Middleware moves up a level

Like most companies, Novalis Corp. wants to make more money. The formula for doing so, though, is not taught in B-school. Rather, harken back to Computer Science 101, said Ed Carmody, a director and technical architect at the Albany, N.Y.-based software developer and outsourcer to HMOs.

"We make money if we're more efficient," he said. "We can be more efficient by doing business transactions across different applications. But you can't just do a data flow diagram; you need a process flow diagram."

To create an integrated, distributed object-based enterprise system -- one that will make doing business more efficient -- business processes and business data must be part and parcel. "If you can't move the business transaction and have the process logic along with it, you don't get there," explained Carmody. But businesses, he said, typically "build a data flow diagram and forget the process flow because it's hard. You end up spending the next three years writing reports to see what the state of the data is."

Increasingly, corporations such as Novalis are looking to Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) products to not only provide the "glue" between disparate applications across the enterprise, but to also automate and manage their business processes.

In the real-time enterprise these days,
it is
process, process, process.

In addition to enabling integration at the business-process level, many EAI vendors are moving to expand their suites -- which typically include data transformation, message queuing or publish-and-subscribe technologies, and pre-built connectors -- to include process mapping and analysis capabilities and, in some cases, workflow. Among the players in this market space are Active Software, CrossWorlds Software, Forté Software, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, New Era of Networks (Neon), Template Software, Tibco Software, SuperNova, Vitria Technology and others.

Going to a higher lever

Today, there are three major trends in the EAI space, according to Bart Foster, senior vice president, worldwide marketing and business development at Burlingame, Calif.-based CrossWorlds Software Inc. "One is an increasing proliferation of packages in a typical enterprise, which is good news because the integration requirements are more predictable. The second is a move toward doing things at the process level rather than the data level, moving toward process orientation and process mapping," he said. "And the third trend is e-business, where you're taking that process orientation and extending it beyond the firewall."

Integration at a higher level -- the business-process level -- rather than at the data or application level is "a major breakthrough," said Toni Lee Rudnicki, vice president of marketing at Cambridge, Mass.-based Oberon Software. "In an application integration environment you have a one-to-one relationship. With true business-process integration, you can think out of the box and bring multiple things into that business. In business-process integration, it's critical to think of the business process as the driver. In our view, the business process is how a company defines itself."

This is a change in mindset for most companies that put integration in the hands of IT rather than business analysts. "In the past, people didn't do process flow," said John Mann, senior consultant and analyst, enabling technologies, at the Patricia Seybold Group, Boston. "Before EAI, you had separate stovepipe applications strung together with procedures. Pro- cess flow and mapping come up when you're trying to automate [the business process]."

Process flow becomes particularly important when the process is complicated and has multiple steps, such as an e-commerce application that may touch many systems, both inside and outside the firewall. "EAI starts with middleware and then adds a broker," said Mann. "A message that comes in will go on to the next place. It's one-shot -- only one decision is made. But if you have a business process, like fulfilling an order, you have several steps. You can encapsulate those steps so you have visibility. The idea of business flow and workflow is that you now have an electronic model that says [the process] does this."

Process automation "allows customers to solve more complex problems than traditional EAI, which focuses on applications exchanging information," noted Malcolm Lewis, director of product marketing at Vitria Technology Inc., Mountain View, Calif. For a multi-step process, say order fulfillment, "companies need a way to graphically define those business processes and map those definitions on top of an IT infrastructure," he said.

Indeed, there are two perspectives to EAI: "To solve the data integration problem and to solve the process integration problem," said Jonathan Mc-Kay, senior vice president of marketing at Forté Software Inc., Oakland, Calif. "EAI is about productization -- about productizing data integration and moving up to process integration, which is what we've been doing."

