BPEL Gets Human

New specs allow for greater human interaction in Business Process Execution Language.

NEW YORK—New specifications for Web Services Business Process Execution Language will enable organizations using BPEL to support human involvement in the orchestration of Web services interactions.

A group of vendors, including Active Endpoints, Adobe, BEA Systems, IBM, Oracle and SAP, announced June 25 the publication of "BPEL4People" specifications, which define an approach for integrating human interactions using BPEL 2.0.

"BPEL4People is a new spec for how to bring people in as first-class citizens in a BPEL-defined process," Michael Pellegrini, principal architect at Active Endpoints, in Shelton, Conn., said, at the SOA World 2007 show here.

Pellegrini said the companies leading the BPEL4People initiative plan to submit the specification to OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) in the fall.

BPEL4People extends the capabilities of WS-BPEL to support a broad range of human interaction patterns, allowing for expanded modeling of business processes within the WS-BPEL language, Pellegrini said.

BPEL4People is comprised of two specifications: WS-BPEL Extension for People and Web Services Human Task. The first provides features on top of WS-BPEL to describe human tasks as activities that may be incorporated as first-class components in WS-BPEL process definitions. Web Services Human Task introduces stand-alone human tasks, including the properties, behavior and operations used to manipulate them.

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"Human interactions are fundamental to many business processes, and BPEL4People provides a flexible way to model those interactions using BPEL, the definitive Web service orchestration standard," said Fred Holahan, co-founder and chairman of Active Endpoints.

WS-BPEL focuses on business processes that orchestrate Web service interactions. However, business processes are typically composed of a variety of activities that often require people to perform tasks, review or approve steps and enter data—for example, a credit approval scenario that may require approval on certain transaction limits or activity levels.

Ronald Schmelzer, an analyst with ZapThink, said that in previous incarnations of BPEL, the biggest thing missing was the involvement of people-based activities and workflow.

"In particular, people know more about the process and its next steps and acceptable parameters than a computer does, and so the biggest problem with BPEL was the fact that it was good at developing programmatic, orchestrated, flowcharted business process logic, but not so good at handling the variability, human interaction, and exceptions that happen with people are involved," Schmelzer said. "As such, there were a host of alternatives and ideas that came from the workflow perspective that really put some pressure on the widespread adoption of BPEL."

What this means is that tasks, such as approvals, ad-hoc introduction or transition of process steps, or manual data entry or configuration, can now be explicitly configured in the system without doing convoluted steps, Schmelzer said.

Moreover, while the specifications are maturing—and BPEL4People is going down the right path to include the workflow items that it was missing in the past—the IT community still needs better tooling to involve humans in process interactions, Schmelzer said.

Eric Newcomer, chief technology officer at Iona Technologies, in Waltham, Mass., said that BPEL4People "seems like an attempt at bridging the gap between BPEL and business process management by introducing a mechanism for modeling human interactions."

Newcomer said most of the focus on BPEL has come out of the "business process automation" space, "evolving from RosettaNet, Commerce One and Ariba-style orchestrations that were intended to automate the receipt of an electronic purchase order and interface with the companys back-end ERP system. [However], the concepts coming out of that world eventually evolved into BPEL, while the more traditional world of business process management sort of continued as before."

"Weve recently seen some things from vendors like Adobe that shows that the market is starting to respond to the need to involve people more explicitly, flexibly and productively in automated business processes," Schmelzer said.

Meanwhile, Active Endpoints is offering its own implementation of the BPEL4People specifications in its new ActiveBPEL for People offering, which is an add-on module to the ActiveBPEL Enterprise server.

"Human interactions are key to this," Pellegrini said. "Well route things to a people activity, when human interaction is required."

ActiveBPEL for People extends the BPEL solutions to help users complete business process management or workflow implementations using a standards-based product in a service-oriented approach, Pellegrini said.

Active Endpoints leveraged the WS-BPEL standard and has taken architectural guidance from the BPEL4People whitepaper to develop tools, servers and services for quickly and easily integrating human tasks into any BPEL process, Pellegrini said.

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