Back-Office Talk

New standard would link legacy systems

A draft specification for a new language that makes business processes visible to one another over the Internet is being developed into what 88 companies hope will be an Internet standard.

If a final version can be agreed upon later this year, Business Process Modeling Language holds out the promise of dissimilar systems discovering each other and working together over the Internet, easing the strain of supply chain automation and bringing business-to-business (B2B) operations closer to reality. In effect, BPML will provide the missing link between Web-based business initiatives and existing information technology infrastructures, BPML advocates say.

A specification for BPML was released as a draft March 8 by the Business Process Modeling Initiative, a consortium founded by Intalio, producer of the N3 business processing system. The specification was produced within seven months of the groups organization.

BPML will be the first of a new set of technologies that "empower companies of all sizes, across all industries, to develop and operate business processes that span multiple applications and business partners, behind the firewall and over the Internet," explains a BPML description at the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards Web site, OASIS is a consortium of companies defining eXtensible Markup Language (XML) schemas for B2B communications.

If all goes according to plan, BPML will be hammered out as an implementable language with the goal of becoming an Internet standard over the next few months.

With BPML, the business processes of one company could detect and mesh with those of another company without needing to make the painstaking, direct application-to-application connection required today.

Howard Smith, chief technology officer, Europe, at Computer Sciences Corp. is a key author of the BPML specification, with assistance from Intalios Assaf Arkin and Ashish Agrawal.

"Intalio has done a good job in founding the initiative," says Lisa Hammitt, CEO of Black Pearl, a San Francisco producer of Knowledge Broker, software that interprets changing market data for corporations seeking to adjust their strategies. Black Pearl is one of the 16 founding members of the BPM Initiative and wants to see a standardized BPML emerge from the group. Black Pearls chief architect, Joerg Beckert, is also a contributor to the draft specification.

BPML is intended to allow companies to use a shared set of XML tags to define business processes. For example, BPML will let one business model and deploy processes for order management, customer care, demand planning, product development and strategic supply sourcing in a way that can be recognized and accessed by another company, according to Robin Cover, editor of OASIS The XML Cover Pages, an online reference work for XML and Standard Generalized Markup Language.

Instead of having to go through an elaborate interconnection of financial systems in order to accept one anothers credit, BPML could allow companies to post their credit requirements and give another companys systems a chance to respond to its credit rules without preplanned application connections and alignment.

"We live in a world of developing semantic networks," Hammitt says. Network protocols, such as the Internets Transport Control Protocol/ Internet Protocol, may now be taken for granted and a new layer of services, with networkable semantics to describe them, can be overlaid on them, she says. But work remains to be done on BPML to bring the additional services about. "The nouns, verbs and actions still have to be hammered out."

BPML is described as an auxiliary to XML trade dialects such as that of RosettaNet, a consortium that has implemented a set of XML definitions for exchanges between electronics companies. Likewise, BPML would complement electronic business XML — also called ebXML — which is intended as an international set of XML definitions for electronic business exchanges. BPML-based processes might provide access to inventory systems with a set of rules that might determine whether an order could be filled immediately, Hammitt notes.

The thrust of BPML is to bring some Old Economy practices into the real-time operations of the Internet, says research firm Aberdeen Groups Bob Moran. Much of what companies know about their customers is captured in legacy systems. With BPML-based systems, such as Black Pearls, companies will be able to "translate that business knowledge into real-time online transaction advice," Moran says.

In addition, BPML is intended to work on top of such emerging XML standards as Simple Object Access Protocol and Microsofts BizTalk, which provide much of the underlying plumbing for business processes to be set up across the Internet. BPML provides a way for those processes to detect, exchange information with and activate one another, according to Cover.