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Still no universal workflow

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Kobielus archive

Workflow technologies are everywhere, having been embedded in a range of development tools, network applications and Web services. Workflow standards are everywhere, too, but they never seem to jump the gap from hopeful press releases to broad adoption.

So it's with considerable skepticism that we should greet the recent announcement that the Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC) and the Business Process Management Institute (BPMI) have agreed to converge their efforts to define XML-based workflow-process definition standards. Potentially, the alliance could bring WfMC's XML Process Definition Language (XPDL) and BPMI's Business Process Markup Language (BPML) under a common standards initiative.

This alliance looks good on paper, but it doesn't bring the workflow industry much closer to its longtime goal of defining universal standards and services that span all vendors and applications. The core problem is that there are too many workflow standards. More to the point, no new workflow standard ever seems to gain the industry momentum necessary to push others to extinction.

The WfMC/BPMI alliance says nothing about whether other groups will converge their specifications into a common industry standard. Rival workflow-process definition standards include the Object Management Group's Unified Modeling Language, the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards' ebXML Business Process Schema, the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Services Conversation Language and RosettaNet's Partner Interface Process.

Workflow standards would be implemented widely if vendors had good reasons for doing so. However, it's not clear why vendors would want to rally around any one workflow-process definition specification or any standard that defines how one product environment hands off running workflows to other vendors' environments.

Workflow vendors differentiate themselves competitively on the depth, sophistication and flexibility of their process definition tools and run-time platforms (the latter commonly are known as "workflow engines"). No standard workflow languages match the complete functionality of high-end workflow vendors' process definition features - and that's by design. These standards support a bare common denominator of workflow design features, which keeps vendors from adopting any one standard widely and also spurs new vendor coalitions to develop new standards to address deficiencies with existing standards.

A more fundamental issue is the fact that few users are demanding standards for interoperating diverse vendors' workflow tools and engines. Organizations generally implement workflow products as stand-alone point products for particular applications, not as components in general-purpose, multivendor workflow infrastructures.

Where standards are concerned, the workflow industry's best hope is that a sufficient number of platform vendors get religion soon about the need for general-purpose workflow services that span application categories. Universal implementation of workflow standards won't take place until Microsoft supports one or another open standard.

But that's not likely to happen soon. Microsoft's product line is symptomatic of the fragmented state of the workflow market. It has four server products that may be regarded as workflow environments: BizTalk Server, Exchange Server, SQL Server and Content Management Server. Microsoft has shown little interest in converging these products around a general-purpose workflow architecture under its .Net framework.

Which brings us back to the question of why Microsoft or any other vendor should go to the trouble of integrating such diverse products around common workflow standards. The market's not asking for it. And so many diverse product categories offer workflow that no single standard can adequately address all of their requirements. Consequently, at this point in the workflow market's development, the call for common standards is more of an academic exercise than a practical endeavor.

Kobielus is an Alexandria, Va.-based analyst with The Burton Group, an IT advisory service that provides in-depth technology analysis for network planners. He can be reached at (703) 924-6224 or

jkobielus@tbg.com.

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