BPMN 2.0: The emerging star of business process modeling

Editor's Note: This two-part package looks at today's dominant tool for business process modeling, Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN). Part I provides background on BPMN's evolution. Here, Part II digs deeper into why BPMN use is increasing and where the standard is likely to be headed.

It's been about a year since the release of Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) 2.0, a long-awaited version that the Object Management Group (OMG), which maintains the standard, has called "stable and mature."

At this point, product announcements for BPMN 2.0 remain rare. But because the principal sponsors for this revision included some of the IT industry's enterprise giants, it's likely that 2.0 will pick up steam rapidly, notes Bruce Silver, an independent consultant and author.

"Eventually, when those companies get their products shipping and crank up their marketing machines, BPMN will be the unquestioned standard for process modeling and execution," says Silver, who is also affiliated with BPMessentials.com, a training and reference source. "But right now, we are still between the news and the reality."

The new version's significance lies in several new features. For instance, BPMN has traditionally been viewed as a modeling tool, but the executable aspect is also highly important, Silver says.

He notes that versions 1.1 and 1.2 were successful in part because they allowed business analysts to create process diagrams that were expressive and rich enough to address complex issues such as exception handling. That meant it was possible for process-execution vendors to use BPMN as the activity-flow layer of the executable design, to which they could simply attach the execution detail to each shape in the process diagram without having to redo the diagram in a different language.

However, says Silver, that detail wasn’t standardized. Thus, each vendor tool handled the task in it in its own way. Of course, he acknowledges, not every company wants to commoditize its run time. So even with some of the industry's biggest players having fully fledged process execution based on BPMN 2.0, many others will continue to do it their own way—and, Silver adds: "There will be all the usual finger-pointing about whether or not your product is based on the standard."

Another change in BPMN 2.0 relates to the concept of choreography. The underlying idea is that "a set of processes form choreography if they communicate and there is no overarching process in charge of it," explains Jon Siegel, OMG's vice president for technology transfer. He says BPMN is fantastic at modeling, but the addition of choreography represents a major step forward in version 2.0. He says choreography was inserted belatedly because BPMN was first designed and came into widespread use a time when there wasn’t as much Internet-based commerce and choreographic processes were unusual, if they happened at all.

In contrast, Siegel says, "orchestration" is the BPMN word for conduct of a process internal to a business entity. "These days, a substantial fraction of e-commerce is choreography-based rather than conversation-based or orchestration-based," he notes. "So the language had to be upgraded to take this into account, particularly for business users to help them to model their systems."

Of course, for most users, BPMN matters mostly in terms of how it influences the vendor community. OMG has done as much as it can to standardize the syntax and notation, but then it's up to the vendors to implement that, says David Norton, a Gartner Inc. research director. "Some are very pure and they really are 100 percent OMG-compliant," he says. "'Others will say, 'We can get the same results slightly differently.' "In point of fact, right now most end users don’t really care."

Nonetheless, choosing the right vendor can still be a critical decision. "If you select a vendor that looks like BPMN on the surface, but is not really BPMN underneath, you could have issues, for instance, when services become available based on the notation," Norton says. "That's why it is worthwhile finding a vendor that is compliant." As an example, if you work with a simulation vendor that isn't compliant, "what you will have done is buy a process-modeling tool that you can’t really fully leverage," he says.

It's an interesting time in BPMN's evolution, Norton adds. "It reminds me of the debate when people wondered if UML would be harnessed as an executable"—a transition that took 10 years, Norton recalls, adding: "I will be interested to see whether vendors make executable BPMN from the get-go with 2.0."

Alan Earls, a journalist who specializes in writing about technology and business, is based in the Boston area.

About the Author

Alan Earls, a journalist who specializes in writing about technology and business, is based in the Boston area.

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