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Is it time to build in BPM?

by David Longworth
January 16th, 2006

Will 2006 be the year that business process management moves out of its specialist ghetto to become a built-in component of every application?

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Some vendors say business process management should be built into applications rather than bought as a separate product:
  • Traditionally, BPM has been a separate middleware purchase
  • There is a fragmented market of point solutions
  • A lack of mature standards has held back progress
  • Now some BPM vendors market their wares to application vendors
  • Embedded BPM can make it easier to adapt to changing processes

Glossary terms: BPEL, BPM, orchestration, OASIS, ERP, lookup tool

Traditionally, enterprises have seen BPM as an optional extra investment. When necessary, they've signed up for an all-singing, all-dancing suite from the likes of Savvion, Fuego or Tibco, or for less specialist offerings from existing platform vendors such as IBM, BEA or Microsoft. But increasingly, enterprises today are opting to let application vendors do the grunt work for them, taking a bundled option built into the vendor's own application. With ERP vendors, data management vendors and the like embedding BPM functionality, several BPM vendors have moved away from selling direct to enterprises and instead have started to position themselves as primarily embedded or open source options. Examples include two vendors who coincidentally were both acquired last year — FiveSight, bought last month by Redwood, CA-based BPM specialist Intalio, and Oak Grove Systems, which last summer became part of Atlanta, Georgia-based legacy integration vendor Seagull Software.

While there are advantages to buying a turnkey solution, leaving the choice of BPM engine to the application vendor doesn't let the customer off the hook. It's still important to take a look under the hood at what these OEM products are offering, how they enhance the vendor's functionality and their adherence to open standards. You wouldn't buy a luxury automobile with an underpowered engine, and in the same way not all BPM engines are created equal.

Most observers assume that consolidation among BPM vendors is the sign of a marketplace maturing around a common approach or a core group of vendors, but if that's true the process still has quite a ways to go before it's complete. Some mergers are undoubtedly a land-grab opportunity — Columbia, MD-based MetaStorm's complex merger with CommerceQuest in October, for example, reversed the vendor's slowing growth of 2004 and positioned it back in the top 10 business process automation vendors according to IDC. But other acquisitions are more to do with strategic positioning in a market where the proliferation of approaches is still too varied to identify any in particular that are beginning to dominate.

Estimates put the number of players in the BPM space — from business process design products right through to orchestration engines — at between 140 to 200 vendors, depending on definitions. The sometimes subtle differences in approach between these products make the selection process for BPM a daunting prospect for any enterprise.

Slow adoption
Ismael Ghalimi is CEO and founder of Intalio, an early-to-market BPM pureplay, which recently acquired open-source BPM vendor FiveSight to, in his words, "significantly lower the barrier to adoption for BPM products." FiveSight claims to offer the leading open-source business process execution language (BPEL) engine by virtue of its being the first implementation of the OASIS BPEL 2.0 specification. It is already embedded in two notable platforms: Sun's developer tool Java Studio Enterprise and the ServiceMix open source ESB project.

Ghalimi says: "What we've heard from customers is there is demand and interest in BPM but it's not necessarily been happening on the sales side. Projects have taken a long time to go through because of the fragmentation in the market. With so many players in the BPM space, customers don't want to tie themselves to one particular platform." This, says Ghalimi, has meant a lot of vendor activity, proof-of-concepts and trials, but not so many companies taking these initiatives forward to large-scale production environments.

Ghalimi believes the problem is that the different players are only providing pieces of the jigsaw — rather than solving the whole puzzle. For example, a rules engine from Microsoft will today act as a design tool for process management, an application server from the likes of BEA will provide the service orchestration, and tools from the like of Fuego will help with the management of changing processes. But piecing all this together is left to the end user.

In response, Intalio itself is assembling a product stack that includes the FiveSight engine, its own BPMS management suite and third party products from an assortment of vendors including Sun, specialist startups Xcalia and Infravio, and the open-source rules engine Drools.

