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If your organization is like most, you likely have legacy systems that are expensive to maintain and update.

These aging systems may even represent serious competitive disadvantage because they’re unable to adapt to changing regulatory and business environments. Your users may be squandering valuable time and introducing inconsistencies by entering data into multiple systems that don’t communicate with each other. At the same time, these systems may still contain valuable data and business rules that you’d like to leverage, rather than rebuilding from scratch.

A business process management system (BPMS) and a service-oriented architecture (SOA) can help your organization to leverage these existing assets and gain the flexibility to build adaptable, world-class IT systems.

Service-oriented architecture has gained popularity over the past decade to the point where most IT organizations are familiar with the concept. For purposes of this article, let’s define an SOA as using interoperable services to enable integration of computer systems. This approach results in a paradigm shift from viewing systems as interactions between users and servers to viewing systems in terms of producers and consumersof services.

Of course, the term “service” has multiple meanings. In this context a service is an action such as “Fetch all the clients that are active and that start with the letter 'C'." In a SOA-enabled environment, a producer system would enable consumer systems to fetch this data on request.

This architecture solves the problem of “walled gardens” surrounding data silos that prohibit intra-application communication or make such communication brittle. Here’s a prototypical example: A user enters a new client’s information. The system validates that the client is unique and consumes a service notifying a mailing-list tool that there’s a new client on that mailing list. This approach contrasts with a user entering the data in every system that interacts with the client. Using SOA avoids duplicating user effort and, through automation, prevents inconsistency in data.

A BPMS is simply a set of tools designed to simplify the automation of business processes. A BPMS provides features commonly used for automation, including drag-and-drop user forms, interactions with external systems, business activity monitoring (BAM), content management, rule engines and user collaboration. Visionaries provide social and phone/tablet features, enabling their systems to solve a broader set of problems.

BPMSs are designed to enable rapid application development and consume services provided by legacy systems. In a fully SOA-enabled enterprise, the BPMS will be the primary user-facing application and will reach across silos, leverage legacy applications to make existing capabilities reliable, provide visibility to processes and generate new engines of value across the enterprise.

Your organization may have already adopted a goal of delivering a SOA, but when the project is over budget, interoperable services are typically the first to get cut. Alternatively, the organization may build services that don’t meet the needs of consuming applications.

Some organizations attempt large-scale SOA implementations that retrofit applications with services. These implementations rarely deliver the expected value because consuming applications never materialize, or because the exposed web services fail to meet the needs of consuming applications.

Those issues are symptomatic of putting the cart before the horse—and of IT wasting resources before understanding the business needs. A SOA should be driven by business value. For that reason, services should be implemented and driven by the business case. Organizations that aren’t currently mature need to view their SOA as an aspiration and recognize that a less aggressive approach is better.

The incremental approach allows a company to mature using SOA and BPMSs with lower levels of investment and risk. Furthermore, it allows the organization to focus on the high-ROI and low-risk implementations, thus increasing the probability of success. The large-scale restructuring approach results in high risk, large initial investment and a less-certain reward.

Organizations should adopt an incremental approach by choosing a candidate process that represents a meaningful pain point to the business and improving it. The end result should be a deployed system plus a set of lessons learned and process improvements that can be applied to a subsequent candidate process. This iterative approach results in an enterprise architecture that becomes progressively more service-oriented.

Candidate selection is a critical factor for overall project success. The candidate could be an existing system that isn’t meeting business needs. Or it might be a manual process that could benefit from technology. Candidate systems should fit the technology choice, and clients that choose to use BPMS to solve non-process problems may find it difficult to realize significant ROI.

It’s important to identify systems that need to provide services and evaluate external systems’ current capabilities. One possibility is that the current system has the relevant services exposed and easily consumed by your candidate process. A common situation is that external systems will require updates to expose additional data or rules, and your plan will require time to implement the web services.

Alternatively, the system exposes data in a way that’s difficult to consume. For example, a service may be unable to filter out a large volume of unnecessary data or provide the information by a consumable protocol. In this situation, an enterprise service bus (ESB) can provide an appropriate solution. The ESB will function as the adapter between two systems, allowing the BPMS to consume an otherwise incompatible service. The ESB could also function as a façade for all services, wrapping various services, enabling the BPMS to focus on core business processes and user interactions.

In another scenario, existing services can’t meet the business need, meaning that additional web service implementation work is needed. Both consumers and producers must agree on the semantics of the service and service protocol to ensure that the service is interoperable. A modern ESB can ease the development cycle because a consumable service can be stood up in a few hours to fulfill the required interface. This stub enables the BPMS tool to consume the service without waiting until development is fully completed.

The key benefit to the SOA and BPMS architecture is leveraging your organization’s existing legacy applications while migrating to the flexible and highly productive BPMS. This approach allows IT to keep adding functionality while shifting development away from expensive legacy systems. The result: an IT architecture that’s aligned with business needs, even as they continue to evolve.

READER FEEDBACK: Have you used a BPM suite and SOA together? If so, ebizQ editors would like to hear about your experience. Contact editor@ebizq.net.

About the Author

Nathan Schmitz is a program manager at the Macedon Technologies consulting firm, specializing in BPM, SOA and SDLC. Previously, he was a SOA consultant. Reach him at nathan.schmitz[at]macedontechnologies.com.

More by Nathan Schmitz, ebizQ Contributor



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