From Both Ends to the Middle

 
 
By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2006-11-20
 
 
 

From Both Ends to the Middle


An application developer might think of process leverage as something that comes from chaining applications together, with output from one becoming input to another. A business process analyst might think of improving productivity by facilitating document flow, minimizing the number of times that information has to be transferred from one document to another.

Neither view is wrong, but neither one alone is enough to do the job.

A purely application-centric view may fail to reflect both legacy expectations and rising enterprise governance demands for verifiability and accountability of actions and actors. A purely document-centric view may squander opportunities to streamline complex data collection tasks and associated computations.

Fortunately, the code-centric and document-centric perspectives of the first five decades of IT are now converging in a Web-connected, XML-demarcated space of service interaction and rich client presentation. In this arena, moreover, technology providers seem to understand the need to play nicely, making enterprise buyers confident of getting a high degree of standards-based interoperability.

Adobe Systems has made its name among individual PC and Internet users with portable document technologies such as the royalty-free PDF specification, but the companys enterprise initiatives of the last few years have added several tiers of increasingly sophisticated process capability to that foundation. "What weve done is take portable document technology and add intelligence in the reader," said Jeff Whatcott, senior director of the Enterprise and Developer Business Unit at the San Jose, Calif., company. The process has continued, he said, with connections to middleware "to automate and orchestrate business processes that have documents at one end or the other."

In conversation with eWEEK Labs, Whatcott described the steady progress thats been seen in a variety of tasks: for example, in government agencies provision of online access to tax forms and tax-filing processes. "Governments start with paper forms," he said, "then let you go online and print the form, then let you fill it out online and save it with data intact." Subsequent stages of integration, Whatcott said, go a step further to extract the data, add orchestration to route the data, and generate the document for approval and transmittal with signature. Whats now being seen, he added, are data access control capabilities logically flowing into archival tools "so that a legally defensible record of the transaction is preserved."

Each of these stages of process evolution, Whatcott said, is represented in technology investments being made by Adobe and in tools and open standards that are increasingly available to developers. The key insight, he added, is that documents are not the goal: Rather, documents represent what Whatcott called "a persistent state of business information."

There are points in a transaction or a process, Whatcott continued, "where a human wants to see the persistent state, where they want a document to verify that something has happened or to sign it; there are all kinds of social expectations that have been built up." But that doesnt mean, he stressed, that filling out a document is the most efficient way to collect information. "It just means that at some points in a process, documents need to be created with electronic attributes like signatures and encryption, but they dont need to be 100 percent of the user experience," Whatcott said.

Ideally, he said, there will be a transparent link between rich interactive applications that guide the user through data collection and documentlike views of the results that confirm to the user the correctness of whats been done. Also vital, according to Whatcott, is the two-way connection between the worlds of paper and bits. When an online process generates a paper document, he cautioned, that transition must not act like a one-way door that traps the rest of the process in the paper world.

"We bridge the world of documents and digital with things like bar codes," Whatcott said. "When a document is printed out, signed and returned, the recipient can scan those codes and reliably retrieve all previous information on data and transaction state."

Whatcott warned developers not to become focused solely on exploiting their growing options for online integration. "Hopping between digital and paper and back again, thats the real world," he said.

Helping application developers visualize such processes, and giving business analysts more direct opportunities to improve the online elements, is the vision of Microsofts Windows Workflow Foundation technology—which Microsoft abbreviates as WF to avoid harsh words with the World Wrestling Federation and the World Wildlife Fund.

Developers will see WF as a shipping component in Microsofts Windows Vista operating system; it will also be deployable on other recent Windows versions as part of the .Net Framework 3.0 package that takes final form in November.

Next Page: Programming Fusion

Programming Fusion


Programming Fusion

Doug Purdy, Microsofts group program manager for the Connected Systems Division, spoke with eWeek Labs about the fusion of the application- and event-level WF with the companys Windows Communications Foundation (formerly known as "Indigo"). "For me, WF really is our first attempt to up-level the programming experience," said Purdy in Redmond, Wash. "I have a long-term goal that my mother should be able to be a programmer. Its going to be a long time before that happens, but this is a good step."

WF provides an editing environment that rises above the details of which application or which data representation is actually carrying out a task, although the abstraction is not yet as complete as Purdy said he believes it needs to become. "You still have to be aware of what is an if, what is a while," Purdy said.

Crucially, though, WF may lower the barriers between analysts defining processes and programmers implementing them in executable form. "Office [2007] is shipping with integration for document workflows as part of the Office platform, and its part of our goal for business analysts to be able to craft these things," Purdy said. "One of the key things for us is the ability to go in and look at the workflow and mutate it. Processes change, and things get messed up. [With WF,] youll be able to modify the process, pause the workflow and do something different. Thats supported as a first-class thing."

The level playing field on which Microsoft, Adobe and other technology providers are all playing this game is that of XML representations—not just for static data but also for behavior. "Theres a thing called XOML, the XML Orchestration Markup Language," said Purdy of Microsofts approach to declarative representation of workflows. This can be viewed, Purdy said, as a dialect of XAML (Extensible Application Markup Language), which is currently specific to Microsofts Windows Presentation Foundation platform but may find pathways to other platforms as well.

Adobes Whatcott described a similar approach. "Were embracing XML, not just as a data transport but also as an application definition schema with MXML [Macromedias implementation of Multimedia XML], a declarative tag-based abstraction for describing an application. Its a different world when you can open up an XML document and see what an application is going to do, and there are annotations in it, and you can transform it."

The likely result is that application integration will no longer be an opportunity reserved for developers. Microsofts process-level WF can use Web services across multiple platforms: "Were going to build and architect a thing that scales to the large, scales to the federated, scales to the heterogeneous enterprise," said Microsofts Purdy. Nor will integration continue to be a lock-in strategy for platform providers. As Adobes Whatcott put it, developers will be able to "start with the people first."

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.

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