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The Web Services Advisor
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An increasing number of companies looking to increase efficiency and better align IT spending and resources with their business needs have turned to business process management (BPM) software and strategies. Using BPM, an organization examines all its business processes, ties them together, automates them and gets them to work more smoothly together. BPM automates workflow and other procedures and can be part of an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.
Some say that Web services-BPM are an ideal match and the use of Web services technologies will help BPM become even more effective. So, I'm kicking off a two-part column about how Web services-BPM work together and how they may become even more closely tied in the future.
The ideal marriage?
Web services-BPM complement each other. Both are designed for similar purposes -- to integrate different processes or applications and get them talking to each other in an automated way. Together, they also solve an age-old IT conundrum: whether to build your own homegrown solution, or buy an enterprise solution from an outside vendor. With Web services-BPM, you can get the best of both worlds and mix and match homegrown and system-wide approaches. You would get the customization of the homegrown solution combined with the breadth of features and modules offered by enterprise solutions.
Web services can be used in two primary ways with BPM, said David Kelly, president of research and consulting firm Upside Research. They can be used by the BPM software as a way to integrate various systems of an enterprise. So when different IT systems of an enterprise need to be connected via a BPM solution, that integration can be accomplished by using Web services technologies.
Secondly, the BPM system itself can be a Web service and can be exposed so that other applications and systems can initiate a process through the BPM system, call for a report or access the status of a process.
Web services become particularly important with BPM when different enterprises attempt to automate business processes between them, said Jeanne Baker, vice president of commerce at Sterling Commerce and board member of BPMI.org.
"What happens if two companies need to work together, but use different BPM applications?" Baker said. "The industry is still addressing a lot of different standards and proprietary formats for BPM, and they haven't stabilized yet. The workflow vendors often have a roll-your-own approach."
As a result, Baker noted, if companies want their BPM software to choreograph processes and workflows between them, they need some common way to communicate.
"To do that, they rely on Web services," Baker concluded.
BPM and Web services in the real world
All this may sound rather abstract. So let's take a real world example of how Web services-BPM might work together. Let's say that a manufacturing firm has created a BPM solution that maps out and automates all the business processes in its manufacturing process. It starts with an order, then checks whether all the parts are available to manufacture the order and then assembles the order.
The company has outside suppliers that provide the parts it needs to manufacture the finished goods. As part of the BPM solution, whenever an order comes in, a business process automatically checks to see whether the parts are available and if they're not, another process checks the supplier's inventory. If the supplier has them, an order is automatically placed with the supplier.
In this scenario, Web services-BPM would work in concert. The supplier can create a Web service that allows the manufacturer -- and other manufacturers -- to check its inventory and to place orders. The manufacturer's BPM software would include a business process that calls out to the supplier's Web service to check the inventory and place the order. Additionally, the BPM software could use Web services technology as a way to integrate with the manufacturer's disparate systems as well.
Is it real yet?
Melding Web services technologies with BPM is still relatively new, but there are indications that the combination will catch on quickly. Kelly believes that "Web services are becoming a critical component of BPM because they're already one of the most popular ways of connecting and integrating applications and exchanging data. And that exchange of data is vital to BPM."
Baker said that as of now, "It is being done a little bit, but not that much. The whole industry is still in an embryonic phase, with more thinking and planning still going on that actual production."
Baker said, however, that there is a fair amount of experimentation inside enterprises, and research and development with Web services-BPM and so she expects the combination will be used much more in the future.
In part two, I'll take a closer look at the business benefits of the Web services-BPM combination and examine some of the underlying protocols that make it possible.
More Resources on Web services-BPM:
BPM tools: benefits and opportunities
Business Project Management (BPM) tutorial
What BPM software should you choose?
About the Author
Preston Gralla is an expert on Web services is the author of more than 20 books, including "How the Internet Works," which has been translated into 14 languages. Gralla was the founding managing editor of PC Week, a founding editor and then editor and editorial director of PC/Computing, and an executive editor for ZDNet and CNet. He has written about technology for more than 15 years for many major magazines and newspapers, including PC Magazine, Computerworld, CIO Magazine, eWeek and its forerunner PC Week, PC/Computing, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Dallas Morning News among others. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.