Review: UiPath aces robotic process automation

UiPath Enterprise RPA Platform is a remarkably complete toolkit for process automation that is also remarkably easy to use

Review: UiPath aces robotic process automation
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At a Glance

Early attempts to streamline repetitive front-office tasks often involved macro-driven mouse tricks and screen-scraped regex voodoo. Those brittle solutions were tripped up by the slightest interface change. Uptime was spotty and maintenance never ending.

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Today, robotic process automation (RPA) builds on those early solutions but with a better-honed set of tools and technologies that ease both development and maintenance. RPA tools can adapt more readily to input changes, coax field-level data out of complex PDFs, and even turn terminal and thin client screens from mainframe or VDI applications into live, actionable forms.

Leading the way in RPA innovation is UiPath Enterprise RPA Platform. UiPath combines a low-code visual IDE for process creation (Studio), client-side agents that execute those processes (Robots), and a central hub and web console for deploying, monitoring, and managing those agents remotely (Orchestrator).

UiPath Enterprise RPA Platform is a remarkably complete toolkit for process automation that is also remarkably easy to use. UiPath’s UI-based automation allows you to automate repetitive tasks out of human workflows without disrupting the underlying systems, putting you on the fast path to reducing process friction, improving data quality and compliance, and improving responsiveness in customer-facing channels.

And considering the minimal effort required to build a process app using UiPath—especially compared to traditional integration tools, where new back-end plumbing and API testing will greatly increase time and expense—UiPath presents an opportunity to modernize legacy workflows at a fraction of the cost.   

Let’s take a look.

UiPath RPA setup

UiPath is a Windows-only solution with several options for deployment. You can deploy UiPath on-premises or in the cloud, either as a local desktop service using the UiPath Studio IDE, or server-side using the full Orchestrator web app running on Windows Internet Information Server and Microsoft SQL Server (Standard or Enterprise edition).

My testbeds included Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016 along with SQL Server Enterprise. UiPath installed on both without a hitch after requirements for .Net 4.6.1 and IIS security certificates were in place. For cloud deployments, you’ll also want to consider extending UiPath Orchestrator security to remote Robots with a VPN connection.

To work its magic, UiPath requires several companion tools including a server-side Citrix plug-in for virtual desktop support and a browser plug-in for web data extractions. Chrome and Firefox are supported, if not yet Microsoft browsers. Although the included Chrome extension didn’t take in Chrome v73, an update was easily downloaded from the Chrome Store and I was on my way.

UiPath Studio

Getting started building workflows in UiPath Studio will be a cakewalk for anyone with BPM or Windows Workflow experience. Readymade, drag-and-drop activity components make it easy to build automations that mimic most any interaction a human would have with a desktop application or web browser. A good set of starter templates provides a base of simple one-off sequences, longer running transactional workflows, and UI-driven automations.

Although the component pallet isn’t as helpfully graphical as, say, Blue Prism’s, the built-in search made it easy to sift the components I needed. You’ll find good components for flow logic and state management, parallel branching with wait conditions, and exception handling.

The ability to easily surround a sequence with Try/Catch/Finally statements after they have been committed to the canvas was a time-saver. Sequences could also be extracted out of processes for reuse and refactoring. However, a glitch prevented variables from getting copied in tow.

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UiPath Studio makes it easy to build out transactional workflows that interact with UiPath Orchestrator and long-running process queues. Here we see how easy it is to inspect invocation arguments.

UiPath Robots can interact with data from myriad sources – databases and SOAP/XML/JSON calls, of course, but also Microsoft Office and Google G Suite, in addition to less-traditional sources like PDFs, websites, and mail servers. Thus Robots let you manually trigger a session to, say, gather up support details during a help chat, or thread managers into a mobile queue for approvals.

Keystrokes and mouse clicks are captured using intelligent recorders, while an interface modeling wizard divines application UIs and locates data fields. These tools were, quite simply, the easiest and most accurate that I have used.

I was impressed by the near-effortless setup needed to develop a Robot that could drill into a PDF and extract specific invoice details like customer ID, invoice number, and a purchase total. And the Robot was running in minutes. Under the hood, the pluggable OCR engines – with options for Microsoft, ABBYY, and Google—worked flawlessly. Once extracted, data could be pushed to an Excel spreadsheet or popped onto a queue for additional processing.

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UiPath’s browser plug-ins help its wizards pull data tables from web sources. UiPath wizards were quick, accurate, and demanded little intervention.

UiPath Studio’s onboard debugger provides basic troubleshooting tools including breakpoints, local variable inspection, and basic step in/step over process navigation. Missing was the ability to modify a variable’s state in-flight or to set conditional breakpoints. I would also like to be able to save my debug configurations with a process, rather than have breakpoints etc. reset between sessions.

UiPath really shines when it comes to UI automation, though. The Studio Recorder captures mouse clicks and keystrokes—including modifiers Alt, Shift, Control—as you interact with your desktop and applications. The Data Scraping and Screen Scaping wizards also do a superb job of finding data fields in Windows applications and web browsers. In my testing, these wizards were incredibly accurate and required little intervention.

UiPath gives you all the tools needed to direct Robots to open and close applications, enter keystrokes, and extract data from tables completely unattended. But UiPath Robots can also work alongside humans. The new Validation Station – part of the IntelligentOCR activity pack—allows you to weave humans into the mix for exception handling and validation when tasks demand it.

