Crib sheet: Business process management


End to end control

Business process management (BPM) is one of those software technologies for which great claims are made, but which few people understand.

The grand and simple idea is that BPM software can be used to manipulate end-to-end automated and coded processes, in the same way that database management systems (DBMS) can be used to manipulate data. That should make it easier to write and change software – once the complex groundwork in process definition has been done. Among those at whom the technology is targeted, a small group of advocates sees BPM as truly revolutionary; a larger group, including many customers and users, finds it promising if not genuinely useful; and a much larger group simply does not understand it.

This last fact is partly because BPM involves some complex underlying ideas, even if its ultimate goal is to dramatically simplify the experience of managing IT. But it is also exacerbated by the fact that BPM is one of a cluster of overlapping technologies that fall in the nebulous area of middleware – software that links applications together to form end-to-end automated processes.




If BPM seems to ubiquitous, it might be because it has several meanings in IT. The most common three are:

1. Business process management. See this and the facing page.

2. Business process modelling. This involves modelling business processes using mapping tools and business process notation languages. It is usually a stage in software development, and can be a subset of BPM (1).

3. Business Performance Management. This is a category of application software that involves applying business intelligence analyses to corporate data. Presentation tools then give executives a view of how their business is performing.




The Big Vision

The long term vision of the BPM evangelists is that business processes will become as manageable as data is today. Businesses will be able to use BPM systems, often using workflow-type techniques, to integrate existing applications together, to link web services together, or to construct or deconstruct processes from scratch. Importantly, they can also involve humans in the process – this is not just about application integration.

At the top level, Business Process Modelling Notation (BPMN) is a language for modelling processes and translating models into a lower level execution language. This lower level language will enable any participating system to exchange descriptions of business processes – the first step to interchangeability of processes between applications or models. The main candidate language today is BPEL4WS (business process execution language for web services).

It is also important for process databases to be able to manipulate processes.

A new language known as business process query language is being developed so that applications and programmers can use the facilities in the same way most programs today use the facilities of a relational database.

Effective BPM will ultimately require the development of a major new class of software – the business process management system (BPMS). This will serve the same role in process computing as databases do today in data-centric computing.

A BPMS will be complex and may contain tools from a variety of vendors, all integrated together. Among its functions: to draw on all available systems and services and integrate these as parts of business processes; to automate routine business processes; to manage processes from a single system; designing new processes and redesigning existing ones (using modelling tools); deploying new processes by executing code or interacting with underlying systems; and providing tools for optimising and analysing processes.



BPM systems today

Many of today's BPM suppliers have adopted a pragmatic view of BPM, acknowledging that technology, standards and user acceptance must be developed further before BPM's ultimate potential is delivered. In the meantime, most products can be best described as "workflow software with interfaces into transaction systems".

A BPM product or suite today will most likely include :

1. A process modelling workbench. This is for designing process flows before soft coding.

2. A process execution engine. This pushes the state of the art. It translates the models, holds the workflows, and stores and executes the processes.

3. Optimisation and management tools. Once a BPM engine is running, it can add value to the business by highlighting bottlenecks and other sources of inefficiency.

Workflow and document management tools have been the natural starting point for most BPM products, but others have been built from scratch in accordance with emerging BPM standards and theory. Some take modelling as their starting point, or have been built upwards out of integration brokers, which incorporate a lot of the underlying rule based integration that BPM requires.

Big software suppliers with BPM functionality include Tibco (which acquired Staffware in 2004), FileNet, SAP and IBM (which has acquired several smaller suppliers).

Early stage pure-play vendors include Fuego, Savvion, Metastorm, Intalio and Procession.

Gartner estimates the market for pure-play BPM will be worth over $1 billion by 2008. But some analysts think the market will merge into the overall middleware sector.


Forecast sales of BPM pure play software
Source: Gartner




Crossing the Chasm

BPM is often viewed as an emerging technology – but that only applies if the stricter, more purist definitions are used. Hundreds of companies are using BPM today.

Most of these link underlying applications together through a workflow product. These cross application models are modelled using a workbench and are stored in a process engine. The effect on productivity can be dramatic, especially when re-engineering work is involved. Examples include processing of insurance claims, provisioning new customers for telecoms services, dealing with planning applications, and managing employees and customers. Many suppliers offer templates for certain common processes.

As the technology matures, the range of case studies is increasing, with less predictable and more intricate processes being managed by BPM systems.



Twin platforms

Some experts think that the enterprise software world is being revolutionised by two big complementary developments. The first is the service oriented architecture, or SOA; the second is the event driven architecture, or EDA. In both cases, BPM systems play a part.

SOA is a formalised approach for managing web services. This means that some kind of platform will be needed that orchestrates how services interact, and ensures that processes are auditable, flexible, scalable and secure. BPM systems carry out many of the same functions. Whether they will end up being the same product is unclear, but close interaction will certainly be required.

EDA is about giving applications the ability to handle unexpected events, and also events occuring in conjunction with others. Some experts think EDA will help bring BPM systems, that are ideally designed for this, into the mainstream.




Processing Pearls of Wisdom

"The purpose of BPM is to avoid writing, or generating, more software, its central thesis being to remove ‘process' from software as completely as possible, creating a new form of ‘data' that can be manipulated on a scale previously unimaginable."

Howard Smith, CSC CTO and passionate advocate of BPM.

"When you start to fiddle with business processes, you are touching raw nerves."

Katy Ring, analyst, Ovum

"If you replace a hand with another hand, no matter how good that hand is, the body rejects it."

Keith Whittingham of insurer Swiss Re warns that BPM is hard to sell to programmers. But, he adds, it's easier to sell to the business side.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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