Process-driven architectures

Enterprises are tailoring their architectures to the key business processes that they must support and comply with

Take a look at some of the acronyms creeping into enterprise architectures -- BPEL (Business Process Execution Language), BPM (business process management), BPO (business process outsourcing) -- and you begin to see a pattern. The “business process” concept has entered the collective IT consciousness in a big way, thanks to a strong focus in the corporate world on efficiency, speed to market, and compliance.

“CIOs are making sure their people are becoming more process-centric and are looking to make decisions on the application architecture that will let them be more flexible with their business processes,” says Trevor Naidoo, managing director at German software company IDS Scheer.

Forrester Senior Vice President Merv Adrian says today’s business process focus is part of a long-term evolution in which IT thinks about design and architecture at an increasingly higher level. “With each generation, we’ve raised the level of abstraction, and today the level we’re pointing at is the visual business process,” he says.

Adrian sees IT increasingly developing, optimizing, and managing systems from the perspective of the end-to-end business process, rather than from silo-oriented transactional efficiency or other resource-driven standpoints. “How quickly do we get the cars off the boat and into the dealer lots?” he asks, adding that this kind of thinking will “focus everybody in the IT organization on what their contribution to business value is.”

What exactly is a business process? Some typical end-to-end processes include: order-to-cash, procure-to-pay, product development, and HR-related procedures. “And within those there are a lot of subprocesses,” Naidoo notes. Another important set of processes are IT operational processes themselves, as described by the ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library) framework.

Hewlett-Packard Software CTO Russ Daniels explains that businesses tend to focus their IT investments on improving the processes that give their business the most leverage -- for example, cutting product design time from three years to 18 months in the auto industry.

What does it take to design IT architectures from a business process perspective? IT must start with process strategy, then design, then execution, IDS Scheer’s Naidoo says. The business side must first formally define its processes, HP’s Daniels agrees, for process-driven architectures to succeed.

“The degree to which you can automate IT capabilities depends on the degree of clarity the customer has around their processes,” Daniels says. “If the business isn’t willing to put in the work and make trade-offs, it’s very difficult.”

Next, IT must be able to model and implement a process-driven architecture at an abstracted level, enabling rapid change as processes change and thereby providing more flexibility to the business. “We have to break the binds that glue IT to a particular set of resources,” says EMC CTO Jeff Nick, “so you can flexibly reconfigure, redeploy, and introduce new resources almost as objected-oriented components that are composed together to represent the business process being served.”

To this end, software companies ranging from small specialist shops such as IDS Scheer to large players such as SAP are building BPM tools that overlay existing environments to help model, optimize, and monitor the performance of key business processes from both a resource and workflow perspective.

Often these tools rely on Web services or similar interfaces to enable end-to-end connectivity across an entire environment in support of a business process. And most support emerging Web services standards such as OASIS’ BPEL, which helps describe business processes and their interconnections.

Increasingly, IT architectures must also incorporate knowledge about process best practices, IDS Scheer’s Naidoo adds. “We’ve made a commitment to provide more content in the tools,” he says, citing prebuilt reference and process models such as the Supply Chain Council Reference Model, which includes standard key performance indicators. “It’s almost like a process factory. ... Pull together and assemble best practices into your process architecture.”

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