Exclusive: IBM Takes Half Step Toward BPM Integration

Apr 10, 2011 (08:04 PM EDT)

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Damned if you do; damned if you don't. That's pretty much the situation IBM is in as it announces today the integration of its two core business process management products.

Customers should like that it's bringing the IBM WebSphere Lombardi Edition and WebSphere Process Server closer together. But the company is also sure to be criticized, as it was last year, for failing to completely integrate these two separate products. Of course, had IBM gone all the way, some customers might have complained that they weren't ready to make a major investment in new underlying infrastructure.

IBM Business Process Manager, which will be announced on Monday at IBM's Impact Event in Las Vegas, is described as the "unified platform" customers are after. The product does provide a new shared process repository and administrative interface that will serve as the new front end of IBM's BPM portfolio. But the separate process engines, which actually run the processes, and the associated development environments, used to create and modify the processes, are all still there behind the scenes.

BPM systems give business and IT a shared environment in which they can collaborate around process models -- visual diagrams that are easy for business analysts to understand, but that also enable IT to add executable code. These systems then let you monitor and quickly change processes to improve performance or adapt to new business conditions, but without the extensive coding and development work associated with conventional application development.

Historically, BPM vendors have tended to cater to different types of processes. Some have focused on workflow technology for people-driven processes, such as resolving invoice disputes or approving complex loans. Other vendors and products have focused on integration and automation for processes handled entirely through hand-offs between back-end systems, such as straight-through insurance or banking transactions.

However, customers are increasingly demanding a blend of capabilities, and that has helped drive a wave of acquisitions in the BPM market. So even though IBM had integration-oriented WebSphere Process server, it acquired workflow-oriented Lombardi in 2010 and dubbed it WebSphere Lombardi Edition. IBM's new shared repository and administrative interface is meant to give users and administrators a single place to deal with both types of processes, either independently or combined within a single process.

The new environment can also tap into content management systems and, in particular, IBM FileNet BPM (a product acquired along with FileNet in 2006 and used for content-intensive processes such as insurance-claim approvals).

Rounding out the new capabilities, the shared repository and interface can also access business rules from IBM's iLog business rules management system, acquired in 2009, and dashboard and process-monitoring capabilities from Cognos, a business intelligence vendor acquired in 2007.

What the new IBM Business Process Manager does not do is integrate and replace all the legacy development environments and process engines associated with the various BPM products, including Lombardi, WebSphere and FileNet.

So, for example, customers can now monitor and open a workflow-oriented process and an integration-oriented process from the new console, but those processes (or components of a single process) still run on separate engines. And to change each process, IT will do the work in the still-separate process development environments.

IBM's approach can be contrasted with that of Oracle, which took a decisive step in 2010 when it integrated the AquaLogic BPM system it acquired with BEA with its own legacy BPM product. That move yielded a single product and a clear roadmap, but it also forced existing customers of both products to do considerable migration work to move forward. The more process changes required to run on the new product, the more painful the migration.

IBM says its approach preserves legacy investments, but the downside is that IBM and its customers will eventually have to move to a consolidated engine. "Maintaining two separate engines is very costly for IBM, and customers also don't want to maintain two separate environments," says Clay Richardson, a BPM analyst with Forrester.

Will IBM be damned by customers for not integrating more aggressively? IBM points to recent Gartner sales statistics for 2010 that show dominant BPM marketshare for IBM and continued strong growth despite the lack of unified product roadmap.

But the longer the company delays the inevitable move to a single, consolidated engine, Richardson says, the more potential openings it creates for rivals including independents Pegasystems and Appian. Those two companies have added strong mobile and social collaboration features to support both people-driven workflow- and integration-oriented BPM.

With the latest announcements IBM has at least provided a single modeling approach and process structure, adhering to the BPMN modeling standard and supported by IBM's software-as-a-service-delivered BlueWorks Live process documentation and collaboration environment.

Richardson says IBM is also making other efforts to attract new customers with discounts and to allay the concerns of existing customers with steps such as the new shared repository and user interface.

In short, WebSphere and Lombardi customers know they're going to face heavy investments to migrate to a unified process engine within the next couple of years, but it appears IBM is easing the transition for now and saving the hardest changes for (hopefully) better economic conditions.