This week I attended the WIUG meeting at IBM’s South Bank. The meeting was a half day event consisting of a Connectivity Stream with presentations on the new features in MQ V7 and Message Broker V7 and a Business Process Management Stream with presentations on BPM and Business Rules.

The Connectivity Stream was the more popular by at least a factor of five but I was interested in the BPM stream and was hoping to gain a little more clarity around the plethora of offerings IBM have in this space and I believe Business Rules Management Suites have a lot to offer as organisations get further down their SOA journey.

The presentations were interesting, both presenters were experts with their subject matter and as it was a small group it was very informal and interactive. I won’t regurgatate the presentations, which I believe will be posted on the WIUG site soon but here are my thoughts following a couple of days to reflect.

IBM’s BPM suite is still slightly confusing. Although I know that Process Server, Dynamic Process Edition and Business Services Fabric are essentially Process Server based bundlings and FileNet is for document centric business processes, it’s not clear where Lotus, Lombardi and Business Space fit into the equation. I guess clearing this up is going to take a little more effort on my part but it would be nice if the guys at IBM had a clear route map.

As well as extracting the Business Rules from your process IBM are talking about Composite Business Applications. The policy about which task is executed next in your process is extracted making it possible to dynamically alter your business process at runtime based on factors such as the channel servicing the request, the platinum status of the customer making the request etc. This higher level of abstraction will allow you to simplify your business process into its core tasks extracting the complex if, then else decisions that don’t form the meat and veg of the process itself.

ILOG BRMS looks pretty cool in action and I look forward to the guys coming into the office next month to talk to our WebSphere practice.

I need to look into Business Space, this came up in both the BPM and BRMS talks and I don’t know anything about it (yet) and also look into BlueWorks BPM again (when I first looked at this a while back it didn’t work – turns out it doesn’t work in IE yet).

For me the most important point of the day was policy extraction from business processes. With a SO approach it becomes much easier to implement business processes by plugging services together. When you’ve got that sorted just make sure you haven’t moved the inflexibility of the past into a higher layer. Look for opportunities for reuse, simplification and policy extraction throughout your model / design.

I had a demo of Lombardi’s business process management (BPM) tooling the other day – Lombardi TeamWorks.

The first thing to note is that the tooling is Eclipse based and uses BPMN notation – in fact at first glance I thought it was IBM WebSphere Business Modeller as I’m more familiar with this! It looks very similar, and all the concepts are equivalent. I guess BPM is BPM and so the “problem space” is what it is and so they will all tend to look the same. The difference is down to the quality of the implementation between vendors. It certainly looked easier to use than WebSphere Integration Developer (WID) – the Java code was all hidden from the designer until you get to wanting to put custom controls in JSPs or invoke external services. Debugging a process flow fired up quickly, no booting up a test instance of WAS required etc. Also, there is no real mention of BPEL, unlike in WPS (WebSphere Process Server).

There is also a SaaS modelling environment for business users called Lombardi BluePrint – this uses a simpler subset of BPMN, and so is essentially a clever online Visio-style tool. You can can pull models from BluePrint into the Eclipse dev tool and flesh out the process with more technical/implementation detail, as you might using WID for Modeller models.

There’s a business portal web app for business users to launch business processes, see what’s “in their inbox” etc – very similar to the ‘Business Space’ portal that WPS v6.2 now has, so I think IBM have caught up a bit here as the ‘human task management’ part of WPS has up until now been a weak area.

Inbuilt rules engine support is weak apparently (like in WPS IMHO, hence IBM bought iLog and got JRules, amongst other things), so you’d need to integrate with external “decision services” if a strong capability was needed.

The other vendor in this space that keeps coming up in our customer engagements is Peg a (strong in the business rules area), and in general my view is that are all pretty much capable of doing the job. One word of caution is that I’d have thought that as an almost “single product” vendor, Lombardi must be at risk of being acquired at some point, which could lead to consolidation into the acquirer’s existing product lines etc.

RobinAtWIUGJuly2009After a journey characterised by a conspiracy between parking meters and failed tube signals, I made it yesterday to IBM’s Hursley Park for the WebSphere Integration User Group meeting. Here’s the photo at a sunny Winchester station as proof…ok…so Jamie and I forgot to take any photos at the event.

The key note presentation was from Kevin Turner – ESB and Messaging Technical Strategy Manager. He covered IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative and then moved on to future architectural trends – the noteworthy points were:

  • The 2nd wave of SOA is coming – there’s a significant number of ’1st wave’ adopters out there now who have been through the joy and the pain, and have now fully understood the upfront investment required and the potential benefits. This 2nd wave is likely to consist of organisations trying to join up their islands of SOA (probably built along departmental lines due to a sensible pragmatic strategy of ‘baby steps’ SOA), and so federation of multiple ESBs will be a key theme. Governance will be crucial here if these islands are ever to be consolidated into a virtual enterprise bus that solves the problems of visibility of services across ESBs, end-to-end security and manageability etc.
  • Patterns – IBM are working on building some integration patterns support into their tooling (presumably WebSphere Business Modeller, WebSphere integration Developer etc) to allow an expert from an organisation’s ICC/ICoE to define the standard ‘pattern’ and therefore accelerate the development of instances of that integration pattern. The integration developer might just have to supply the pattern parameters for example, with many of the decisions such as how to manage errors etc already consistently solved for them.

