IBM standardizing workflow capabilities in WebSphere

IBM Wednesday said its WebSphere Application Server 5.0 would include a new Web services workflow engine that is a precursor to support of a proposed workflow standard it is developing with Microsoft.

The workflow engine is a key part of a business process automation and integration story IBM has been crafting over the past year since it acquired integration software vendor CrossWorlds Software Inc. Last month, IBM also acquired integration vendor Holosofx and earlier this year it bought another integration vendor, MetaMerge.

Now the next leg of the stool is to add new workflow capabilities both to the WebSphere Enterprise Edition application server and development tools. Those capabilities will allow Web services and Java components to be strung together into business processes that can reach outside corporate firewalls and be integrated with data from legacy systems.

In WebSphere 5.0, which IBM will announce next month and ship in December, the company is adding its first true Web services workflow engine, according to company officials.

IBM is doing the most work around its workflow definition language, which is needed to describe a set of processes that make up a workflow. The previous workflow engine in WebSphere Enterprise Edition 4.1 supported a proprietary language protocol.

The new engine will be based on IBM's own Web Services Flow Language (WSFL) and will eventually support the Business Process Execution Language for Web Services (BPEL4WS). IBM and Microsoft are working on developing the protocol and hope to have it approved as a standard.

IBM will add support for BPEL4WS as part of a service pack after WebSphere 5.0 ships.

Microsoft last week said it would ship support for BPEL4WS in the first half of next year as part of its Jupiter project, which is a combination of the 2002 versions of BizTalk, Commerce and Content Management servers.

Microsoft and IBM are trying to create business process automation and integration technology for their Web services platforms.

Experts say business process automation is the next major area of maturity for Web services, a set of XML-based components and applications that can be integrated internally or with business partners.

IBM says it will integrate its workflow engine with the transaction monitor in WebSphere for better exception handling when something goes wrong during a business process. IBM also has added logic on how to handle the rollback of a workflow and support for human intervention in the workflow process.

IBM says the key to Web services based workflow will be standards.

"Right now if you want to define a workflow process you do it through WebSphere Studio tools," say Stefan Van Overtveldt, director for WebSphere technical marketing at IBM. "In the future, you can use any BPEL4WS-compliant tool to build workflow and it will run on the WebSphere workflow engine. That allows you to have workflow that flows between companies."

Van Overtveldt says another key is support for transaction-based workflows that allow a workflow to be undone if any part of the process fails such as a rejection of a credit approval during an online purchase.

IBM also has added what it calls Compensation Patterns, which helps define the steps on how a workflow will be rolled back. For example, it would stipulate that products are returned to inventory if a purchase order fails rather than just deleting the order.

IBM also has added a human element by allowing workflows to incorporate user intervention such as authorizing a high-dollar purchase order. WebSphere's workflow engine will be integrated with corporate directories in order to locate users either by name or by department.

All those features will be integrated with the set of adapters IBM acquired when it bought CrossWorlds so workflows can incorporate data from legacy applications. The software components will all run atop WebSphere so IBM can offer a common security and management infrastructure.

The Holosofx software that IBM acquired last month adds a business process modeling capability for nontechnical users such as business managers. The software provides those managers with a graphical tool so they can model their business processes. The model is used by a developer in WebSphere Studio to build the workflow into an application.

"We are combining a set of capabilities for building an application, creating and managing workflow, integrating with the rest of your enterprise environment and managing business processes all from a single technology base," Van Overtveldt says. "It is one common tool set on one common platform."

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