Reporter’s Notebook: Going up the stack

Picture an inverted pyramid: At the bottom are the people who fill sandboxes with silicon. Above that are the chipmakers and, further up, the systems makers and app makers. There is a lot of money to be made at the semiconductor equipment level but, at the top of the funnel, where an electrically charged grain has been turned into a purple pixel in a businessperson’s PowerPoint presentation, is the realm of tons of money and sometimes tons of profit.

Consumer and business apps are where the money is really flowing, at least from the point of view of the worker in the IC clean room.

Things continually emerge from down the stack. Some of them are useful and form the foundation for better things to come. It almost sounds biblical: OSes begat network OSes, which begat middleware or enterprise app integration, which begat app servers. App servers were the next big thing at the end of the 20th century.

If things are successful, they become generalized and commoditized. At the same time, new offshoots flower, too.

App platforms have followed app servers. This was a busy mess at first, called B2B. XML messaging and discovery services have been layered atop the popular app servers, and a transactional level has been added atop this, along with choreography and orchestration services. This sets the stage for the next big thing: a collection of services using XML to orchestrate more business processes.

Call it BPM. Forget that software has always been there to help you do business. BPM stands on the shoulders of the basic software stack and is poised as the next big thing.

Who says so? No less stellar an industry observer than David Chappell, principal of Chappell & Associates, and a fellow columnist at ADT.

He is blunt: “The emerging realm of business process platforms will someday become as important as app servers are now, but they will look different.” Chappell, who I shared a coffee with at Starbucks during Microsoft Tech-Ed in San Diego, said that “messaging will be used more than RPCs.” Most importantly, he said, as he outlined BizTalk Server’s evolution for the Microsoft faithful, “diagrammatic designing” will be used more than coding.

In what was once a mere integration broker, Chappell sees a newly emerging platform for managing processes. And improving Microsoft tools such as Visio and Orchestration Designer will help to simplify the process building.

“Business processes tend to be ‘if-then-else-type decisions.’ Why not build them graphically rather than using C++?” he said. That’s what BizTalk Server does, he noted, and this type of product can only become more central as people recast their software portfolios using Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA).

Unlike many observers, Chappell advises patience. SOA and BPM will take years to happen. “The situation now is analogous to the app server market in 1996,” he said. “There is agreement on what an app server is. Over time, BPM will have such commonality. Today, there is commonality and diversity.” [For more on BPM, read Chappell’s column “Take your pick: Business processes or Bangalore ” on p. 18 of ADT’s June 2004 issue.)

Looking ahead, he sees a BPM server that will support communication among apps, business process implementation, scalability, modifiable business rules, process monitoring, tools for working with trading partners and authentication across applications.

Over time, Microsoft has cleverly “played the pyramid.” It came to OSes from languages, and went from OSes to apps. While competitors touted separation of OS and app server, it forged ahead with a combo; some competitors have since moved in a similar direction.

The company comes to BPM from below with a broad offering, and meets competitors who have tackled larger, more complex problems from above. But if it effectively handles 80% of the problems for 80% of the people 80% of the time, it will have a winner. Can you say “office automation”?

About the Author

Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.


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