As applications get more componentized and developers plan more in terms of workflows that link components, business process management takes on an increasingly important role. Since containers are also growing in importance, understanding the relationship between the two is more critical than ever.
BPM helps define effective componentization and workflow strategies for container-based applications, and its tools can benefit from container hosting for local integration. But to get the most from container BPM, broaden your BPM system scope to your entire application base, and make container policies subservient to business policies.
BPM is the practice of defining and modeling business processes, normally as an aid to use IT efficiently. A business process diagram (BPD) is created. When combined with starting-event identification, it can be used to define business workflows that can be turned into componentization plans, computer integration and work steering. There are two pieces to BPM system support: The use of BPM to structure container deployments and the use of containers to host BPM tools.
It would be incorrect to say that containerization can't be done without BPM; most users deploy current applications into containers without BPM intermediation. However, it offers application teams the opportunity to align application structures, workflows and lifecycle management with the business processes that the applications support. That lets the teams make better deployment decisions, which clearly affects container use.
Start with a diagram
A BPD is a good place to start a container plan. If applications and components are mapped onto such a diagram, it's easy to see the business dependencies for each element and to relate integration of IT workflows with business workflows. That shows the way components of applications relate to business processes, which in turn shows how they should be grouped for container deployment. Generally, applications and components that relate to the same business processes should be considered for grouping into pods or clusters and orchestrated as a whole.
Users of Kubernetes, the popular Docker DevOps tool, have reported that BPDs make it easier to structure how Kubernetes deploys applications, making it more likely that application deployments will reflect the optimum relationship among components and facilitate application-to-application workflow integration. It's also possible to link a BPD to broader, departmentwide orchestration by using a higher-level DevOps or orchestrator tool or even using a business process execution language (BPEL).
More and more companies are using BPM as a means of integrating component workflows to make business applications composable without requiring actual programming. That extends the link between BPM and containers by placing BPM workflow and integration tools inside the application, hosted in application containers. There, the BPM application is inside the cluster or pod; in that position, it can manage workflows among components and organize the steps in applications without requiring that the internal components of the application be exposed.
Users are likely to find this tight level of BPM and container integration far easier if they work with a container platform and BPM toolkit designed to work together. Red Hat has been a leader in this space with its OpenShift and JBoss BPM suite and offers extensive application notes and examples on how to achieve optimum BPM and container integration. Dell, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle also offer container-integrated BPM, but their integration relies more on buyer practices to implement, and there are fewer examples offered. That's likely to change over time as the relationship between BPM and containers becomes clearer, which is likely to happen as container adoption grows.
Many BPM tools also include process management and monitoring elements that can be of great benefit to container users. BPM-specific vendors like Appian offer suites of BPM tools that provide for process management and some monitoring. Such tools can give users a view of the process-to-resource relationships within clusters and pods as well as a businesswide view across all resources, including those not yet -- or never-to-be -- containerized and public cloud resources.
Define and track workflows
The leading edge in BPM-container symbiosis may be represented by Box Relay, a product of a Box-IBM partnership. This BPM system and workflow management offering is designed for use by small groups and companies or even individuals. With Box Relay, you can define workflows, and everyone can track tasks and progress. The product could popularize BPM and facilitate the integration of business process knowledge with container deployment.
Integration of that knowledge is currently manual. Box Relay doesn't have a specific hook to something like Kubernetes to drive actual deployment of containers. It seems likely that Box, IBM or a competitor will soon create this connection. Also lacking is guidance on how "organizational" or "personal" BPM could be integrated across an entire business. If both these capabilities were offered, it could jump-start the use of BPM in container deployments and businesses overall.
That raises the biggest point about BPM and container relationships. Both BPM and containers are business tools, but BPM is more about business. Business processes and their support are the core justification for IT. Containers are a way of hosting applications and, logically, should be used within a BPM context. Tools like Box Relay may expand the scope of a BPM system and open its benefits to a broader range of businesses and organizations, and that expansion is important if containers are to be of broad benefit to the business as well.
The convergence of BPM and containers is a business convergence -- the combination of Agile development, shadow IT, digital transformation and other trends aimed at making IT more responsive to business needs. Those factors are growing in importance, so their combined effect is growing, too. Certainly that will influence how businesses use IT and how IT uses resources.
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