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Cloud-based BPM is on the rise. Already, about 40% of organizations with BPM initiatives use cloud computing to support at least 10% of the processes involved in those efforts, according to research by Gartner Inc.

With vendors increasingly making their enterprise software offerings available via the public cloud and organizations looking to take advantage of the cloud’s benefits, that percentage stands to grow. But combining process management and cloud computing creates some unique challenges that business and IT managers—especially BPM specialists--should consider before moving forward.

“Our view of BPM is that it’s a discipline and approach for improving processes that can be supported by technology,” says Michele Cantara, a Gartner Research vice president whose specialties include BPM. A BPM Platform as a Service (PaaS) is “the delivery of a BPM technology as a service by a cloud-solution provider,” Cantara writes in the Gartner report “The State of the BPM Platform Cloud Market 2011.”

BPM PaaS is often used for pilot BPM projects, as well as for development and testing, Cantara says. The approach can be used to create process-based applications, such as travel or expense management, or for other collaborative processes that haven’t been automated in the past.

“BPM as a Service provides a less capital-intensive and more immediate solution for many companies—mid-market companies and business buyers within departments—who don’t have the capability to spend a lot on IT, and they are often helped by IT in this endeavor,” Cantara says. “Then once the solution is up and running, they can be less dependent on IT.”

While a BPM PaaS may be a more accessible option than an on-premises solution, it’s not without its pitfalls. To begin with, organizations need to rethink how they contract this type of Software as a Service (SaaS). Organizations may be used to evaluating uptime, throughput and other aspects when evaluating SaaS providers and service-level agreements (SLAs). But when contracting for business processes, they should be looking at business outcome, Cantara says.

“Most companies that I see are having a hard time setting up their SLAs to focus on business outcomes because they’re not used to doing that with cloud services. They’re used to thinking about cloud in terms of security, uptime, things of that nature,” Cantara says. For example, rather than measuring access to the claims application, you might measure the percentage of claims that process correctly the first time.

A host of potential pitfalls are associated with the processes themselves. “The biggest pitfall, normally, when you move a business process to the cloud is you have to settle for clean-vanilla, highly standardized processes because it’s hard to change those software apps,” Cantara says. “People want more flexibility in their business processes.”

Process governance can also be an issue, says David Linthicum, founder and CTO of Blue Mountain Labs, a consultancy specializing in cloud computing. In his view, the question that needs to be addressed is: “How do you manage the processes over time?”

Make sure processes can be modified, but also understand who owns the modifications to a business process on your behalf, Cantara advises. That might not matter for a commodity, but if you’re using the service for a differentiating process, it could be an issue.

“Say it’s innovative and useful to you. Do you own the intellectual property [or does it belong to] the service provider or to both of you?” Cantara says. “Make sure it’s part of the contractual arrangements and understand what is happening to intellectual property.”

Likewise, find out who owns the actual data—you or the service provider—and how it’s protected. “Processes are sensitive information,” Linthicum notes. For instance, “how is information handled via the process? How do you reach back into the enterprise to hook into the systems that need to be part of the solution?” he says. Make sure that information is encrypted and there are levels of security to prevent users from being able to access every process, he advises: “Vendors are providing some of those features, but it’s a slow progression as they figure out the cloud.”

The cloud itself is another matter. It’s characterized by scalability, elasticity and pay-per-use pricing. But those attributes aren’t necessarily among those you’ll find with every BPM vendor embracing the cloud label.

“The cloud isn’t one thing. Usually, when we say ‘move to the cloud,’ we mean move to the public cloud, but there is a continuum from the most private to the most public,” Cantara says. “There are gradations, and somewhere in the middle is a mix of deals that are enabled by cloud services and technologies, but the contracts look like outsourcing. That might not be a bad thing [but] the trick is to understand what you’re really getting.”

Typically, Cantara says, providers price their services based on a range of users; the customer pays for services whether or not they’re being used. That is subscription-based, per-user pricing. Likewise, scalability and elasticity may not be what you’d expect from a typical SaaS set-up.

“Not all of the things I see with BPM as a Service truly meet all the attributes of cloud. That can be okay because most buyers don’t need all of the attributes of cloud,” Cantara says. “So it’s less expensive to buy a business process as a contract for 100 users than it might be to buy on-premises software, and while it’s not purely pay-for-use, it’s still a savings.”

Still, companies should understand what they’re getting. And they should avoid buying a solution simply because it’s in the cloud—a situation that too many organizations find themselves facing. As Linthicum puts it: “They want to have a cloud solution in the enterprise by whatever means necessary, and they’re going to make it happen whether it’s a fit or not.” As a result, the solution fails to meet the company’s business requirements.

To prevent falling into that trap, Linthicum advises organizations to determine their performance requirements and compare them with the cost benefits and integration capabilities of any given solution. “Think about these before you get to an operational state,” he says.

In terms of performance, Linthicum warns that organizations should expect some network latency with BPM PaaS. To avoid taking a hit in that regard, he recommends conducting performance monitoring and modeling. “Make sure that you’ve modeled what the performance will look like so that you can see any performance bottlenecks and address those early on,” he says.

Of course, that advice assumes that you’ve planned out the architecture ahead of time—which is another step that Linthicum recommends. Plan how the integration will occur and how it will operate in a production environment, he says—adding that he’s not just talking about now, but five years from now.

This all requires an architectural understanding of the service. “People who need to understand how business process management systems work with cloud computing also need to understand SOA,” notes Linthicum. “Get familiar with patterns and business processes that have proven successful so that you can get the configurations right on paper before you move in the direction of the cloud. And be sure to engage the people you need to engage with ahead of time.”

In addition to involving internal stakeholders, Linthicum and Cantara both recommend getting outside help. “Get outside consultants that are independent of vendors to help you,” says Linthicum. “Find a company that’s done it before, that knows the technology and knows how to validate the business requirements with the technology.”

READER FEEDBACK: Is your organization using a BPM PaaS solution? If so, what can you recommend to others who might be considering the same approach? Share your experience with ebizQ’s editors. Contact Site Editor Anne Stuart at editor@ebizq.net.

About the Author

Crystal Bedell is an award-winning freelance writer who specializes in covering technology. Contact her at cbedell[at]bedellcommunications.com.

More by Crystal Bedell, ebizQ Contributor



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