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Change Agent: Three No-Cost Ways to Get Started with BPM

Whether you're a business analyst or a hard-core SOA developer, you don't have to spend a lot for BPM. Several free tools let you model processes, analyze performance and create an executable design.

You've heard all the promises about business process management--how it can streamline outmoded practices, enhance efficiency, promote compliance and standardization, make your organization more agile and put you on the path of continuous performance improvement. But it all seems so abstract! How do you convince yourself--and your CFO--that you're going to get a solid return on what is probably a six-figure investment?

BPM is not an enterprise application like ERP or CRM, but it's not really core infrastructure, either, so making the ROI clear and convincing to buyers is a challenge. Fortunately, BPM vendors are starting to realize this. Several now offer free, downloadable tools that let you model processes, analyze expected performance improvement and create most, if not all, of an executable design. The giveaways vary, but they're all based on the same basic premise: If users can try BPM software without charge, they will see the value and ultimately make a production-scale investment.

In an example aimed at business analysts, Savvion offers its Process Modeler as a free download. Like other modeling tools, it lets you define process flows in swim lanes, model participants and system resources required, and then project anticipated costs, cycle times, service levels and other metrics through simulation analysis. Geared to nontechnical users, the tool even lets you model process data and define Web forms for human tasks.

The Process Modeler's simulation capabilities are excellent. You can assign costs to process activities and participant resources, for example, and you can model contention for resources across multiple simultaneous processes. Based on the Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) standard, the tool generates complete documentation of the process model and simulation analysis. Where once business users gave IT a Visio flowchart to document BPM requirements, now they can provide complete documentation with built-in ROI analysis.

What's more, with Savvion's product, process modeling and executable process design are handled in the same tool. The free Process Modeler looks just like the Eclipse-based BPM Studio, but integration, business rule, exception handling and business activity monitoring functions have been disabled. Still, you can do 80 percent of the executable process design.

Oracle's BPEL Process Manager, also a free download, demonstrates the speed and agility of BPEL-based development compared with conventional Java code. You can build, test and run J2EE BPM solutions without spending a dime on software. You only pay when it's time to deploy to the production environment.

Oriented to SOA developers, Oracle's designer generates BPEL via graphical drag-and-drop and point-click wizards, then compiles it to Java. The BPEL Process Manager supports human workflow services, advanced data mapping, an assortment of integration adapters and other capabilities you wouldn't expect to find in free software.

A third example in the free-download trend ups the ante. Intalio not only offers an executable process designer and development runtime for free, it's giving away the production runtime as well. And why stop there? Intalio BPMS Community Edition is a complete J2EE BPM system, including Intalio's open-source BPEL engine, an Eclipse-based process designer supporting data mapping and simulation, a rule engine, enterprise service bus, integration adapters, metadata repository and a full BAM suite. Intalio's design tool uses BPMN, providing an environment that can be shared between business analysts and IT, like Savvion's.

The only "catch," if you want to call it that, is that Community Edition runs on Geronimo, the Apache open-source app server, and the MySQL database. The suite includes some third-party components, such as the BAM suite, for which customers pay six-figure fees for the conventional software-licensing model. Following the Linux model, Intalio and its technology partners are pinning their hopes on fee-based support, which will cost between $3,000 and $8,000 per CPU per year for most of the Community Edition. That should make the CFO smile.

Whether you're a business analyst or hard-core SOA developer, you don't have to spend a lot for BPM software before you understand exactly how it addresses your specific process problems.

Bruce Silver is an independent industry analyst. His "2006 BPMS Report" is available for free at BPM Institute.

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