Product review: Ultimus jump-starts BPM deployment

Microsoft-centric suite offers a respectable low-cost entry into BPM with tools for graphical process design, Web services support, and good administration with minimal technical requirements

The success of a BPM (business process management) initiative hangs on a good plan. Spend too little time developing a snapshot of your company's inner workings, and the resulting system of misfiring rules and unhandled exceptions will find you mired in costly troubleshooting. But, sure enough, you can also lean too far in the other direction. Spend too much time charting workflow definitions, control points, and exception management, and the delays will start whittling away at your ROI.

Enter the Ultimus Adaptive BPM Suite 8, a Windows-based server and development toolset that helps streamline the BPM launch cycle. The key to Ultimus is an added window into process execution that allows experts to catch unhandled events at runtime and control them by creating new rules or rerouting flows in real time. Replacing in-depth mappings with on-the-fly process governance cuts short the development cycle -- a selling point for executives in need of quick results that can justify BPM startup costs.

In general, I found the Ultimus solution to undervalue good planning. In comparison to offerings from vendors such as Lombardi that recognize the necessity for discovery/documentation tools, Ultimus has a huge hole to plug.

Moreover, several traits make the proprietary engine difficult to work with, including no integration with standardized design-time tools (surprisingly not even Visio, given Ultimus' Microsoft-centric focus), no native support for BPMN (Business Process Modeling Notation), and no comprehensive onboard rules-management facility.

On the bright side, Ultimus flaunts a no-code approach to BPM that will have you up and running quickly when implementing document-centric workgroup processes. Despite Ultimus' buggy and often unintuitive interface, I did warm up to BPM Studio, which offers a graphical design canvas for flow, schema, and rules definition. Its encapsulated connector logic (Flobots) makes easy work of tapping databases, Microsoft Exchange, and Microsoft SharePoint, as well as data in Word and Excel forms.

Although systems integration adapters are light, new Web services hooks in this release add services-enabled apps to the mix, on top of its .Net support.

The Ultimus client (both Windows-native and browser-based) provides a good interface for task workers to be productive with a very minimal learning curve. And I found the administrative and reporting interfaces delivered good insight with excellent functionality.

Overall, I found the Ultimus Adaptive BPM Suite 8 to perform well and demonstrate a good first step toward reaping benefits from BPM while reducing the complexity of deployment. Small workgroups and medium-sized businesses with limited integration requirements will also appreciate this solution’s affordability.

Engine blocked
The Ultimus suite comprises a number of components, all requiring Microsoft underpinnings: a BPM server, a graphical development studio with simulation tools built on top of a unified repository (Microsoft or Oracle), a graphical org chart tool that defines corporate hierarchy and workgroups for use in routing (tapping AD or LDAP), and a Windows desktop client for task workers.

Deploying the suite was generally straightforward, although Ultimus routines could better facilitate a number of basics, such as database setup and permissions tweaking. Further, documentation was poor and incomplete, and it generally focused more on basic sys ops rather than provide insight into the Ultimus product. I found this a common theme across all components in the suite. That said, it wasn't long before I had the server and studio configured and I was getting down to business.

BPM Studio is the development hub, providing tools for graphical process layout and definition, management of the component repository including nicely implemented version control, and process verification and simulation testing. Although Ultimus might consider adding some wizardry to guide users through common steps – particularly in the absence of any tutorials or best-practice templates – the capabilities are ultimately decent.

Schema import from XSD, Web services, or DLL helped seed definitions. Routing was good, with opportunity for graphical schema translation. Additionally, everything from e-mail alerts to process constraints was easily accessible via the properties menus.

Although any Word/Excel forms development is external to the suite, built-in Ultimus Web forms can be created internally.

Graphical rules construction was concise and covered basic runtime Boolean operations over process instance variables. Although more advanced processing and combining would enhance development, the result here was a rapid buildup of logic without much demand for technical expertise – both a blessing and potential curse as ad hoc process forks and rules libraries could become unwieldy.

Ultimus fares extremely well in paying attention to process cost. The ability to monetize a process at every step – including combining steps for net totals – is essential in driving process improvement directly to the bottom line. The suite does a great job of helping you recognize it.

Simulation tools, launched right inside Studio, were useful in verifying flow and garnering insight into runtime data and metrics. Although the tool would be bolstered by provisions such as randomization and stress testing, final reports delivered good analysis of throughput and process efficiency.

Seeing the sites
To administer running processes, Ultimus does a very good job with an additional interface for sifting and sorting process instances and peering into user workloads. Stuck processes can be opened and examined, rerouted, or rolled back (although comprehensive transaction compensation is not built in), all with good clarity. Additionally, good security over process permissions and access helps to implement delegation control.

The Ultimus Director interface – used by process experts to manage unmanaged events – is also well thought out. I was able to easily replay process histories, and could manipulate and create rules to address newfound process hiccups.

Although the reporting facility built into the BPM Suite offers only static output, Ultimus addresses dashboards by bundling its Ultimus iBam Suite – a separate installation -- into the mix with its additional repository, dev tools, and server requirements for monitoring real-time KPIs.

From a user's perspective, the Windows and browser clients are good, although there are minor quirks that better usability testing could weed out. I would also like to see a plug-in for Outlook, despite the Web-based thin client being accessible as an Outlook task.

Still, the browser client is well laid out with easy access to the task inbox, group queues (also configurable at the system level by round-robin or workload), and shared views and reports. Task reassignment, incident status updates, search, and other niceties will do a good job keeping your staff on track as well.

I would like to see the numerous interfaces for each separate component bundled into one permissions-based portal to streamline access, particularly in smaller groups where multiple duties often accompany a single job title.

Other improvements need to be made to address design-time issues. Ultimus indicated it was working on a Visio conversion tool to migrate diagram docs, but the tool was not ready for prime time, and is not included as part of the product offering.

Ultimus Adaptive BPM Suite 8 is in many respects a diamond-in-the-rough; there are a few gaps and snags, but also many strengths and much promise. Given its relatively low startup costs and reduced process-expertise requirements, I found it a good choice for small and midsized human-centric projects where rapid development and good visibility into process optimization are primary concerns.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Features (30.0%)
Administration (15.0%)
Ease of development (15.0%)
Scalability (15.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Integration (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Ultimus Adaptive BPM Suite 8.0 7.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 7.0 7.8