IBM to flood WebSphere 5.0 with workflow

Tightening ties between application development and integration technologies, IBM Corp. on Wednesday detailed plans to significantly bolster the workflow capabilities in the upcoming version of WebSphere Application Server Version 5.0.

Big Blue also revealed release plans for the now-overdue application server.

WebSphere Application Server Version 5.0 will go on sale in about a month's time, IBM officials said. The Armonk, N.Y.-based company had said originally it would deliver the product in September, but last month it confirmed that it had "reprioritized" its schedule to bring a corresponding suite of tools, WebSphere Studio 5, to market first.

"What we traditionally have done is deliver the server first, but after talking with customers we realized it makes sense to get the tools out there first," Scott Hebner, WebSphere director of marketing, said Wednesday. "[Customers] want to begin developing and migrating their applications, so we reprioritized the delivery schedule."

The company is highlighting the upcoming workflow features in the application server. The more robust workflow engine will leverage WebSphere Studio's integrated toolset in a way that IBM officials say sets Big Blue apart from rivals BEA Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp., and pure-play integration specialists.

Central to the workflow engine is the runtime and tools support for building both J2EE and Web services-based workflow applications, according to Stefan Van Overtveldt, program director of WebSphere technical marketing at IBM.

Using workflow to develop Web services plays into the strategy for making integration and Web services technologies key components of the core development environment, said Van Overtveldt. "The workflow engine is aimed at developers building new application logic to be linked together and exposed as a Web service."

Van Overtveldt further explained that workflow needs emanating from existing enterprise applications would remain best handled by IBM's WebSphere MQWorkflow product, which sometime next year will also be bundled into the application server platform.

"This is really about us integrating our integration assets," he said of the multi-level approach to workflow and business process integration. "It plays to our strengths versus our competitors."

The workflow engine also supports several high-end features, including long-running transactional and compensation-patterning capabilities across multiple systems, and human intervention and notification functions, said Van Overtveldt.

Compensation-patterning capabilities, for example, will automatically reverse a workflow transaction more intuitively -- not necessarily following the original ordering of the process. So if a customer purchase has executed to the point of issuing an invoice, only to have the credit check denied at the last minute, compensation-patterning capabilities will cleanly back out of the transaction and take new steps that branch off to add the item in question back into the inventory system.

Of particular note, IBM will be taking its new workflow engine to market in November minus support for BPEL4WS, the proposed business process flow language specification it has been pushing along with Microsoft and BEA. Instead the upcoming workflow engine will be fueled by a proprietary flow definition language that he called a "precursor" to the BPEL4WS that is technologically similar.

The spec will not be ready in time, explained Van Overtveldt. A service pack for BPEL4WS will be distributed to WebSphere Application Server 5.0 users when the standard is fully cooked, he said.

Building workflow and business process integration into the development environment is a trend being driven in part by the Web services phenomenon, said David McCoy, an industry analyst at Gartner, based in Atlanta.

"If you think about it, workflow does step-by-step process execution at a very serious level," said McCoy. "In terms of Web services, workflow becomes a way to invoke them more easily. Rather than invoking them through procedure calls you can use BPM to string Web services together as blocks on a flow."

The reliance on flow composition as a way to package Web services up into a new application is a concept that Gartner Inc. has dubbed SODA -- or services-oriented development of applications, said McCoy.

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