There were a couple of presentations about specific MQ-related Supportpacs (MO71 and IH03) which I expected to be dull due to their nature, but the presenters managed to bring them alive – especially Paul Clarke. It was clear that he’d written and refined quite an impressive beast of an application over many years and was rightly proud of it.

Kevin mentioned CloudBurst during his keynote, and I managed to get some time with an IBMer later in a hastily arranged session to discuss it some more – I’ll post details in another blog post later as there’s quite a lot to report.

That means I missed the start of the next session about the developments in the WebSphere Process Server product to better support the human interaction aspects of BPEL processes (which have been sorely needed in our experience!). Paul Smith demoed the Business Space web app from WPS v6.2 which goes some of the way to addressing these shortcomings, with better human ‘override’ control of processes (skipping a step, repeating a step etc) and better visualisation tools for business users to use to understand where a particular process instance has got to, etc. This is clearly still a developing area of the product set though.

ilogThe last session I attended was a demo of rules from the recent iLog acquisition by IBM. An ex-iLogger Lenny Bromberg gave a very engaging demo which involved my colleague Jamie playing the role of “business user” to dynamically change rules that influenced the behaviour of a mock motor insurance quotation app. An interesting aspect of Lenny’s “pitch” was that essentially rules engines are 10 a penny, there’s several good open source ones out there if you want one, but what rules provides is a Business Rules Management System (BRMS), i.e. all the significant extras wrapped around the actual runtime rules execution environment that you need to make it really workable, manageable and governable. This includes rule development/editing environments (developer IDE and business facing), rule versioning, rule comparison tools, audit, simulation environments etc. Some other observations:

  • Lenny’s experience from previous projects where they have integrated with BPM solutions (like WPS etc) is that they often find that the business process definition/BPEL has become ‘spaghetti’ as the business rules are not clearly separated from the business process – and so the use of an external rules engine enforces a good business process automation design practice, and leads to more maintainable BPEL etc.
  • This is related to BRMS’s in general and not specifically iLog rules, but a weakness that I could see is that the rules rely on a good, stable business object model and we know from experience with numerous customers how difficult it is to get enterprise data models together and agreed. This is the potentially shifting sand that the rules are all built upon.

Many thanks to Mike Wyvill and Keith Guttridge and others for organising the event. Well worth the £28… :o)

As promised, here’s some notes from yesterday’s UK WebSphere User Group meeting (combined with the UK WebSphere Integration User Group) – held at IBM’s offices at Bedfont Lakes.

First of all – let’s start with a picture of the happy crew at our stand. Rohima did an excellent job hunting down victims to force business cards upon, with me and David Taylor in support.

AllAtStand

The keynote presentation was by Rob High, the IBM Chief SOA Architect, concerning the 2009 technical strategy and directions for the WebSphere portfolio. Unfortunately (for you – the reader), much of what he said came with a “not for the public domain” health warning. Interestingly he was still banging the SOA drum and when I asked him later in the Q&A session about it he was quite dismisive of all the recent ‘SOA is dead’ dicussions on the web – he gave the message that I wanted to hear which was essentially this – there’s nothing new under the sun, good integration practices are still good, and so the current hype cycle status of SOA should not stop us from still understanding the fundamental business services of an organisation and supporting them with technology in an agile way. I think there is some marketing difficultly with the term SOA now maybe but there was no hint of IBM moving away from it.

Rick Robinson presented on Web 2.0, going through quite a bit of background material and then mapping that on to IBM products, and their support for REST, OpenAjax and Dojo. Whenever I attend this kind of presentation I always pick up a few Web 2.0-ish sites/things that I hadn’t seen before – I guess this is the nature of the relatively viral nature of the subject itself. My favourite was http://www.twitscoop.com/ – which gives a real time view of Twitter topics that are being discussed as a tag cloud. Another one mentioned was http://brightkite.com/, a social networking site that was location-aware before Google Latitude came along.

I then attended another session from Rob High about EA (enterprise architecture) and the relationship with BPM (business process management). For me this was more of an EA revision session (an IBM view on TOGAF to some extent) and I didn’t get so much from it, except the IBM roadmap for their recently acquired TeleLogic System Architect product and how that fits into the roadmap for WebSphere Business Modeller. The vision is that they will remain separate tools but eventually with a shared repository. Interestingly none of the Rational modelling tooling was mentioned apart from saying that it was focused on software rather than business modelling, so there was no vision to merge System Architect into Rational Software Architect in anyway.