Forté's EAI offering, Forté Fusion, introduced in March, brings together process automation -- processes that typically do not require human intervention -- and workflow -- processes that typically involve humans. At the heart of Forté Fusion is Conductor, a business-process automation solution that isolates application logic from process logic, collects real-time data for use in analysis, and ensures the integrity of business-process execution. Business processes are graphically defined and are managed at runtime by a distributed, fault-tolerant process automation engine.

One thing that differentiates Conductor, said McKay, is its ability to keep persistent state of steps in process automation. "There are two ways to approach the process side of integration," explained Ken MacKenzie, Forté's product architect. "You can have a rules engine and run incoming messages through the rules engine and figure out who to send it to, but there's no context to understand where you are in the business process. That's why we implemented a state machine, not only node to node, but states within each node. It makes persistent records and you can query that; for instance, where is trouble ticket number 444?" he said. "Rules can be good in a lot of applications, especially short-duration processes; but when we look at enterprise-wide applications, we ended up with a state-machine approach."

That suited Novalis' Carmody, who said, "Computers are state machines; we're using Conductor as a state machine between systems."

Novalis is using Fusion to integrate new applications built in the Forté development environment, legacy applications built in PowerBuilder, and applications built in a COBOL system. The first application Novalis has rolled out is a claims payment application with an adjudication engine "that acts as a super job scheduler," said Carmody. The process flow diagram was created in Conductor.

The claims payment application works this way: Say an HMO patient breaks a leg and goes to a doctor, who sends the patient to a lab for an x-ray, which is then sent to a hospital where a doctor uses the x-ray to set the leg. For the patient, this means one co-payment; but for Novalis, this represents three claims that may come in months apart. The new claims processing application enables Novalis to retro-rate a claim and understand when an event occurred, with the ultimate goal of being more proactive. From a systems integration viewpoint, Novalis is natively reading and writing files, using Conductor to do extensive validation on the benefit plan. The claim is then pended to an existing application for utilization management. With the legacy system, "we have no idea when the claim pended," explained Carmody. "We wanted to do real-time, class process reengineering using Conductor."

While process automation and workflow have traditionally been viewed as two distinct systems, Carmody wanted a solution that integrated both. Conductor allowed Carmody to integrate automated processes and human processes within his process flow diagram. "I've been a workflow bigot, so I pushed it," he said. And now that users have seen how they can make changes dynamically in Conductor, he said, they are starting to rethink how they do things. Use of the workflow aspects of Conductor is still in its infancy at Novalis, said Carmody, as the claims engine is not very people-intensive. But when the firm rolls out more people-intensive applications, like enrollment, he said they will have more issues, particularly with getting business and technology people in-sync with the problem they are trying to solve.

Longer term, Novalis plans to use Conductor to tie all systems together across an integration backbone, using the Scaffolds framework from San Francisco-based Sage IT Partners and the Forté development environment.

It's about continuous improvement

Another company looking at the big picture from a business-process standpoint is Miami-based Covad Communications, a provider of broadband access and services. As part of its operations support system (OSS), which for a telco is akin to an ERP system, Covad first developed its business-process architecture and software architecture. In the traditional telco domain, an OSS is "not treated as a business-process automation problem, but more as a functional breakdown with lots of organizational stuff," said Vinu Sundaresan, director of software engineering. "Covad has taken a unique approach, incorporating a functional breakdown as well as a business-process automation perspective that drives the functional breakdown."

Rather than a platform-based approach with lots of plumbing and a monolithic architecture, or a framework approach that can make it difficult to rapidly change the business process, Covad chose a Web-based, component architecture based on Java and CORBA. "It is getting to the point where people are not focusing on middleware or integration architecture, but on the business processes to act as the glue for an end-to-end architecture," said Sundaresan.

Covad's architecture called for a software bus in the middle to add and/or change components through the use of a business-process engine separate from the core functions. Covad needed a publish-and-subscribe technology, as well as a process flow engine. They got both with Vitria, "which is why it's such a great fit," said Sundaresan.

