Linking up process pieces

Infinity Pharmaceuticals Inc. has what some companies would consider the IT panacea. The one-year-old drug discovery company has built its entire company architecture on the Microsoft Corp. .Net platform; all applications have been designed with Web services as the fundamental architecture. As such, the Boston-based company has a library of componentized business processes that can be reused to build applications in a matter of minutes.

“We can recombine different application components in hours and minutes instead of days and weeks,” explains CIO Andy Palmer. “We’ve got a large number of third-party applications that we’ve wrapped as Web services, and we recombine them almost on a daily basis.”

Much of the potential promise of Web services lies in the notion of componentizing business processes and tying them together with Web services into new applications that the IT department can whip out almost as soon as a business user comes up with a new idea.

This pure Web services architecture saved Infinity between US$250,000 and US$500,000 in designing one application alone, and overall the company has seen a twofold to threefold increase in software engineering productivity, according to Palmer.

In addition to quickly adapting applications to new customers and products, componentization would allow IT managers to dynamically modify application behaviour based on changes to business processes. Instead of streamlining a supply chain by requiring partners to deploy a common supply-chain management software package, each supplier can simply build a Web services interface to expose its inventory, allowing a manufacturer to quickly check availability of raw goods across suppliers’ widely disparate underlying architectures.

“If you can expose a component as a Web service and your IT guy does that for you, then the business users can then discover that component and, with tools available today, they can capture that Web service,” says Tyler McDaniel, an analyst at Hurwitz Group Inc. “What they don’t have to do is rely on the IT guys to code that integration. It lessens that disconnection and that wall between business users and IT guys, and [it] should be able to help a company to build an application much more quickly.”

Despite the phenomenal promise of componentizing processes via Web services, most companies will be forced to confront a large hurdle before they can build libraries or repositories of business processes: legacy or large enterprise applications that must be exposed as XML before being tied together with Web services.

Some enterprise application vendors such as SAP have begun to expose their processes as XML, but most enterprise applications are not now commonly shipping “Web services-ready,” says Shawn Willett, an analyst at Current Analysis in Sterling, Va.

Although there will be early adopters of componentized processes this year, the overall result is that direct Web services connections to ERP systems realistically won’t be available until next year, Willett notes. Emerging BPM (business process management) tools will be required to orchestrate the sequence and flow of information across the execution of the process.

“The next generation of business process management tools needs to rapidly XML-enable existing systems, lash those systems together whether their XML interfaces have been formalized as Web services or not, and move data through internal engines in XML format,” says Fred Holahan, vice-president and general manager of SilverStream’s e-business integration products group.

To address this, Billerica, Mass.-based SilverStream in March unveiled its eXtend Composer XML integration server, designed to allow enterprises to transform existing business systems into Web services. It uses WSFL (Web Services Flow Language), an XML language that describes interactions between services within complex business processes to build and orchestrate complex Web services interactions.

With Composer, organizations can now rapidly repurpose enterprise business systems as Web services and assemble those services into higher-level process flows to integrate disparate systems and automate business processes, Holahan says.

Microsoft also is tackling the task of orchestrating business processes with its BizTalk server. The newest release of the server – shipped in February – features tight integration with Visual Studio .Net so developers may use Web services protocols as a conduit for integrating business processes in a graphical environment.

“If you look at the Web services interfaces as components, then the business process really becomes the application model,” says Dave Wascha, product manager of the developer division at Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft. “To be able to very simply and very quickly map out a process and to build these business processes on top of Web services – that is the primary goal of BizTalk.”

Even Infinity, with its pure Web services architecture, has tapped Spotfire for the analytical application framework to integrate Web-based applications and data sources using XML and SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol). Somerville, Mass.-based Spotfire in March introduced its Web services-enabled software DecisionSite 7.0 for applying analytics to business processes.

“By using DecisionSite’s Web-enabled information interaction service, new applications built on exploiting numerous Web services can be put together to address business processes,” says Lars Bauerle, Spotfire’s group product manager. “It provides access to the right data, performs and enables the required analysis decision steps and data visualization, and leads the users to make real business decisions.”

With some industry research firms estimating that as much as 70 per cent of corporate data resides on legacy systems, exposing that data as Web services may be first on the agenda for many enterprises. For example, WRQ in February unveiled Verastream, integration software designed to build interchangeable business components from all enterprise resources, including legacy host systems.

Specifically, Seattle-based WRQ will be targeting real-time customer-focused applications with Verastream, including call centres, Web self-service applications, and packaged CRM applications. The company is already working to support SOAP and WSDL (Web Services Description Language), says Mike New, director of WRQ’s integration strategy.

“We’re able to expose those business functions and data elements as discrete components,” New adds. “You can literally drag and drop a business function from SAP followed by something from your IBM mainframe – and have very little code to do that.”

Regardless of the technology path enterprises take to reach a Web services destination filled with potentially vast libraries of componentized business processes, Infinity serves as an example of that future. In the next year to 18 months, the company will begin partnering with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies to advance their drug discovery, CIO Palmer says, and BPM flexibility will be key.

“As we start to work with these partners, because of our Web services architecture, because our processes are componentized, we can build custom applications very, very easily,” Palmer explains. “They look like extranets to our partners, [and] for us it’s just another group of end-users that needs a customized collection of applications.”

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