IBM Unveils Workflow Engine for WebSphere

Big Blue's Domino, MQ Workflow, Crossworlds server products also to get new engine.

IBM Corp. announced last week that the upcoming version 5.0 release of its WebSphere Application Server (WAS) will ship with a new workflow engine. In addition, an IBM spokesman confirmed that Big Blue's MQ Workflow, Crossworlds Interchange Server, and Lotus Domino products will also exploit the new workflow engine.

According to Shawn Willet, a principal analyst with market research firm Current Analysis, IBM's new workflow engine solves one of Big Blue's most persistent problems. In the past, Willet points out, IBM has maintained as many as four different business process management (BPM)—or "workflow"—implementations across its range of products. "IBM has gotten a lot of flack about having too many BPM products, so this rationalizes having the same [workflow] engine with a single development program, which is good."

WAS 5.0 changes all of that, according to Stefan Van Overtveldt, IBM's director of WebSphere technical marketing. "What we've done now in version 5 is made [WebSphere's existing workflow implementation] into an extremely flexible workflow engine that is targeted to workflows between J2EE and Web services."

The upshot of it all, Van Overtveldt explains, is that WAS 5.0's workflow engine "allows you to create workflow processes between Web services and expose workflow processes as Web services."

Van Overtveldt says that IBM will incorporate the new workflow engine into future versions of its MQ Workflow and Crossworlds Interchange Server tools, but stresses "this does not mean that we're going to stop shipping these tools. Instead of their current run-time environments, they will be sitting on an embedded copy of [the workflow engine] that sits under the covers."

Big Blue has announced that it will ship Lotus Domino R6 with a one-time license for WAS 5.0, thereby exposing the Notes/Domino environment to its new workflow engine as well.

WAS 5.0's workflow engine boasts a technology that IBM calls "compensation." Van Overtveldt claims the technology enables the workflow engine to recover from errors encountered during a workflow sequence. "From an operational perspective, you may have a workflow that has one sequence when you're going through it, but if you need to back out of it, you have to go in a different order."

The workflow engine boasts tight integration with IBM's WebSphere Studio integrated development environment. As a result, Van Overtveldt says that users can create point-and-click workflows in WebSphere Studio. He stresses that "You will not hear me say that this is something suitable for a business manager. This is really targeted at professional developers." That's because "while you can visually draw all of these objects together, you still need to have an understanding of the properties of those objects."

Crossworlds Interchange server, on the other hand, will use the same workflow engine, and is "a tool that is more suitable for business managers," Van Overtveldt says.

While a multi-purpose workflow engine might make sense from a development point of view, Current Analysis' Willet wonders about the extent to which a single workflow implementation can address a number of different BPM requirements.

"I do have a concern that these are really different kinds of animals. A human workflow product is really a different animal than a workflow that a programmer would use, or the workflow used in an enterprise application integration project," he observes. "Their challenge is to use the same engine but keep the actual interfaces quite different."

Brent Sleeper, co-founder and principal with business process consultancy The Stencil Group, agrees. "One of the challenges of any kind of workflow or business process management software product is how do you make it interoperable enough to handle the majority of business processes and applications that are out there, without making it so dumbed-down and simplified that the hard problems can't be solved," he notes. "That's been a paradox that's present in any kind of software that tries to tackle this, and it's exacerbated with something like the [IBM] workflow engine that's relying on a relatively standardized way of doing things."

Workflow Standard Still a No-Show
WAS 5.0's workflow engine will appear absent support for the Business Process Execution Language for Web Services (BPEL4WS), a proposed standard for specifying business process behavior that's based on Web services. The BPEL4WS specification is supported by IBM, Microsoft Corp. and BEA Systems, among others, but hasn't yet been finalized.

When BPEL4WS is released, speculates Daniel Sholler, vice president of the application delivery strategies service with consultancy Meta Group, "the vision is to have a common workflow language and a common execution environment to describe the language of business processes."

Until BPEL4WS is finalized, comments IBM's Van Overtveldt, the workflow engine will exploit a proprietary language to define workflows. "The way we define these workflows right now is through a proprietary flow language called FDML [flow definition markup language]. We will very rapidly add support for [BPEL4WS], as a business process on top of Web services."

IBM will ship a service pack update that incorporates BPEL4WS support when the standard is finalized, Van Overtveldt confirms.

For his part, Stencil Group's Sleeper anticipates that the initial BPEL4WS specification will lay the groundwork for a common workflow language across all platforms, but cautions that the standard also runs the "risk of … trivializing the complexity of the business processes." According to Sleeper, the version of BPEL4WS that's expected to be approved later this year or early next year is suitable for general implementations but isn't yet robust enough to describe esoteric business processes.

"There's a lot of potential for [BPEL4WS] to help bring workflow and help bring business process management to a greater proportion of the problems out there, [but] frankly, it's not going to solve the toughest problems. It may help to solve 50 to 80 percent of the situations out there," he argues.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.