The intersection between business and IT is where the action is. It’s the point where business requirements morph into enterprise systems. It’s where consultants and software vendors make money. And it’s where most big IT problems begin — or dissolve before they gum up the works.
BPM (business process management) seeks to impose order on the chaotic crossroads between business and technology. A BPM system — software that combines graphical process modeling with application development to exploit an existing EAI fabric — encourages both sides to get their ducks in a row. Business analysts must rationalize and ultimately optimize workflow by parsing and describing the processes underlying business functions, and IT must get its EAI act together so that the existing application functionality necessary to create process-based apps can be stitched together across the enterprise.
“In essence you’re kind of creating a godlike program that’s orchestrating hundreds of systems,” explains David Linthicum, CTO of b-to-b integration provider Grand Central Communications and author of three books on EAI.
The idea of using BPM to build reconfigurable meta-applications is taking on a life of its own, thanks to the increasing popularity of the SOA (service-oriented architecture) paradigm, which advocates exposing discrete bits of important application functionality as services.
“BPM is the brains of your SOA,” says Michael Howell, vice president of architecture and policy at Broadlane, a b-to-b health-care services provider currently in the process of launching a BPM system based on BEA Systems’ WebLogic Integration. “It just makes sense for me to have an independent entity there controlling business processes and business services.”
Many software vendors agree with Howell. EAI vendors such as SeeBeyond, Tibco, Vitria, and webMethods offer BPM products to cap their integration offerings. Monster platform vendors BEA, IBM, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems offer stacks that feature both BPM and integration systems. And a clutch of pure-plays, including Intalio, Lombardi, Savvion, and Ultimus, are promoting their systems’ capability of crossing any platform and providing an intelligent BPM superstructure for the enterprise. Even the big enterprise application vendors say they’re getting into the act, although BPM-infused versions of major applications from Oracle, PeopleSoft, SAP, and Siebel Systems have yet to arrive.
Predictably, vendors trot out dramatic results from well-implemented BPM systems. In one high-profile example, Covad Communications was able to reduce its support staff head count from 1,000 to 250 by streamlining workflow with Intalio’s BPM system. But the effort involved depends largely on the degree and quality of application integration. In addition, how much of a head start developers can gain from the output of a graphical process design tool varies widely among BPM products. First and foremost, however, successful implementations demand that senior IT and business personnel make the effort to understand what BPM is all about.
Top-down vs. bottom-up
Getting over that conceptual hump may be the hardest part. “It’s a classic thing where you ask five customers [what BPM means] and you get seven answers,” says Steven Martin, group product manager at Microsoft’s business process and integration division, which helped develop the BPM-enabled version of BizTalk Server 2004 that shipped in March.