Bluespring's Suite 4.5 whets appetite for BPM

Innovative Microsoft-centric suite wades into shallow waters of business process management    

Optimizing document-centric processes can be a profitable, if tricky, cost-cutting endeavor. It takes a particularly rare breed of BPM suite to simultaneously integrate your applications, your employees' work habits, and the multitude of documents and customers your organization juggles.

Bluespring Software is one company considering all of this and factoring in the significance of Microsoft applications vis-à-vis midtier corporate workflows.

Recently released Bluespring BPM Suite 4.5 sports a process development IDE, Web portal, and .Net services-based process engine that takes advantage of the new Microsoft Office Open XML document format. In addition to performing dynamic Word and Excel document generation, the system can monitor and extract data from within docs to guide enterprise workflow and power external business apps.

Bluespring BPM Suite offers some strong provisions for managing complex, human-centric processes, including solid exception management and rollback opportunity, as well as built-in controls to bring geographic insight and calendar data into the mix. Its extremely accessible task-management UI stands out against its competitors. Bluespring also demonstrates a good platform on which to visually construct, deploy, and monitor processes; it is code-free and incredibly easy to use.

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Furthermore, with this release Bluespring now extends the reach and capability of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server, supplying process triggers and object updates as well as real-time monitoring for the platform. Bluespring easily corrals other Microsoft favorites, including Active Directory, InfoPath, Live Meeting, and CRM 3.0. Another new addition I like is support for Adobe PDF forms.

If yours is not a Microsoft shop, Bluespring's strengths may be overshadowed by the fact that its entire platform demands MS-branded servers, databases, and IE for its Web portal (although Firefox 2 worked fine).

My biggest disappointment was found in its debugging feature set. Unlike Lombardi TeamWorks, Bluespring offers no design-time simulation, impact analysis, or closed-loop feedback features. As a result, iterative process optimization, the ultimate ambition of BPM, becomes a less-than-intuitive endeavor.

There's also limited compatibility with real-world execution and modeling standards such as BPEL/XPDL (Business Process Execution Language/XML Processing Description Language), or the BPMN (Business Process Modeling Notation) support found in Appian Enterprise. I suppose this is less of an issue if you plan never to do business with anyone off an MS platform.

Although the visual process design tools are good, they have yet to evolve to more collaborative ideals that can help collapse the design cycle and encourage team input, such as those seen shaping up in Lombardi Blueprint.

All told, I found this to be one of the easiest BPM products in the market to roll out -- a good way to reduce custom code costs. It has a particularly user-friendly Web portal interface that will get users quickly on board. Companies invested in Microsoft apps and looking to swim into the deep end of BPM will find a refreshing change in the cool waters of Bluespring BPM Suite.

Charting a course
The Bluespring Designer offers a fine path to productive process development for business analysts.

The easy-to-use visual interface presents a palette of drag-and-drop activities covering all types of automated behaviors, along with access to Active Directory and other MS-specific apps such as SharePoint. The palette also works with MSMQ (Microsoft Message Queuing) and XML, plus it handles synchronous Web services calls. Just drag them to the canvas and fill in the blanks to configure.

I found good tools for defining path logic, support for subprocesses and multibranch parallel routing, thanks to "wait on" and "timeout" event activities and active monitoring of external data sources such as e-mail, files, and SharePoint.

There were some minor bumps in the IDE: the absence of swim lanes for clear delineation of responsibilities across departmental boundaries; easy collapse or selection of subprocesses; or even a simple undo option to backtrack from a formatting error. But, the platform otherwise performed well and really made quick work of process layout and configuration.

The IDE also presented some top-notch wizardry for generating Web form skeletons, WSDL, and SQL queries.

I would like to see tighter integration of a rules engine to foster management and reuse, although a connector for InRule Technology's engine is included. And stronger process dependency tracking would benefit ongoing change management.

For launching and monitoring my processes, Designer included two added interfaces, Process Management and Task Management, which I could use during debugging as well as to check running activities.

I found the graphical interface for drilling into data and logs to locate errant tasks to be rather cumbersome. I would have preferred better data control and access to KPI (key performance indicators) metrics. Also, the interface would do well to improve insight into the logic and parameters encapsulated by each graphical icon -- say, via mouseover data pops -- rather than forcing me to spawn the original process design diagram or route through lengthy trace logs.

Suiting up
For many implementations, user task management from within Outlook or via custom clients and Web forms will work like a charm.

Bluespring offers an additional Web portal component that delivers a clear and easy entry point for users. It serves as a primary access point for dashboard viewing, process insight, and task management.

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The Bluespring Web portal offered crisply delineated access to personal data (such as location and out-of-office notices), task management (including escalation and reassignment), and permissions-based access to reporting features. Permissioned workers can even view color-coded process diagrams highlighting activity status.

Administration of users is uncomplicated. Users' access to processes, reports, and tasks is role/permission based, and multiple roles can be assigned to an individual. On the downside, users with multiple roles don't gain a unified view of the enterprise. Roles can't be combined in Bluespring, limiting your current log-on credentials to a subset of your total tasks and reports. I would prefer to see finer-grained access baked into the package.

It was easy, however, to build up roles and hierarchical staffing associations to be used, for example, to automate escalation of past-due tasks to a supervisor. And, Bluespring can pull data from Active Directory as well as LDAP to build its internal security database.

Sink or swim
I was sorry to see that all custom business intelligence beyond the 50 or so canned reports supplied depended upon the BI stack in Microsoft's SQL Server 2005 Reporting Services. The suite offers no direct interface for easy department-level report autonomy or collaboration.

And although it is Web services-accessible, the inbound taps to the engine amount to little more than process initiators. The package would be better served supporting more complex data exchange, asynchronous call opportunity, and interfaces for real-time process insight.

Bluespring also needs to keep an eye on competitors such as K2 and its forthcoming BlackPearl release. Although Bluespring is currently the easiest choice for SharePoint integration (K2 can get you there but via API and a lot of elbow grease) K2 also has some big plans slated.

Bluespring has demonstrated a good foundation in this release. Solid tools for rapid process development and integration of document-driven workflows could already satisfy many departmental workflows. And, the company has confided a well-defined roadmap due out later this year that points it on a path toward some innovative territories, which are sure to further enhance process management of Microsoft-driven solutions and workforces. This is one company I'm betting on for more good things in the future.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Performance (15.0%)
Administration (15.0%)
Features (30.0%)
Integration (15.0%)
Ease of use (15.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Bluespring BPM Suite 4.5 8.0 6.0 8.0 7.0 9.0 7.0 7.6