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What to Look for in a BPMN Tool

SOA analyst Beth Gold-Bernstein of ebizQ posts about her quest for a BPMN tool to support her effort to "take a pragmatic, business-driven approach to incremental SOA design and implementation. We plan to use standard modeling techniques and tools where ever feasible... It's time for business and IT to start speaking the same language, so we should use BPMN right from the start.
SOA analyst Beth Gold-Bernstein of ebizQ posts about her quest for a BPMN tool to support her effort, together with Brenda Michelson, to create a "service design method."

Our goal is to take a pragmatic, business-driven approach to incremental (i.e., project driven) SOA design and implementation. We plan to use standard modeling techniques and tools where ever feasible. The status of this project is that we have now defined the process and design artifacts, and our next task is to model out a case study and see if it holds water and to find the holes…. I argued that it was time for business and IT to start speaking the same language, and we should start off with BPMN right from the start.She then describes how she downloaded Tibco's free BPMN tool and tried -- unsuccessfully -- to get it to do what she wanted. I had the same problem when I was looking for a hands-on tool for my BPMN training. Tibco, Savvion, various Visio stencils… the free ones just didn't do what I wanted, either. And my goal was simpler than Beth's -- it was just to explain how to use BPMN!

The two big gotchas for Beth were also non-starters for me as well: lack of support for intermediate events and the inability to explode collapsed subprocesses into their full detail in a separate (but linked) diagram. I've written at length about the first problem (Step Up to Full BPMN), a not-uncommon omission in BPMN tools from BPMS vendors whose process engine can't handle intermediate events and transaction compensation.

The second problem is one I discovered as I was trying to adapt a best-practice top-down modeling methodology to BPMN, in which you start with a high-level ("handoff") diagram, and then drill down to expose more detail. (Beth frames the problem in terms of service reuse, but for me it was a modeling methodology issue.) You want to retain the ability to expose the process diagram at different levels of detail, without redrawing it at each level (as would be required, for example, using BPMN's inline expanded subprocess notation). Also without the need to have 30 feet of wall space to tape up the diagrams. I wanted to be able to drill down in the tool to see the detail, not walk around a room.

For me there was a third issue, not mentioned by Beth: the ability to do simulation analysis in a practical way. Simulation is not a part of BPMN, but it is a feature of most process modeling tools, even free ones like Tibco's and Savvion's. It wasn't until I tried to teach people how to get meaningful analysis out of simulatin that I discovered what you really need to do it, elements missing in most low-end tools.

I found a tool that met my needs - Process Modeler for Visio from itp commerce of Switzerland. At $690 it's not free, but not prohibitively expensive either. It's the one I'm using in my BPMN training, now in beta. Here's why I like it: