For most business processes there is no need to commission expensive development of bespoke software when they could be run directly from the process definition using BPEL (Business Process Execution Language). With currently available visual tools, BPEL enables business teams to automate and control their own processes.
BPEL is a comprehensive and standard language for describing business processes in a way that can be executed using appropriate BPEL engine. BPEL is an industry standard although some suppliers will have their own proprietary extensions.
BPEL provides a way of automating business processes without expensive software development. There are several process engines that execute the BPEL code to manage business processes.
A key challenge for process analysts is working with business users to understand, design and agree how the processes should work. Inevitably there will be some misunderstandings and user testing will throw up changes; changes are expensive when working with software developers but much more manageable with BPEL. Users get disillusioned when last-minute refinements cannot be made; with BPEL that need not be the case.
A process designer can write the BPEL code by hand but most will use some form of graphical process design tool. These use shapes and linking connectors to visualise the process similar to drawing a flowchart. It means that a business user can specify and maintain their business processes with a modest level of computing knowledge.
Associated with the BPEL shapes are the rules applied for data validation or to route forms and documents to the destination required by the process. A process designer needs to define data and forms and these will usually be created using a visual data dictionary and forms editor. Documents such as e-mails or letters will also use an integrated wysiwig or a general purpose editor that can create the documents in html format.
Once a process is configured in the design tools will generate the BPEL code in a form suitable for the processing engine to execute. Managing the processes and making changes is usually done with the same visual tools so there is no need for most process managers to ever see the actual BPEL code. Process automation becomes a business rather than a technical role.
Using BPEL with such tools an experienced process designer should be able to automate and maintain business processes with little need for programming or technical IT support. Typically implementing a process using BPEL takes hours rather than the weeks and months normally associated with automation using custom software. Once implemented sensible change management disciplines and BPEL allows the business to respond quickly and flexibly to changing business requirements.
The enterprise systems from suppliers such as Oracle and IBM (Lombardi) implement an extended BPEL specification which makes their tools large and complex. In very complex processes, for very large enterprise some of the more esoteric elements of BPEL may be required. However, most business processes and most organisations require barely half of the functionality in the BPEL standard.
Fortunately there are suppliers, such as EnCircle Solutions, who take an approach that is friendlier for most business and users. Their EnAct suite of tools and applications use their own BPEL engine which implements the essential part of the standard. EnAct BPEL may also be the only native BPEL engine that executes BPEL directly without first interpreting it into Java or some other intermediate language. Taken together, these result in a fast BPEL engine which can use smaller hardware than the large enterprise engines. This makes for a low cost implementation and, with the reduced complexity, much more maintainable processes.
As and when clients need other elements of the BPEL standard EnCircle can add them due to the modular design of their BPEL engine. These functions are then made available as part of the core BPEL engine.
By adopting BPEL there will often be no need to create custom software for automating business processes. There are a range of tools available from expensive enterprise solutions to much more affordable solutions that will meet most business needs. With an appropriate choice of tools a business process manager will be able to automate and control business processes with little or no technical IT support once the tools have been installed.
For further information on the BPEL standard or approaches to implementing BPEL the following links should be helpful.
OASIS Web Services Business Process Execution Language, WSBPEL Table of Contents
EnCircle Solutions Ltd, Six Steps to Process Management and case studies