The lack of mature standards has also held back BPM projects. Until last year, there were two competing standards for business process execution. Although the OASIS BPEL standard now has the backing of all the major players, there is yet another specification, BPMN, for business process modeling notation, which recently entered a ratification process with the OMG.

Ghalimi says that, despite winning the standards war, BPEL still has its drawbacks: "It's a very complex specification, it has a lot in it and does it in a complex way, which means it's difficult to use for software developers." This has perhaps held back its uptake — certainly IBM's chair of the OASIS BPEL committee Diane Jordan told Loosely Coupled last year that the requirement to take on board such wide-ranging requirements was holding up progress towards ratification of version 2.0, which has been delayed into this year. But Ghalimi claims the complexity also helps to validate the need for embedded options like FiveSight.

Embedding BPM
Charles Ames, vice president of BPM at Seagull Software, formerly Oak Grove Systems, is another proponent of the need to build BPM into every application. "Any enterprise application you can think of, once it's matured to a certain point, if you want to add features to enhance the value of information, you need BPM," he says. "Active lifecycle management almost always leads to BPM."

While Ames admits the company was not founded with the idea of being an OEM provider — it was initially formed in 1998 as a spin-off of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, providing process orchestration technology for the International Space Station and Shuttle programmes — he argues that its evolution into the role makes it better situated than rivals: "In the future you will buy BPM engines the way you buy databases today. They'll be standards-based building blocks on which to base your applications. Our business model is based on that vision."

ISV partners include Intentia, Sybase, Plumtree, SAS Institute and ITM Software. The latter, which Ames says is typical of its 60-odd licensing deals, provides an ERP system for trouble ticket management and uses Seagull's BPM functionality to manage the lifecycle of its data.

Another example is SAS Institute's Anti-Money Laundering (AML) application. Designed to help large financial institutions like Bank of America comply with various AML regulations including those in the USA Patriot Act, the application uses the BPM engine to document procedures, notify contributors, generate work lists, track progress and automatically notify process owners of any exceptions.

Changing processes
These vendors argue significant benefits can accrue to enterprises that consider applications with BPM built in. The sort of process management these tie-ups are today addressing would previously have been hard-coded into either the developer tools or the application itself. This allows far less flexibility for change when process needs move on. Adding BPM allows the application to decouple processes from the underlying implementations.

In AML, for example, one bank might treat a particular due diligence process as a single step process, while at another it might involve three steps. If the second bank was using a hard-coded AML application, it would have to rewrite significant code to mold the application to a three-step process — or modify its own due diligence procedure to fit in with how the application works. Having a BPM engine built in means the vendor can more easily accommodate different customer requirements, says Ames: "It's about having the flexibility to change the processes for different users. And you can only do that if you separate out process management in a truly loosely coupled fashion."

The extent of process automation on offer can vary, however. Some engines have been restricted to machine-only automation, which leaves out any processes that include human interaction. Ghalimi says that version 2.0 of the BPEL specification — which he insists will differ little from the final standard — embraces fully both distributed transactions and human workflows. Intalio's own product stack also includes different packages depending on the depth of functionality required and the platforms supported.

It will offer an entry-level, open-source BPM running on the Apache platform, Geronimo application server and MySQL database next year. Called the Community Edition, it will be available free-of-charge. "If you put a product like that together it would cost some $500,000 per server," says Ghalimi. But while he expects half of his customer base to stay with the community edition "forever", he adds: "We expect corporate customers to upgrade to the enterprise edition and to want it on their [own] database."

What CIOs will like about the embedded BPM engine concept is the ability to decouple the process management of an application without straying from the prime supplier's own environment and support terms. But they will be rightly wary of tying themselves into complex technology stacks that may not answer their evolving needs later on. Savvy CIOs will want to ask hard questions about feature sets, standards compliance and technology roadmaps to ensure that the application vendor's choice of BPM engine is an equally good fit for their own organization.

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Intalio, Metastorm, SAS Institute, Seagull Software

The committee at e-commerce standards body OASIS that is responsible for BPEL specifications.

Home page of the Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) specification.


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