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UiPath lets you develop unattended Robots that work autonomously or attended robots that can be triggered to assist with tasks. Event handlers monitor for hot key sequences and wake a Robot to action.

UiPath Orchestrator

The UiPath Orchestrator web application is the central controller for your Robot army. Orchestrator sets up your distributed workers to run autonomously, 24/7 – either on a set schedule or in some event-driven fashion – to monitor file system folders or to detect inbound emails for claims in need of processing, for example.

Although the Orchestrator web application isn’t required for smaller deployments, it adds benefits like improved tracking and heartbeat monitoring of Robots, machines, and queues, as well as job scheduling, auditing, and user and license management.

Orchestrator supports Active Directory Windows Authentication out of the box as well as its own authentication service with basic role and user management provisions.

Through Orchestrator’s web interface, I was able to structure my environments, add Robots and credentials, assign processes to bots, and then deploy those bots to the automation workforce. The workflow between Studio and Orchestrator could be more straightforward. It would also benefit from tools that accelerate discovery and sync configurations with remote machines.

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As appealing as visual development can be, drilling in and out of sequence diagrams and finessing configuration screens can be tedious. UiPath’s Visual Studio extension let me stub out a C# framework for custom activities that could be imported back into UiPath Studio’s Package Manager.

But the built-in scheduler made quick work of setting temporal triggers – using either hard-coded time settings or recurring schedules. In a nice touch, an option to dynamically allocate bots improves resource utilization for non-priority jobs that are time-insensitive enough to be deferred. The ability to set finer-tuned “SLA” specifics would help to enhance this feature.

As for monitoring, you get the essential status information on Robots, machines, jobs, and schedules, along with log viewing and real-time alerts. Orchestrator’s ability to drill down into Robot runtime details isn’t particularly nuanced, but UiPath offers an option to deploy with Elasticsearch, allowing you to incorporate Kibana visualizations and create your own KPI dashboards.

The UiPath to RPA

UiPath would do well to improve Orchestrator’s dashboard analytics to surface more granular runtime insights over workload optimizations and processing bottlenecks. It could also make configuring bots and machine environments in larger deployments easier by adding tools that augment the manual discovery and copying of machine and ID keys.

But I really like UiPath’s familiar business process development workflow. It’s more productive than the tabbed, configuration task templates in products like Automation Anywhere or the separate object and process windows of Blue Prism. Further setting UiPath apart from competitors is its ability to integrate automations on the front-end and the back-end, thanks to APIs and numerous connectors.

Several new additions—global exception handling, SAML 2.0 SSO support, and smart card authentication – help elevate the platform and go a long way toward addressing requirements in government and financial applications. Another recent initiative is Git integration. While Git support was not yet available in the Enterprise LTS edition I tested, it was present in the Community edition (updated monthly versus the yearly release cycle for Enterprise). In the meantime, users of the Enterprise edition can manage application lifecycles with SVN or TFS.

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Activities in the beta and prerelease channels offer insight into UiPath’s rapid development cycle. I parsed this SAP screen using the new Computer Vision activity to detect fields and buttons to fully automate interaction.

UiPath also has a number of heavy-hitter partnerships that integrate prebuilt ERP and CRM activities from the likes of Salesforce, Oracle, and SAP, plus machine learning and AI activities for Python, IBM Watson, and DataRobot. UiPath’s Go! Marketplace also offers a slew of ad hoc activities, workflows, and connectors including Node-RED’s Amazon Echo and Slack webhooks.

UiPath Enterprise RPA Platform is a rock-solid foundation for automating line-of-business processes that puts rapid automation wins within easy reach. And rapid automation wins represent only a fraction of RPA’s potential.

The next stage in RPA will hinge on how quickly turnkey AI solutions – like natural language processing and predictive analytics – can be applied with the same drag-and-drop ease as OCR is today. We can look forward to UiPath—and competitors – harnessing AI in ways that finally allow businesses to break free of today’s hard-coded BPM rules and begin piloting new technology projects that adapt automatically to changing business needs.

Cost: Studio: $3,000 (including a development Robot). Production Robots: $1,200 (attended), $8,000 (unattended). Orchestrator: $20,000. 60-day free trial and free, limited Community Edition available. 

Platform: UiPath Studio: Windows 7 or later with .Net Framework 4.6.1 or later. UiPath Orchestrator: Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 or later with .Net Framework 4.6.1 or later and SQL Server 2008 R2 SP3 or later. 

At a Glance
  • UiPath Enterprise RPA Platform automates front-office processes incorporating back-office systems. Accurate wizards speed desktop automation and construct data tables from non-traditional sources. An impressive set of activity packs complements a process IDE built for high productivity.

    Pros

    • Modernizes core processes without disrupting underlying systems
    • Improves accuracy in error-prone tasks
    • Good IDE for quick workflow creation
    • Accurate wizards guide UI definition
    • Strong set of partner integrations and enterprise connectors
    • Mobile app extends Orchestrator monitoring to iOS and Android devices
    • Free learning tools, Community edition

    Cons

    • Lacks process discovery tools that would help streamline development
    • Lacks deeper analytics and insight into Robot runtime efficiency

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