Think Orchestration, not BPEL

I was made aware of this response from Alex Neihaus of Active Endpoints on the VOSibilities blog to a podcast and post from David Linthicum. VOS stands for Visual Orchestration System. Alex took Dave to task for some of the “core issues” that Dave had listed in his post.

I read both posts and listened to Dave’s podcast, and as is always the case, there are elements of truth on both sides. Ultimately, I feel that the wrong question was being asked. Dave’s original post has a title of “Is BPEL irrelevant?” and the second paragraph states:

OK, perhaps it’s just me but I don’t see BPEL that much these days, either around its use within SOA problem domains I’m tracking, or a part of larger SOA strategies within enterprises. Understand, however, that my data points are limited, but I think they are pretty far-reaching relative to most industry analysts’.

To me, the question is not whether BPEL is relevant or not. The question is how relevant is orchestration? When I first learned about BPEL, I thought, “I need a checkbox on my RFP/RFI’s for this to make import/export is supported,” but that was it. I knew the people working with these systems would not be hand-editing the XML for BPEL, they’d be working with a graphical model. To that end, the BPMN discussion was much more relevant than BPEL.

Back to the question, though. If we start talking about orchestration, we get into two major scenarios:

  1. The orchestration tool is viewed as a highly-productive development environment. The goal here is not to externalize processes, but rather, to optimize the time it takes to build particular solutions. Many of the visual orchestration tools leverage significant amount of “actions” or “adapters” that provide a visual metaphor for very common operations such as data retrieval or ERP integration. The potential exists for significant productivity gains. At the same time, many of the things that fall into this category aren’t what I would call frequently changing processes. The whole value add of being able to change the process definition more efficiently really doesn’t apply.
  2. The orchestration tool is viewed as a facility for process externalization. Here’s the scenario where the primary goal is flexibility in implementing process changes rather than in developer productivity. I haven’t seen this scenario as often. In other words, the space of “rapidly changing business processes” is debatable. I certainly have seen changes to business rules, but not necessarily to the project itself. Of course, on the other hand, many processes are defined to begin with, so the culture is merely reacting to change. We can’t say what we’re changing from or to, but we know that something in the environment is different.

So what’s my opinion? I still don’t get terribly excited about BPEL, but I definitely think orchestration tools are needed for two reasons:

  1. Developer productivity
  2. Integrated metrics and visibility

Most of the orchestration tools out there are part of a larger BPM suite, and the visibility that they provide on how long activities take is a big positive in my book (but I’ve always been passionate about instrumentation and management technologies). As for the process externalization, the jury is still out. I think there are some solid domains for it, just as there are for things like complex event processing, but it hasn’t hit mainstream yet at the business level. It will continue to grow outward from the developer productivity standpoint, but that path is heavily focused on IT system processes, not business processes (just like OO is widely used within development, but you don’t see non-IT staff designing object models very often). As for BPEL, it’s still a mandatory checkbox, and as we see separation of modeling and editing from execution engine, it’s need may become more important. At the same time, how many organizations have separate Java tooling for when they’re writing standalone code versus writing Java code for SAP? We’ve been dealing with that for far longer, so I’m not holding my breath waiting for a clean separation between tools and the execution environment.

One Response to “Think Orchestration, not BPEL”

  • BPEL as a source of application management metadata…

    Let’s put aside for now all the discussions about whether BPEL is an appropriate tool to capture a “true” business process, i.e. to implement the business logic understood by a business analyst (a topic that has been discussed at leng…

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