Model programs

Business process modeling tools help put the enterprise in perspective

With passage of the Clinger-Cohen Act in 1996, agencies were faced with the need to better manage their enterprise architectures—the act mandated an overall blueprint for their IT systems.

This year, the Office of Management and Budget has dropped the other shoe, making completion of these models—and alignment of spending requests with those models—mandatory to get new funding.

If that wasn’t reason enough, the demands of e-government and the focus on cross-agency process integration—particularly in the wake of last year’s terrorist attacks—have increased the importance of having a common way in government of designing and managing processes.

As a result, business process modeling—using computer-aided design tools and a standard visual form of notation to describe, validate and simulate business processes—has taken on a new importance as well. And more is being demanded of BPM tools.

“It’s a combination of homeland security, e-government and Clinger-Cohen. All these things are driving [demand for BPM],” said Jan Popkin, president of Popkin Software & Systems Inc., a BPM tool vendor. “We’ve seen a lot of growth particularly over the last three years, and we’re seeing [modeling] being used now across agencies to build an enterprise architecture.”

Additional benefit

The main benefits to government of BPM tools are clear. They help agencies make better spending decisions and comply with regulations, and provide a road map for cross-agency collaboration. But the corresponding arrival of BPM religion in the government and a new wave of application technologies has offered another benefit: the opportunity to reuse all that modeling information to devise new automated processes, which reduces software development costs and speeds the response of agencies to e-government requirements.

While early BPM software amounted to specialized drawing programs—and many current BPM products aren’t much more than that—a new generation of tools is helping organizations quickly model and visually simulate processes, then automate their implementation through connections to enterprise software.

“It’s two ideas coming together at the right time,” said Popkin. “I think the opportunity arose because of Web services—Microsoft’s .Net and the IBM initiatives, for example.”

Software vendors needed something to map how Web services and other distributed application technologies would work together. “Business process modeling dealt with this,” Popkin said.

As a result of the evolution of BPM, the boundaries between business process, data and application modeling have become less well defined, and the options available to operations analysts and managers have become both more plentiful and less clear.

The government, and the military in particular, pioneered the development of process modeling with the creation of IDEF (an acronym for integrated definition), the key set of standards for most government data and process modeling.

IDEF was created in the 1970s by the Air Force’s Program for Integrated Computer Aided Manufacturing. It was extended by the National Institute of Standards and Technology with support from the Defense Department’s Office of Corporate Information Management and issued as a Federal Information Processing Standard. It is now developed and maintained by Knowledge Based Systems Inc. of College Station, Texas.

IDEF now consists of 16 specifications for various types of information modeling. The specification most relevant to business process modeling is the IDEF3 Process Description Capture Method. IDEF3 is a format for capturing information about the relationship between events—the steps in a process—and the situations, or states that occur within the process.

New standards

Because of the dual nature of IDEF3 data, its models can be viewed in two different description modes, referred to as process flow and object state transition network. Together, these views create a structured model that can be used to run simulations of processes and analyze efficiencies and potential error points.

In recent years, a number of other modeling specifications have sprung up in the academic and business worlds, using different types of notation, or diagram elements. But more important, new standards for describing the underlying information in models have been developed, making it possible to more easily move model data from one type of analysis tool to another, and to quickly generate automated processes with models.

The most important of these new modeling languages are the Unified Modeling Language (UML) and Business Process Modeling Language (BPML).

UML, now in version 1.4, is maintained by the Object Management Group, and springs from the world of application and data object-oriented modeling tools. Because it comes from a software background, its business process modeling features are flavored with language from structured application development methodologies, such as capturing and tracing requirements, and use case models. Once the process has been modeled and approved, UML takes models all the way through the development of software objects.

While UML doesn’t correspond directly to IDEF3, some modeling tools can bridge the gap. Popkin Software’s System Architect, for example, can move models from IDEF3 to UML use cases and back.

BPML is a different animal from UML and IDEF3. It is a dialect of Extensible Markup Language designed for the world of asynchronous distributed systems—in other words, Web services. The first draft of BPML was made public on March 8 last year.

While IDEF3 and UML are used to capture information about processes, BPML is intended to actually drive automated processes, according to the Business Process Modeling Initiative, a consortium of companies that is developing BPML and a related standard, the Business Process Query Language.

BPML connects automated processes across applications through Web services and application messaging standards such as the Simple Object Access Protocol, Electronic Business XML, RosettaNet and Microsoft BizTalk. It incorporates data flow, event flow and control of the process, along with providing for business rules, transaction requirements and security roles within a process.

While many companies have announced that they will support BPML, few have implemented it. BPML is still something of a work in progress. But major infrastructure companies like IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. have thrown their support behind BPML. Middleware and application vendors, and even major corporate customers like General Electric and insurer Swiss Re, also are on board, so BPML eventually will have a major impact.

Notably absent from the organization’s membership list is Microsoft Corp. Microsoft’s own business process language based on XML, called XLANG, is built into its BizTalk 2002 orchestration server. But Microsoft, BEA Systems Inc. and IBM recently announced the Business Process Execution Language for Web Services (BPEL4WS), which is closely related to BPML. Popkin said he sees the two converging.

Non-XML option

Aleri is another vendor currently steering its own process modeling course. The company has optimized the underlying modeling language used in its Information Engine for high-performance execution of business logic, rather than as a descriptive modeling language. It more closely resembles a macro language than anything else, though it is generated by Aleri’s process modeling and analysis tools. The processes can be dynamically distributed across multiple servers, and driven by changes in data sources and other events within an application space.

Aleri has avoided XML-based languages so far, primarily for performance reasons, according to Aleri chairman Alan Hambrook. “XML is fine, but there’s only so much data you can push around in text,” he said.

With process models moving rapidly toward being the engine that drives processes themselves, the next big step is making them work across organizational boundaries. To do that, Hambrook said, “a secure infrastructure has to come into place for Web-based transactions.”

He said using the models requires increased capacity for moving data over the Internet. Text-based approaches used by Web services and BPML could have too much overhead to handle the larger volumes of data that cross-agency processes like those needed for law enforcement and homeland security could require, he said.

Kevin Jonah, a Maryland network manager, writes about computer technology.


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