Agile To The Bone - InformationWeek

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2/8/2005
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Agile To The Bone

By making process concepts a natural part of application development, service-oriented architectures are bringing business process management into the IT mainstream and shaking up the BPM software landscape.

While all BPM roads today point to SOA, we're not quite there yet. There are obvious gaps in Web services standards for security, reliable message delivery and transaction management. These deficiencies are diminishing as standards mature and are adopted in commercial software. Less obvious and well understood are three fundamental questions: whether service orchestration by itself is a sufficient basis for BPM, whether legacy integration middleware has a role in an SOA world, and whether monolithic enterprise applications such as ERP can really be replaced by reusable Web services. The answers leading vendors are offering to these questions are shaping how BPM will evolve over the next few years.

The first question — the elephant in the room, as far as most pureplay BPM vendors are concerned — is whether human workflow tasks can or should be described within the service orchestration model. In standard BPEL today, they aren't. BPEL omits process attributes such as roles, task priorities and deadlines, even though they are central to human workflow in languages such as the Workflow Management Coalition's Extensible Process Description Language (XPDL).

For this reason, most workflow and pureplay BPM vendors, including FileNet, Savvion and Fuego, assert that BPEL orchestration should be restricted to automated activities, such as "straight-through" processing and application integration. These vendors typically implement BPEL orchestrations as subprocesses embedded in (XPDL-like) end-to-end workflow models. Their process models have been extended to invoke individual or composite Web services, and the models themselves can be encapsulated as composite Web services. In this hybrid approach, the BPEL subprocesses are portable, but they're only part of the total process.

In contrast, infrastructure vendors such as IBM, BEA, Microsoft and Oracle view the complete, end-to-end process as a BPEL orchestration (or a set of collaborating BPEL processes), and all have developed vendor-specific ways to implement human workflow within the Web service orchestration paradigm. But this approach to human workflow leads to process orchestrations that aren't portable across vendor platforms. To bridge the gap, the Business Process Management Initiative (BPMI.org) is beginning work on a BPEL extension layer (BPXL), with standards-based integration of human workflow as one of the key extensions.

The second question is whether the standard HTTP communications of the Internet are appropriate for orchestration. HTTP is implicit in the oft-hyped "service discovery" paradigm, in which businesses search in a UDDI yellow-pages-like registry to find and bind Web service providers across the firewall. But discovered services don't yet play a significant role in BPM. Today, communications attributes such as reliable delivery, security, transaction recovery and performance scalability are more important than having a firewall-friendly protocol. For this reason, established integration middleware vendors including Tibco, Vitria and IBM offer their own high-performance, reliable message bus backbones as alternatives to HTTP for service orchestration. Implemented as plug-ins to a multivendor standard such as Java Messaging Service (JMS), these transports offer the benefits of proven architecture without the vendor lock-in. Competing with these plug-ins are enterprise service bus (ESB) offerings from new vendors including Sonic, Cape Clear Software and Fiorano. Based on J2EE and Web services standards, ESBs provide a less expensive communications backbone specifically designed for service orchestration, without any taint of proprietary integration architecture.

All of these middleware vendors are leveraging their strengths in messaging infrastructure, essential in automating enterprise-class transactional processes, to offer high-performance BPM suites, rounding out their integration capabilities with features like human workflow and graphical BPEL design tools. Tibco, for example, recently acquired workflow provider Staffware, and it's integrating that software with its own BusinessWorks service orchestration engine.

The third question is whether service orchestration can really match the functional richness of monolithic enterprise applications such as ERP, or conversely, whether enterprise applications can effectively be repackaged as collections of reusable Web services. SAP, the largest enterprise application vendor, thinks the answer to both questions is yes, but it maintains that individual Web service operations are too fine-grained to serve as the building blocks of enterprise business processes. The seemingly simple CancelOrder function, for example, may require sending a customer confirmation, removing the order from the production plan, releasing materials allocated to the order, canceling the invoice and changing the order status in multiple business systems. SAP would call this function an enterprise service, a business-level building block of an end-to-end process, built by orchestrating multiple low-level services.

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