Bleepin BPELs

By John Taschek  |  Posted 2003-04-28

Bleepin BPELs

Is it possible that something once pronounced Bipple and now Be-PEL is shaking up the Web services world? Is something as dry as Business Process Execution Language signaling an important split in Web services standards groups? Are Microsoft, IBM and BEA icing Oracle and Sun and their customers?

The answer to each is yes.

The decision of IBM, BEA and Microsoft (has anyone realized that the names of the big-three Web services players create an acronym for IBM?) to put a tiny specification for how Web services orchestration should occur into OASIS rather than the W3C sealed the developing split between the two groups. The result of the split is not antagonism, however. OASIS and the W3C are no longer competitors for standards; theyre now perfectly complementary.

But first the news and why its important. Before Web services can be useful outside a corporate intranet, there needs to be a way to create processes that invoke other processes that correspond to a business workflow. For example, if a company gets pricing quotes from a supplier, the company may want to use a Web service that triggers a database query from the supplier. If the order is placed, a series of events has to take place, including products taken off the supplier inventory and added to the buyers system. Also, multiple processes must be invoked to add to both the suppliers and the buyers financial applications.

How that flow is accomplished is called orchestration, and its the main goal of BPEL4WS—or BPEL for Web Services. BPEL is a completely arbitrary standard, however. These same kinds of transactions have happened for 20 years; they were just expensive, limited in scope and usually handled among a small set of partners. Even at the dawn of the Web services age, BPEL-like standards had begun to emerge, including Web Services Choreography Interface—WSCI, pronounced Whiskey, of all things. Web services theoretically reduce the cost and complexity of a Web services implementation, though its too early to say this is true with any confidence.

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Until mid-2002, there was no clear contender for Web services orchestration. WSCI was the specification to beat, but it was controlled by Sun, Oracle and SAP (an acronym for SOS, by the way). Late last year, it looked like BPEL was gaining steam, and finally the SOS call failed to be heeded. It was officially left stranded when Microsoft, IBM and BEA released BPEL to OASIS in mid-April, thus killing any competing choreography standard.

So there it is—the history of a specification that became a standard simply because of the clout of three big companies. At one time, standards became standards because a) they were de facto and in place because a behemoth vendor had tremendous presence in the market with a product—think Microsoft Word; or b) the standards bodies agreed through debate and comment to make an underlying communication foundation a reality through a specification—think the W3C.

Were now entering a phase in which standards become standards before the vendors have products and before the specification is fully debated and realized. Its standardization by market dominance, and IBM and Microsoft, with BEA as a tag-along, have mastered how this should happen. The vendors involved could not care less about customers. Theyre seeing things long before customers see them—as if they were visionaries when theyre actually just big-time capitalists. The problem is that Web services orchestration is years ahead of what most companies want or need to do now. But these vendors are going at it, spiting customers because they can. By the time customers are set to implement, the vendors will be aligned, and customers will have to go with one of the big-three vendors.

Its not just the customers that got dinged; however, it appears that the W3C also got dinged. It would have been a likely candidate to maintain BPEL4WS, but the big three put BPEL into OASIS.

Fortunately, it signals a real division; W3C operates at a lower level and is concerned about the Web. OASIS is the business division of the specification world; all the vendor-led specs run through OASIS, including BPEL, SAML, ebXML and UDDI. Its also business-friendly and, in these times of competitive business practices, the more important standards body.

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