Sundaresan wanted a process-flow meth- odology that provided a "good process-definition tool integrated with a runtime component. Our business analysts do the process design, and translate into a runtime model pretty easily. Changes to the process model are accomplished by the business analyst instead of going to engineering," he said.

A component-based architecture, coupled with the fact that changes can be made quickly within the business-process components, "has dramatically changed productivity," said Sundaresan. "Time to market has gone from eight to 18 months down to three. These are significant engineering and business advantages."

Another benefit of Vitria is the ability to do continuous process improvement. "You can collect a metric of your process flow efficiency and use it to fine-tune," explained Sundaresan. "In a process-flow environment, you never build just once. There's a constant rearranging of efficiency metrics. That aspect, built into the tool, is really important."

With Vitria's real-time analyzer, said Dale Skein, CTO at Vitria Technology, a company can verify a goal -- for example, a financial house that wants to check credit and complete an order within a minute -- and trend it. That allows for an adaptive process, said Skein. "Say you want to change your credit approval process based on how volatile the stock market is. If the market is crashing, you'll want a conservative validation/credit check step. The way we've done process automation -- self-configuring processes -- the system can dynamically choose which type of approval it wants to do based on analysis."

Looking ahead, Skein said the next release of Vitria, scheduled for the fall, will include both process automation and workflow for comprehensive process management. "What we see and are working on is the convergence of process automation and workflow," he said. "Most business processes include both people and processes. You may have almost a fully automated process, but you may have a few steps you still need to do manually, or do exceptions processing. It's very straightforward to add workflow to process automation."

Vitria is now developing its own workflow engine, rather than a connector to an existing workflow product. "One can build a connector to a workflow engine, but our belief is that connectors are a necessary evil," noted Skein. "In the ideal world, you won't need connectors, but you'll still need process automation. The goal is to minimize the number of connectors you have."

Going visual

Taking a different approach to workflow is Active Software, Santa Clara, Calif. "I think EAI and workflow need to work together, but there's a whole range of things that happen in the workflow environment for dealing with people that go beyond just integration of processes," said Zack Urlocker, vice president, marketing. In addition, many companies have already selected a workflow product, he said, and do not want another workflow engine. Active's tack is to work with Staffware and Hewlett-Packard to create adapters to their workflow products.

On the process automation front, Active has recently moved to incorporate process modeling into ActiveWorks 3.1. The ActiveWorks Designer tool, built on top of the Visio modeling tool from Seattle-based Visio Corp., provides graphical design, project management, event generation, process documentation and simulation/ testing capabilities. With Visio, business analysts can visually model the business-process flow. Designer automatically generates the Java code to implement the integration.

"Designer generates advanced business events and sets up a framework for managing them; the developer will then add more information. You can see a simulation of that environment running, so you can see the flow of information between systems," explained Urlocker. "Being able to visualize the flow of information is critical to getting it right. Previously, people sketched on whiteboards, or a lot of customers used Visio or Rational Rose; both support UML. We built Designer on top of Visio because people are already familiar with the tools. We wrote a lot of extensions to that system to automatically generate code."

Juniper Networks Inc., Mountain View, Calif., was one customer that used Visio to map its business processes, as Active's Designer was not available at the time, said John Jendricks, CIO at Juniper.

Juniper Networks selected Active as part of its overall strategy to integrate its value chain. The company decided it was critical to have an enterprise integration solution in place before doing any e-business. "We wanted to ensure that when someone places an order or changes a billing address, that it's completely integrated from an enterprise application standpoint in real time with the back-end production applications," said Jendricks.

Getting an integrated system into production is not that difficult, he added, but the payback for using an EAI solution like ActiveWorks is in "the ongoing future revisions and enhancements, and changes in business processes that always test whether what you've done is good. Using Visio, you have a living self-document system for your processes; to go in and change it is just part of doing business," said Jendricks. "And along with Visio, you have a visual representation that someone at a high level can understand, which can generate discussions and improvements."

