Microsoft weaves workflow plan

Microsoft is planning to unveil a new workflow subsystem for its client and server operating systems that will become a foundation service available on the Windows platform. The tool will be demonstrated at its Professional Developers Conference this week.

The company will take the wraps off Windows Workflow Foundation, which will pull together a number of current workflow technologies spread throughout Windows products, including Windows Workflow Services (WWS, formerly called Windows Orchestration Engine).

The single technology will provide a common service for building workflow to support business process automation in places such as Office-based collaborative applications, composite Web services applications, Microsoft's business applications and the provisioning capabilities of Microsoft's identity management platform.

Critics, however, wonder what other products will be required to run Workflow Foundation and how open it will be, especially given that numerous vendors provide proprietary workflow engines for their Windows applications.

Microsoft plans to introduce a number of corporate servers for its Office System, mostly designed around Version 3.0 of Windows SharePoint Services, which includes content management and online workspace tools. The company also plans to offer a range of new tools, including Atlas, for developing sophisticated Web-based applications using Asynchronous JavaScript and XML.

A major topic will be Vista, the client operating system first demonstrated at the Professional Developers Conference 2003, when it was called Longhorn and before some of its core features were removed.

"They need to tell everybody what Windows Vista is," an analyst with Jupiter Research, Joe Wilcox, said. "We know what it isn't because of all the things that were removed."

Added is Workflow Foundation, an operating system subsystem that joins Windows Presentation Foundation (formerly Avalon), which supports rich interfaces. Included is Windows Communications Foundation (formerly Indigo), middleware to support service-oriented applications. Both subsystems have been back-ported to XP and Server 2003, but it is not clear if Workflow Foundation will join them.

Microsoft briefly mentioned Workflow Foundation at its Business Summit last week, where it laid out the future of its business applications that were rebranded Microsoft Dynamics.

"What this means is somewhere in these products is a workflow engine so a developer can specify workflow associated with, say, processing an invoice and automate many of the manual steps a worker may have to do ad hoc today," lead analyst for IT products and strategies at independent research firm Directions on Microsoft, Chris Alliegro, said. "As far as the business applications go, Microsoft has talked about model-driven processes where there is some underlying workflow technology."

Microsoft's plan is to create a single workflow technology based on the operating system that is available platformwide. That plan, however, raises questions about implementation, according to some.

"Is Microsoft building this so it is open . . . and what are they doing to attract partners to it?" asked one Microsoft partner. "If you have Oracle apps, will those be able to use the Microsoft workflow engine? All the identity management tools have workflow built in. IBM, CA, Oracle and Novell use different workflow engines. We have gone from eliminating some redundant infrastructure like directories and now are going to have extra workflow infrastructure?"

Today, Microsoft has several products with its own workflow technology that will give way to Workflow Foundation and that show some of the products the technology will require to run.

Microsoft is developing a version of Microsoft Identity Integration Server, code-named Gemini, that features integrated workflow based on WWS. Gemini, slated to ship in 2007, also will be built into the operating system, where it would sit alongside Workflow Foundation.

Gemini relies on SQL Server to store workflow data, such as the state of a workflow, and presumably Workflow Foundation would have the same requirements.

The WWS technology is also being used in BizTalk Server 2006, which went into beta in July and is a workflow orchestration engine.

BizTalk 2004 includes a technology called Human Workflow Services (HWS), which supports automated business processes that involve humans routing documents. HWS is included in BizTalk 2006 but is being phased out, sources say, in favour of Workflow Foundation.

In addition, Workflow Foundation would be used to tie together Web services to support specific business processes, such as filling an order, and would integrate with Communications Foundation, a type of enterprise service bus middleware to handle protocol translation and other services.

Office, which is the interface for Microsoft's collaboration platform, also will tap into Workflow Foundation to support collaborative applications, most notably those built around Windows SharePoint Services. The workflow could be used for tasks such as supporting the lifecycle of documents in online workspaces built around SharePoint, and Office servers that Microsoft is expected to introduce at Professional Developers Conference for applications such as Word and Excel.

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