One other thing Rob mentioned was an expansion of that massively overused phrase “IT-business alignment” (doesn’t every IT initiative that comes along promise this?!?) into more several more defined levels of alignment – this rang a bell for me and it’s something I’ll look into a bit more I think…

Whilst my colleague was presenting a DataPower case study from a customer project in another room, the final presentation I went to was a full on techy session from David Currie of IBM about the new features in WebSphere Process Server (WPS) and WebSphere Enterprise Service Bus (WESB) v6.2. I wanted to keep on top of where these products are going at a detailed level. The degree of change in each release is pretty amazing, but also leaves a slightly sour taste in your mouth as you realise that IBM are plugging feature gaps in the product that sometimes you knew about (e.g. code assistance to help deal with the SDO model) and sometimes you didn’t (ability to act as a service gateway – which seems a pretty fundamental thing for an ESB to offer). Apart from the fairly extensive changes to support service gateways (a number of new mediation primitives etc), the developments in the human tasks aspect of it are the most interesting to me. You can now attach documents to business processes, and users can override a business process flow (sounds dangerous! – but intended for those processes where business exceptions/interruptions can occur at any time). Sorry to finish on a negative, but one obvious gap was that SOAP 1.2 is now supported, but not for SOAP over JMS – purely due to them running out of time to get it into the release AFAICT.

So – all in all, a good user group meeting, especially as it finished with beers. Many thanks to Rick Smith and co for organising it.

Robin’s rule – if you can’t easily grasp what a product does in 10 minutes of reading the datasheet, there’s a problem. This is currently case for me on the relatively new WebSphere Business Services Fabric. I understand all the words on the IBM web site, but it’s had to articulate in a snapshot what it all means.

It seems mainly like a packaging of all the bits from the WebSphere integration/BPM landscape that know and love such as Process Server, WID, Monitor, Modeller, WSRR, etc but there are some new bits thrown in such as a new Eclipse perspective for managing extensions stored in WSRR and other stuff.

Or I’m just dumb – for which I apologise.

I’ve been involved in a project for a client recently that uses WebSphere Process Server and a DataPower XI50 to service enable a legacy system. Maybe I’ll post something about the fun and games I’ve had with Process Server v6.1 some other time… – for now I want to talk about DataPower.

For those that don’t know, it’s a 1U hardware integration appliance that performs functions what may have traditionally been done with an app server, e.g. secure service exposure, XSLTs etc. It does lots more than this which I won’t go into now – really quite a powerful beast.

Anyway, when Smart421 first got into DataPower and got a number of staff certified in its use – I must admit to being rather sceptical. Having now used it on a project though I have seen the light – looks like my colleagues were right all along! Easy and quick to setup, lower TCO, great performance, and good sales organisation support also.

Don’t you just hate it when that happens :o)

I’ve finally got round to reading this article on developerWorks. Things of interest that caught my eye:

  • There are some changes to the BPC Explorer such as more meaningful column names etc – worth knowing about as it has user impact.
  • Install time is supposed to be 1/3 what it was. Hurrah!
  • Maximum business object sizes for various deployment platforms are stated in the document as follows – “In a 64-bit environment the maximum size is now 500MB, while 32-bit UNIX systems can handle 100MB objects. Windows has a limit of 50MB due to the smaller heap size.
  • Cyclic flow activity – the ability to loop back to previous points in a process was a real pain in the past on a project I worked on, and this new BPEL extension makes this easier. It is an extension though, so needs to be used with caution I guess.

In general the feel of it is that IBM are gradually adding some of the capabilities there are available in MQ Workflow and Interchange Server, but which were too low down the priority stack for inclusion in a previous release.

Having recently done some work using WebSphere ESB and MQ, I came up with a list of IBM Redbooks that serve as useful references. Some of these are ‘must have’ documents for developers; others are good for additional background information. I’ll leave you to choose which.

All of these are available as electronic downloads (PDF files) from the IBM web site http://www.redbooks.ibm.com/ and are (mostly) identified with an eight-character id. I’ve included this id, plus a shortened form of the Redbook title, in the list below.

  • sg246963: WebSphere Product Family Redbook
  • sg247369: SOA Patterns, Design using WMB V6 and WESB
  • redp4191: WAS V6.1 Technical Overview (redpaper)
  • sg246451: WAS V6 System Management and Configuration
  • sg247413: WESB and WPS Production Topologies
  • sg247406: WESB SOA and SCA Connectivity
  • sg247212: WESB V6 Getting Started
  • redp4041: WPS and WID Technical Overview (redpaper)
  • redp4304: WBI V6.0.2 Performance Tuning (redpaper)
  • amqtac06: WMQ V6 for Windows, Quick Beginnings
  • csqzaf09: WMQ V6 Clients
  • amqzan09: WMQ V6 Using C++
  • csqzaw12: WMQ V5 Using Java
  • csqzal11: WMQ V6 Application Programming Guide
  • csqzak10: WMQ V6 Application Programming Reference
  • amqnar10: WMQ V6 Pub Sub User Guide
  • amqzag09: WMQ V6 System Administration Guide

There are plenty more in addition to this list, but I found these most relevant for the piece of work I was involved with.

You may also find it useful to view the set of SOA Patterns as published by IBM. These naturally focus on the use of IBM products, but even if you aren’t using their platform, the overall patterns still make sense. For instance, you can substitute your own flavour of ESB or messaging technology, your choice of application server environment, plus your web technology.

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