The convergence factor

Other EAI vendors are also moving into the process automation arena, some of whom have roots in both workflow and application integration.

For example, Dulles, Va.-based Template Software Inc., which derived from the workflow market space, is working on its Business Process Template (BPT) product, an extension to its Enterprise Integration Template (EIT). BPT, which has been rolled out to some early customers, automates business rules and procedures and provides a visual modeling environment that is designed for business analysts or domain experts. "BPT is a high-level tool for business experts," said David Kiker, CTO at Template Software. "It allows them to visually describe the business process. The other aspect of the tool is [that] it has all of the runtime engines necessary to drive [the processes]. If it's a claims processing application," he said, "you can visually see at any moment where the claim is."

An older Template product, Workflow Template (WFT), can be used with BPT, particularly if a business is describing a process that takes place outside of its control, added Kiker. Said Ben Martindale, executive VP, sales and marketing, "In the EAI space, you see workflow being applied to fairly simple routing rules and message dispatching rules; you could call that workflow and some do. Our approach to workflow is much more sensitive to the business context of what one is trying to achieve in business, [it is] more in terms of the flow of work through an enterprise business process."

IBM, which was also a player in the workflow market, recently renamed its former FlowMark product and brought it into the MQSeries family. "IBM's perspective is not just tying two applications together, we look at [integration] issues from a network perspective and a systems management perspective, then base connectivity, manipulating data, automating process flows and task flows," said Alan Everard, MQSeries business manager at IBM Software in Hursley, England. "You start climbing up the MQSeries triangle with the MQSeries base, MQSeries Integrator [the message broker] and MQSeries WorkFlow." MQSeries Workflow automates processes involving employees, customers and applications to accelerate process flow.

So, are we seeing a convergence of EAI and workflow? "One term being used is enterprise business integration, which suggests the combination of enterprise application integration and enterprise process integration," said Tom Dwyer, research director at the Aberdeen Group, Boston. "If you look at the enterprise process integration segment, it's close to what we used to think of as workflow."

While traditional workflow is more task-driven, said Dwyer, enterprise business integration is more event-driven, yet there is signaling involved: This task came in, who should know about it? Dwyer predicts we will see additional work in this area going forward, as the ultimate goal of both workflow and process automation -- as well as the goal of today's businesses -- is "trying to get rid of lapses in time."

When a firm can get eliminate time lags and make its processes more efficient, it has the potential to make more money. Just what Novalis' Carmody had in mind.

Comparison shopping (Related Story)

All process mapping and automation tools are not alike. Of the approximately 40 suppliers in the EAI space, for example, only about one-quarter currently have a process mapping tool or process integration component, while some do not even have a graphical modeling tool, said Tom Dwyer, research director at the Aberdeen Group, Boston. EAI vendors offering some process flow and implementation capabilities include: Oberon Software, TSI International, New Era of Networks (Neon), IBM, Forté Software, Template Software and CrossWorlds Software.

Here are some tips from Dwyer for evaluating process mapping tools:

  • Look at tools and the pictures they produce. Does the picture really describe what is going on? Compare graphical tools by looking at the view they give of the process.
  • Does the tool have the ability to replicate processes dynamically?
  • Can you derive a process from a prior process?
  • Can you modify on the fly?
  • How quickly can you build a process from another process?

"Look at the granularity of process-to-process synchronization. Not only do I want to coordinate processes, but I want to shrink the time involved in hand-offs. I want as much concurrent process synchronization as I can get," noted Dwyer.

"For example, say in one process task there are five things being done, but the next task only needs three of those five things. Some tools don't go to that level of interdependency -- you have to complete all five tasks even though the next dependency may only need three," he said. "Maybe that's a difference [in time] of a day or an hour. That's a difference that wouldn't appear on the picture, but it would on closer analysis."

-- Colleen Frye