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5/7/2007
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Business Process Management 101: The Basics of BPM and How to Choose the Right Suite

Business Process Management is gaining adoption, but just what is BPM and how do BPM systems work? This article clears up some of the confusion and helps you choose the right product with a six-step guide to selecting a BPM suite.

The Components of BPM Suites


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This diagram shows common components of all business process management suites (in white) as well as features typically found in front-office-oriented BPM (in blue) and capabilities found mostly in back-office-oriented suites

BPM suites incorporate multiple technologies, as shown in the diagram to the right.

Another area of confusion is about the terminology used to refer to the different types of BPMS. For example, you may encounter the term "pure-play BPM," describing vendors that focus solely on business process management, but given vendor consolidation and an increasing number of solutions with similar capabilities, this terminology should soon disappear.

Lightweight BPM functionality is sometimes found in packaged enterprise applications such as ERP, CRM and financial software. This is a type of "embedded BPM," since it is not intended to be used outside of the application domain.

BPM features have also emerged from the enterprise application integration (EAI) vendors. These are enhanced versions of Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) products. These systems support the design, development and execution of system-to-system processes while integrating them by means of Web services and asynchronous messaging.

In a nutshell, it is much easier to view BPM solutions in two basic categories: Front-Office BPM (FO-BPM) and Back-Office BPM (BO-BPM). While vendors are racing to provide both types of BPM solutions, the maturity of their capabilities in each area tends to depend on their history and depth of experience in each domain.

The FO-BPM solutions (with roots in human-centric workflow products) provide capabilities for person-to-person processes in which "work items" are created and routed along with any attached documents. A partial list of vendors that provide FO-BPM capabilities would include TIBCO, FileNet, IBM, PegaSystems, Global360, Oracle, DST Systems, BEA (with recently acquired Fuego) , Computer Associates, Ultimus, Savvion and MetaStorm, among others.


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Both human-to-human- and system-to-system-oriented BPM suites support the same notion of closed-loop business process lifecycle.

On the other hand, the back-office-oriented BPM solutions (such as ESB products) enable system-to-system integration in which a single process may rely on multiple external processes (and possibly heterogeneous platforms) to complete its work. These suites also manage aggregation and composition of all services for the enterprise. Vendors such as IBM, Oracle, TIBCO, Sun, CapeClear, WebMethods (soon to be acquired by Software AG), Fiorano Software, Sonic Software and BEA Systems, among others, have specialized products in this space.

Front-office- and back-office-oriented BPM systems are aimed at different problems. For example, front-office BPM applications typically involve transactions that are "short running." This may not be the case when an internal process is integrated with Web-service-based processes (possibly outside of an enterprise), which can result in "long-running" transactions. Managing the transaction context of a process involving multiple resource managers requires an alternative approach in BO-BPM. (We will cover this in more detail later on).

One major differentiation among BPM suites is in support business process lifecycles. Therefore, it's important to understand what's involved in each phase of a process. The diagram on the left depicts the basic BPM Lifecycle. The basic flow is similar for both types of BPMS, but we'll describe some specific differences later in the article.

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