Exclusive: AquaLogic dives deep into the process pool

Fuego acquisition arms BEA with a potent BPM arsenal

Reforming enterprise business processes to boost productivity requires isolating pain points through steady focus on the myriad users, partners, customers, and applications proliferating an enterprise.

The latest silver bullet to enter the BPM chamber is BEA’s ALBPM (AquaLogic BPM 5.7) -- an already well-developed platform gained through BEA’s acquisition of FuegoBPM Suite earlier this year.

I found ALBPM offers process engineers the necessary firepower for targeting complex process flows with graphical, drag-and-drop development tools. Features such as good workflow and exception handling, including rollback and compensation, as well as strong dev time simulation features -- key to assessing KPIs (key performance indicators) early in the reorg cycle -- make this one kit with a caboodle of promise in tow.

Don’t be lulled, however, into false hope by the insulating promise of graphical BPM. This package demands a hefty amount of scripting -- done primarily in BEA’s proprietary PBL (Process Business Language). Although not a tough hurdle, it’s not without consequence -- and definitely not drag-and-drop.

And, as opposed to its competitors, ALBPM offers no direct connection with familiar external rules engines, which may be of potential concern in larger enterprise deployments.

BEA has begun reloading this suite with services features -- such as UDDI registry support and samples for integrating with the AquaLogic Service Bus -- and has enhanced dashboard functionality. Otherwise, most enhancements to this release are cosmetic.

Also, compared with human-centric products such as Appian, this package needs stronger workflow usability and on-the-fly rules creation mechanisms; it must also offer content management. But these are relatively minor foibles in an otherwise all-around strong product.

ALBPM makes a logical choice for multi-use case scenarios in which application integration and human event handling can be managed in a single package -- either as a stand-alone application or as part of a larger ecosystem.

And, as acquisitions go, this suite helps round out the grander SOA assault that BEA has been mounting on services platform supremacy. With ALBPM in BEA’s portfolio chamber, this may be the one silver bullet that eventually hits its mark.

Lock and Load

Getting started with both the Enterprise Standalone and BPM Studio editions was essentially an autonomous process with only minor configuration.

The Enterprise engine demands additional configuration for database and directory services requirements and comes in several flavors, including JVM, J2EE, and targeted BEA WebLogic and IBM WebSphere editions.

The process development and component management side is well covered, with two focused task-based editions available.

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The first, BPM Studio, builds a self-contained development environment for creating business objects and developing flows, coding rules, simulation testing, and readying final deployment. The other, BPM Designer, supplies a scaled-back implementation better suited to analysts -- allowing them to design and simulate, while masking the underlying object complexity and framework implementation running behind the scenes. The resulting shared model makes sense to me, offering ready collaborative capability to larger development environments.

There are good features to enhance productivity such as re-skinnable process flows -- allowing them to be depicted in more familiar notation -- say, BPMN (Business Process Modeling Notation), UML, and so on. And, PBL code syntax can be changed to read as either VB.Net or Java if it makes your developers more comfortable. ALBPM handles the translation.

The PBL -- formerly the Fuego Business Language -- used for the method code-behind was easy to use. Developers with basic VB or other scripting language experience will not find this a stumbling block, only an added step.

Although based on XPDL (XML Processing Description Language), models can also be imported from a variety of third-party tools, including Visio and Rational Rose, and I was able to design directly in BPEL. Although BPEL design worked well, importing BPEL required all components be pre-cataloged within studio before it would stop throwing errors and import the design -- a process that could be handled more intuitively. Also, I find it easier at times to make certain changes directly in code view -- something I didn’t find in BPM Studio.

The development environment had some minor usability nits but in total offers a decent platform with code hinting, real-time validation, and the ability to drop documentation and notes directly into designs that will benefit long-term management.

Kevlar-Coated

Not all exceptions can be automated, of course, so ALBPM has human integration covered, thanks to well-defined support for shared queues and rules-based assignment.

The built-in Web forms editor allowed me to tie user interfaces to controls -- supporting JSP, ASP, and PDF forms. And, the onboard organization tools provided easy setup and definition of roles and relationships to create organizational units. The process engine uses the data, along with calendar definitions, to manage active task routing accurately and to set process expiration due dates.

The Enterprise edition offers the added advantage of a lightweight Work Portal, out of the box. Workers gain browser-based access through which they can monitor and manage tasks and events, and trigger new processes. The effect was good: basic usability with little development muscle expended. I would like to see better user and knowledge management tools integrated.

There are basic widgets included that I was able to use to create runtime performance dashboards. Added directly to a process, these dashboards offer a means of distributing targeted metrics -- such as workloads and processing times -- to relevant management layers. Drilling down through aggregated data proved easy and effective.

For more complex BAM features, OLAP cubes are also supported but demand some additional elbow grease -- relying on an external data store and requiring to be drawn back into the process as external components.

Target Practice

I found the embedded simulation tools to be pretty spectacular in BPM Studio -- perhaps the best I’ve seen. With quick point-and-click selection of the processes and resources I wanted to include, ALBPM came to life animating runtime flows and logging outcomes -- both graphically and lexically -- of the activities in play.

Instance results on activities run, queue backlogs, and time- and cost-based analysis provided insightful data for optimizing process definitions. Animation speed could be controlled or forgone all together, skipping right to the conclusion. And, the chance to tailor the queue processing order is essential to mimicking real-world scenarios.

There were some minor display issues while I was attempting to reconfigure view perspective during simulation -- blanking the screen of all data until simulation was restarted -- but otherwise, ALBPM performed solidly.

Reporting facilities, both on simulations and general project overviews, were quite comprehensive. I was able to quickly generate drillable HTML project reports with details on components, process maps, and even down to the underlying code base. Again, one of the most comprehensive reporting facilities I’ve seen to date.

Taking Aim

Although ALBPM lacks plug-and-play application adapters, I am a fan of the ability to directly introspect technology interfaces using its supplied system adapters.

Supported technologies include .Net, COM, Java/EJB, SQL, CORBA, and more -- such as direct WSDL introspection for Web services and XML. They may take a little longer to set up than a hard-coded adapter but bring long-term cost savings and the advantage of flexible, parameterized deployment and reuse.

This product used to maintain a treasure trove of industry-specific templates for quick startup with best practices. BEA indicated it does not support the templates as a product, but will share them with customers upon request. The package does include goal-oriented samples for integrating various technologies. Further updates are still required to bolster general documentation, and the help facilities were basic at best. An application of this scale and cost requires better attention to such details.

Strong inherent capabilities for development, integration, analysis, and runtime availability make BEA AquaLogic BPM one of the most potent overall process management implementations in the market today. With some sprucing to humancentric usability, and continued simplification of development tactics, AquaLogic BPM should continue to impress into the future.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Capability (30.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Performance (15.0%)
Integration (15.0%)
Administration (15.0%)
Ease of use (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
BEA AquaLogic BPM 5.7 9.0 7.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 7.0 8.2
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