BPM at IBM InterConnect

It would be unfair to say there was absolutely nothing on BPM at IBM's InterConnect conference, which took place this week in Las Vegas... but it would not be far from the truth. InterConnect is the supposed successor to IBM's annual Impact middleware event where "Smarter Process" - IBM's term for BPM and decision management - has always played a large role. I say "supposed" because the new mega-event, triple the size of Impact and split between 2 hotels a mile apart, was such a logistical debacle that I seriously doubt they will try it this way again.

InterConnect is officially about Cloud, Mobile, DevOps, and Security. Middleware is sort of there but well below the fold. The overarching theme this year was "hybrid cloud" - new apps combining services in public and private clouds, even behind the firewall - based on IBM's new strategic platform-as-a-service called Bluemix. Even though Bluemix is new in the past year, they never really explained what it is. Here is what it says on the website:

"IBM Bluemix is the cloud platform that helps developers rapidly build, manage and run web and mobile applications. Based on the open source architecture of Cloud Foundry, Bluemix provides the flexibility to integrate development frameworks, languages and services that suit your needs. Develop applications using Web IDE and Eclipse – while storing your code directly on Bluemix or GitHub. Bluemix is based on Cloud Foundry, an open source project, and features additional runtimes and services from the open source community. This makes Bluemix a great place to build and run applications that leverage technology and innovation from the open source developer community. Bluemix not only offers developers a broad range of IBM, third-party and open source APIs and services, but it integrates with many of the developer tools you already use today. By abstracting lower-level infrastructure components, Bluemix enables you to spend more of your time and talent writing the code that will differentiate your app and drive user adoption and engagement. Build apps and services for free in the first 30 days. Enjoy the free tier even after the trial ends, and pay only for what you use. No credit card is required to get started."
If this is truly the new strategic direction, it's clearly not what we normally think of as IBM. The whole event affected that open source/hacker/developer-centric tone, and honestly, it was kind of interesting and refreshing. The problem for me was that BPM does not seem to play in this brave new world.

The main tent demos all reprised the old "systems of engagement" theme, in which the app uses some combination of mobile, social, and analytics technology to lure unsuspecting mall dwellers into buying something. Only now it's on Bluemix!

In the new IBM, it's all about customer-facing apps on phones, not cross-functional business processes. It's about writing code, not model-driven development. This revolution, they tell us, will be hacker-led, not business-empowering. All those old BPM values and principles, apparently, are yesterday's news.

But it seems to me that BPM - the technology, if not the IBM product - could have a valuable role to play here. These new engagement apps, for example, depend heavily on events, decisions, and analytics, all technologies central to IBM's Smarter Process portfolio, but not really integrated with the BPM product. IBM Decision Server Insights, based on ODM, for example, introduces "rich time modeling, reasoning and analytics to detect and respond to intricate patterns and trends; innovative global analytics to extract valuable insights over populations of business entities in real-time; and generalized, business-friendly modeling over all aspects of the decision model design." Yes, this is exactly in tune with the new direction, but it is not integrated with BPM. If you ask why (and I did), the answer is always "our customers are not asking for it."

And how does BPM fit into Bluemix? It doesn't (yet), but Bluemix does include a Workflow service:

"Workflow for Bluemix makes it easy for you to create workflows that orchestrate and coordinate the REST-based services that you use in your apps. The JavaScript based Workflow language lets you define interactions between any services. By off-loading all the service interactions to the Workflow service, your application becomes easier to understand, maintain and evolve. Your workflows are run and managed in a robust and scalable way, regardless of whether your workflow and services run for milliseconds or days."
Hmmm... To me this sounds like an updated version of the Windows Workflow Foundation, a set of programmer components that Microsoft put into the .Net Framework several years back. Embedding workflow in the OS! An obvious win, right? It might be workflow automation but it's not BPM as we know it.

So what should a renovated IBM BPM on Bluemix, consistent with the new strategy, look like? If they asked me (which they have not), it would include the following:

  • Model-driven, instant playback, business-empowered process design... all those old Lombardi values that rescued IBM BPM in the first place!
  • Event-aware continuous query engine, like Decision Server Insights, but able both to trigger BPMN events and to receive and process events generated by the process engine and BAM. And business-friendly modeling tools to go with it.
  • An enhanced Coach Designer that makes performer-facing tasks look just as engaging, powerful, and mobile-enabled as the customer-facing apps IBM is showing today in the main tent.
  • Complete unification of case management with structured BPM. None of the current "basic" case management baloney.
Before closing, I have to say that I did see one BPM thing at InterConnect that was new and interesting, an executable version of Blueworks Live. Blueworks Live has long had a simple automated workflow capability, but it was totally disconnected from the BPMN modeling piece. The new version actually executes the BPMN model, using activity inputs and outputs - properties currently provided by the tool - to autogenerate task forms and to serve as process variables. The BPMN activities today are simple human tasks, but I believe some kind of service invocation scenarios are planned. You can step through the process in "test mode," just like the Playback feature in IBM BPM. It is really pretty cool. I'm not sure when this new version will be available or what it costs, but I suspect it could take some business away from BPM Standard (the one without Process Server underneath). It's definitely not a toy.