, IBM acquired Lombardi, one of the more innovative independents that has always stressed simplicity. Not that IBM was lacking in BPM capability, but they were based on aging engines centered around integration and document management/workflow use cases, respectively. As IBM software has not been known by its simplicity (many of its offerings still consist of multiple products requiring multiple installs, or a potpourri of offerings targeted for separate verticals or use cases), the fear was that Lombardi would get swallowed alive and emerge unrecognizable.

The good news is that Lombardi in technology and product has remained alive and well. We’ll characterize IBM Business Process Manager 7.5 as Lombardi giving IBM’s BPM suite a heart transplant; it dropped in a new engine to reinvigorate the old. As for the peanut gallery, Janelle Hill characterized it as IBM getting a Lombardotomy; Neil Ward-Dutton and Sandy Kemsley described it as a reverse takeover; Ward-Dutton debated Clay Richardson that the new release was more than just a new paint job, while Bruce Silver assessed it as IBM’s BPM endgame.

So what did IBM do in 7.5? The modeling design environment and repository are Lombardi’s, with the former IBM WebSphere Process Server (that’s the integration BPM) now being ported over to the Lombardi engine. It’s IBM’s initial answer to Oracle’s unification of process design and runtimes with the latest Fusion BPM.

IBM is not all the way there yet. Process Server models, which were previously contained in a flat file, are now stored in the repurposed Lombardi repository, but that does not yet make the models fully interoperable. You can just design them in the same environment and store them in the same repository. That’s a good start, and at least it shows that the Lombardi approach will not get buried. Beyond the challenge of integrating the model artifacts, the bigger question to us is whether the upscaling and extending of Lombardi to cover more use cases might be too much of a good thing. Can it avoid the clutter of Microsoft Office that resulted from functional scope creep?

As for FileNet, IBM’s document-centric BPM, that’s going to wait. It’s a very different use case – and note that even as Oracle unified two of its BPM engines, it has markedly omitted the document management piece. Document centric workflow is a well-ingrained use case and has its own unique process patterns, so the open question is whether it is realistic to expect that such a style of process management can fit in the same engine, or simply exist as external callable workflows.

At the other end of the week, we were treated to the unveiling of Active Endpoints new Cloud Extend release. As we tweeted, this is a personality transplant for Active Endpoints, as the company’s heritage has been with more geeky BPEL, and even geekier branded tool, ActiveVOS.

OK, the Cloud branding is a break from geekdom, but it ain’t exactly original – there’s too much Cloud this and Cloud that going around the ISV community these days.

More to the point, Cloud Extend does not really describe what Active Endpoints is doing with this release. Cloud Extend is not cloud-enabling your applications, it is just enabling your application that in this case happens to run in the cloud (the company also has an on premises version of this tool with the equally unintuitive brand Socrates).

In essence, Cloud Extend adds a workflow shell to Salesforce.com so that you can design workflows in a manner that appears as simple as creating a Visio diagram, while providing the ability to save and reuse them. There’s BPEL and BPMN underneath the hood, but in normal views you won’t see them. It also has neat capabilities that help you filter out extraneous workflow activities when working on a particular process. The result is that you have screens that drive users to interact with Salesforce in a consistent manner, replacing the custom coding of systems integrators with a tool that should help systems integrators perform the same Salesforce customization job quicker. Clearly, Salesforce should be just the first stop for this technology; we’d expect that Active Endpoints will subsequently target other enterprise apps with its engine in due course.

We hate to spill the beans, but under the covers, this is BPM. But that’s not the point – and in fact it opens an interesting argument as to whether we should simply take advantage of the technology without having to make a federal case about it. It’s yet another approach to make the benefits of BPM more accessible to people who are not modeling notation experts, which is a good thing.

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