Appian puts polish into BPM

Appian Enterprise 5.1 bolsters collaborative workflow with flexible features and slick modeling

I look at four key elements when gauging the potential ROI and success of a BPM package: adaptability to existing platforms and applications, process insight and activity monitoring, usability, and the strength of the rules engine. On all counts, Appian Enterprise 5.1 fills the bill with its full-featured, people-centric, process-management suite.

For developing, deploying, and managing complex human workflows, Appian’s AJAX-backed modeling environment and wizard-like configuration tool is one of the easiest I’ve ever used. Onboard activity monitoring and data analytics are also first rate, and in-flight process management features -- specifically, on-the-fly exception handling -- are extensive as well as easy to configure. New features, including customizable reporting filters, made-to-order dashboard views, and live drill-down objects within reports, enhance the already insightful visuals.

Appian lacks some of the tools required for complex, system-to-system integration found in competing products such as Tibco and BEA’s FuegoBPM. Orchestration capabilities are strong, but automating advanced system-to-system processes demands additional features to fully manage ACID-grade transactions, notably compensation and rollback, fault handling over long-running processes, the capability to execute on multiple partner variables, and Web services execution platform support (say, via BPEL4WS) that fully addresses run-time transaction semantics. More significantly, the simulation tools essential to iteratively test and improve process performance fall short, lacking the means for historical comparisons and forecasting and paling to the likes of Lombardi TeamWorks, for example.

Nevertheless, Appian’s strong general monitoring and feedback loops take up some of the slack. And first-rate support for human workflows, including good document management and collaborative workspaces integrated directly into processes, set Appian apart from the pack.

Providing a rich blend of process routing and decision-making support features, Appian Enterprise 5.1 is one of the strongest BPM suites in the market today, especially at its price point. Appian has all the key ingredients for efficiently and flexibly weaving together people and the information and processes they’re entrusted with managing.

All aboard

Appian’s event-driven processing engine rides the J2EE rails, requiring a Java app server and database for its processing logic and application data. The setup was straightforward. Appian supports both high availability and fail-over configurations (active-active and active fail-over). Admins will find the included diagnostic scripts beneficial in tweaking system performance going forward.

Client deployment offers you the option of either an AJAX-driven, browser-based portal -- no plug-ins required -- or an Outlook 2003 plug-in delivering comparable views and interactions to the desktop. Either way, you get swift and easy access to processes, rules, forms, people, and reports that will be a clear boon to usability and adoption. Good user and group management facilitates personalized content delivery as well as skills-based workflow routing.

Comprehensive dashboards provide clear views of task status and process pipeline activity. I was able to traverse and sift data to readily view overdue tasks and stuck processes in need of manual intervention.

A highlight was the built-in support for exception handling. Rather than simply throwing an exception for manual processing, Appian enables properly authorized users to manage exceptions directly. They can make necessary changes to data that spawned the error (such as incorrect or missing delivery address) and completely reroute tasks within the process flow on an ad hoc basis.

Appian has laid a strong foundation for analyzing business activity. A full range of ready-made reports is available via the portal. Activity summaries and historic reports can be sifted and filtered quickly, and the capability of incorporating external line-of-business data ensures employees are getting the complete picture.

I liked the capability of modifying report tables dynamically. Using Appian’s expression-based reporting language (think Microsoft Excel-like functions and formulas), built custom definitions and formats into my reports, replete with active drill-down links to underlying data objects.

Making tracks

The process designer in Appian Enterprise is one of the easiest I’ve ever used. The AJAX-powered tool offers a graphical, browser-based approach to composing BPMN-compliant processes. Using the drag-and-drop framework of objects (events, conditions, and actions) as well as predefined Smart Nodes (a sizable collection of preprogrammed, encapsulated functionality), the toolkit hides the complexity of defining the process grid.

Wizard helpers simplify node configuration, speeding up tasks such as mapping form data or building e-mail alerts. The Smart Nodes -- extensible through your own custom Java development -- do a great job at jumpstarting development, with widgets for identity management, working with documents, and spawning ad hoc forums, to name a few.

Compartmentalizing my designs into concise sub-processes streamlined editing and reuse across models. The new lane definitions, which clearly delineate process paths and nodes, made it easy to visualize process ownership across business units.

Other additions to the modeling tool, such as design annotations and labels, further benefit usability and ongoing model management, and extras such as version control and the capability of monitoring live processes directly from within the modeler (with decent visual cues on health and status) put Appian’s process modeler on the express line.

Although manual exception handling is good and custom exceptions can be created to recover wayward or failed transactions, full-fledged transaction compensation would be a welcome enhancement to more comprehensively address exceptions.

I would also like to see an offline development option, as well as enhancements to the simulation and round-tripping capabilities. Forecasting workloads and backtesting alternative process scenarios using historical data are key to tweaking bottlenecks and enhancing performance. Appian has work to do on these fronts.

That said, Appian did allow me to use process nodes to view real-time analytics and feed data back into my process flows, providing a degree of runtime analysis to detect bottlenecks, trigger alerts, or automate anomaly resolution.

In addition to an onboard rules engine, Appian offers adapters to third-party engines, and it can be extended through custom Java classes. A newly added rules repository goes the extra step in making it easier to manage and update rulesets. The rules expression editor proved a powerful way to access and manipulate event messages, process data, objects, and system variables, providing a simple interface and offering good testing and validation.

The Developer Edition offers a couple of added plug-ins, namely for Smart Node development within the Eclipse IDE, and enterprise integration with MDY FileSurf records management software. I would highly recommend the Eclipse plug-in if your processes require anything beyond the basic Smart Nodes. Objects and variable tracking in the straight Enterprise version will become convoluted quickly.

Bells and whistles

Security is good. Administrators get separate lockdown mechanisms for system access and processes, although they also must manage them separately. A unified interface to centrally manage all together would make life easier. Still, Appian provides options for delegation and it supports SSO (single sign-on). SSO is based on HTTP header, though, and so does not extend to the Outlook client.

The XML-structured definitions of the ASI (Appian Standards for Interfaces) provide extensive customization capabilities, covering the appearance of the entire system. Forms, wizards, and tutorial-like prompts within the user interface can be tailored to ease newbies into BPM workflow without a hitch in the learning curve. With a little effort, you can even create a low-bandwidth interface that allows your road warriors to stay in step with their cubically confined cohorts.

Appian is nicely extensible, as well. Its solid Web services API -- any process can be fired by an external trigger -- and support for SOAP, WSDL, and UDDI provide the means to make BPM an organic extension of your existing ecosystem.

With Version 5.1, Appian Enterprise has truly hit full stride on the fast track of human-centric process management. It’s well-equipped to help businesses find light at the end of the process tunnel by improving visibility into business activity and streamlining collaborative workflow. And, costing significantly less than leading competitors, you may pull into the next fiscal depot with some spending money left in your pocket.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Ease of use (15.0%)
Administration (15.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Performance (15.0%)
Integration (15.0%)
Features (30.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Appian Enterprise 5.1 9.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 8.6

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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