Web services offers BPM hope

Enterprises are hoping the next wave of Web services development will take the sting out integrating business processes, creating nimbler systems that can help drive ROI, according to users and experts at InfoWorld's Next Generation Web Services conference in Santa Clara, Calif., last week.

An overwhelming number of companies rank automating business processes as a top IT priority. But to this point, many executives have flinched at the daunting technology challenges that are inherent in today's integration tools and BPM (business process management) middleware.

"BPM is a tough sell for IT managers since, in many cases, you are talking about sitting down and redoing all of your business processes," said Shawn Willett, principal analyst at Sterling, Va.-based Current Analysis Inc., who attended the show. "It's very abstract to think about. But Web services could begin to provide the excuse for it."

Simpler application and data integration enabled by Web services interfaces and open standards will lay the foundation to think about business process automation, agreed Ameet Patel, CTO of the LabMorgan division of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., and a panelist at the conference.

"As Web services mature, the tools that result will be more cost-effective to do simple business process integration," Patel said. "And eventually, you will be able to conduct more complex process integrations between systems and humans."

LabMorgan is leveraging Web services as the underlying glue to improve process integration across its lines of business. The company's internal re-engineering is aimed at automating back- to front-end business interactions and solving a "gap between EAI tools and the simpler model" of Web services, Patel said.

IT companies large and small are heralding Web services' potential to ease integration as the catalyst for business process re-engineering. Speaking at the show last week, PeopleSoft, Oracle, Microsoft, Cape Clear Software, SAP, and others all dished out their particular BPM vision.

Companies should think about Web services as a way to transparently "push out" their business processes to customers, partners, and employees -- without exposing what's happening with back-end integration, according to PeopleSoft CTO Rick Bergquist.

"The focus should be on removing intermediaries in the architecture that are not providing value, so that there are no delays in processing things," Bergquist told attendees.

"To do this, you need pillars of applications that are integrated," he said, showing a slide that depicted a layer of packaged applications such as CRM, HR, and financials that are traversed by a single business process flow.

The idea behind BPI and BPM is leveraging the applications infrastructure to carry out business functions in an automated, easily changeable fashion. For example, a simple process such as "place customer order" can flow seamlessly back from a call center application to a credit check Web service through to back-end billing and order fulfillment systems.

The process would also allow for event-driven exceptions. If a customer's credit card is rejected, for example, the process automatically aborts its route and notifies a human manager via e-mail or other means.

Crops of visual modeling tools have entered the market to help design and map processes across applications and enable users to change rules on the fly, such as raising or lowering the income threshold for certain bank loan approvals.

Conference panelist Julie St. John, CTO of mortgage lender Fannie Mae, is overhauling all of the company's business processes with the goal of digitizing paper-intensive mortgage application and financing procedures.

"Basically we are starting from scratch to re-architect our infrastructure and core processes, and we are adopting Web services in a planned way," said St. John.

St. John is developing separate business and technology plans to lay the foundation for new processes that achieve the dual aims of internal application integration and external "touchpoints" to channels and customers, she said.

Steve Chan, founder of emerging Los Altos, Calif.-based integration outfit Ripple Chain, commented that in order for business process integration to offer new services on top of Web services applications architectures, standards need more accurate definitions.

"The first challenge is being able to define what that [business process] standard is," he said.

Noting the release of the BPEL4WS by backers Microsoft and IBM, Chan said workflow and orchestration standards such as these will go a long way toward solving this issue. However, that standard itself requires further development.

"The standard is inhumane," Chan exclaimed, explaining that he found reading the language too complex for humans.

When it comes to security, Chan said HTTPS is a solid foundation upon which industry committees can build. "At a higher level we need to introduce context around business processes," he added.

Adding context to the Web services stack is something that can be done now, he said, without waiting for the full set of standards to be defined "by treating it like application development."

Hand coding can, "with brute force," resolve context and some security issues, Chan said, conceding that while this is not a scalable method it allows enterprises to move forward before business process standards are fully baked.

While many of the show's attendees were considering deployment of Web services in their enterprises, some remained cautious.

"We haven't seen its cost-effectiveness," said the attendee, George Price, IS administrator for Avenidas, which provides senior citizen services for the city of Palo Alto, Calif. Price says he won't be using Web services anytime soon.

"All of our applications are solid, we're not going to move," said Price, whose organization provides services such as teaching seniors how to use computers. Price said he would have to see how Web services evolve before deciding whether to start using them.

But other users are jumping on, spurred primarily by the programming model's BPM promise.

At Providence Health Systems, Web services momentum is all about recognizing that IT initiatives are less about technology and more about business goals and underlying processes, said Erik Sargent, the company's Web applications architect.

"Our issues are the integration of data and how that drives processes," said Sargent, who tapped startup Infravio to match its data across systems and establish single sign-on to tie users into the public Web site. "To send our 300 applications interfaces through an EAI engine is too complex and expensive compared to using Web services."

Mark Jones and Paul Krill contributed to this story.

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