The secrets to making work flow over the web

The secrets to making work flow over the web

Workflow is being integrated with middleware to automate e-commerce transaction processing.

By Paul Montgomery

Convergence is driving many sectors of information technology at the moment (see Image & Data Manager, March/April 1999, page 22), but nowhere is it more needed than in electronic commerce. Customers who sit in front of Web pages instead of real life shopfronts expect e-commerce merchants to be as responsive and streamlined as their Web site makes them look - or else, the competition is a few clicks away.

Especially for established companies with old legacy system workhorses, this presents a problem. Most custom-built proprietary applications weren't built to take the heavy and unpredictable loads of complex information which an e-commerce site forces through twenty four hours per day.

How do you make your Clydesdale act like a racehorse? If a company wants to catch up to the Net leaders, how does it avoid backing a clapped out nag? A separate solution has emerged over the last six months to address it, represented by yet another catchphrase: enterprise application integration, or EAI.

It is built around a technology which is beginning to have considerable overlap with workflow, called middleware. As defined by the Free Online Dictionary of Computing (, middleware "manages the interaction between disparate applications across heterogeneous computing platforms" - a concept which is purely based on connecting together back-end applications, rather than connecting people, as is also the case with workflow.

John Spiers, marketing director of the enterprise application integration unit at FortŽ Software, gave the example of a gas heater which was overdue to be installed at a customer's hearth, even though it had been paid for. The vendor of the heater would give the customer a refund if they rang up and complained. If this "transactional integrity" of this payment was not maintained, then when the technician visited the customer to install the heater and the customer said it was too late, then the technician might credit a second refund before the first has been verified. If the vendors are to be believed, this sort of mix up would be smoothed out in an integrated system.

The idea behind this integration is analogous to the work being done by the Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC) with its Interface 4 standard for interoperability between workflow systems (see Image & Data Manager, March/April 1999, page 34). EAI, by using messaging and middleware, is aiming at the same outcome as that of the WfMC: a cross-platform integrated e-commerce framework.

Mr Spiers divided EAI projects into two integration tasks: data-oriented systems and process-oriented systems. In some respects, this terminology is merely another way to say middleware and workflow, respectively, but Mr Spiers argued that workflow was more internally focussed, concentrating more on back office integration.

Charles Brown, principal consultant at workflow vendor Staffware, acknowledged that workflow interoperability had only succeeded "in certain circumstances where everything is right, like at trade shows", but said middleware helps workflow in the task of integration, which is always the hardest part of any workflow installation.

"There's a difference between workflow and business process integration. Workflow is a much misused word," said Mr Spiers. "Most of the focus of workflow has been on managing tasks between human beings. This data integration is about the tying together of automated systems. The stuff that the WfMC does tends to be more about [the first] sort."

"The main thing we do is process, where enabling is made as flexible as possible," Mr Brown said. "The part we play is not so much the detail of how to access the back end, but when it is appropriate. I wouldn't state [Mr Spier's comments] as a criticism, that's what it's all about."

FortŽ's Fusion "wraps" messages with metadata in the eXtensible Markup Language (XML). Mr Spiers said XML had "done a great job" for unstructured documents, but the focus for FortŽ was on its role as a metadata language for structured data. Indeed, XML support is FortŽ's main weapon in its effort to differentiate itself from IBM.

"We're looking to put the Web, and in particular XML, at the centre of the data integration layer," he said. "Most of the applications that we will connect will be proprietary or legacy systems, so the most important part of the package is the development environment," said Mr Spiers.

FortŽ is only one of the players in these converging industries. Mr Spiers admitted that IBM's MQSeries was "pretty much a standard" for messaging software.

Alan Everard, worldwide market manager for MQSeries, said e-business, a term which has been co-opted by IBM in its extensive branding exercises in the mainstream media, meant in its simplest form "consumer access to business systems". Commerce Integrator achieves this by linking the company's Net.Commerce server, which operates the Web front end, to "popular" back end applications by using the MQSeries messaging infrastructure. An "enterprise" version, called MQSeries Integrator, uses a "hub and spoke" architecture, according to Mr Everard, to apply the same principles in a more scalable fashion to more back end systems.

"You've got to allow for diversity of environments by way of flexible business architectures to extend legacy applications to the Net," said Mr Everard.


As reported last issue (Image & Data Manager, May/June 1999, page 18), Hewlett-Packard has entered this arena with its ambitious E-services strategy, which is based around a technology called e-speak (see break-out) and a workflow/middleware application called Changengine which promises to act as an instant integration tool when it ships in the third quarter of 1999.

John Cooper, technical solutions manager for Changengine operation at HP, said the market that HP had been aiming for was starting to merge with the EAI market, although the company would be "working alongside" EAI vendors rather than competing directly with them.

Mr Cooper said the advantage of Changengine was that it had been architected at the start for a higher level of scalability than competitors' products which were adapted from legacy code.

"With Changengine, it allows you to very quickly get processes automated, and build those processes that connect to a wide range of applications," he said. "Changengine has been Web-based from day one. It has grown up with the Web, and it is in a lucky position compared to the competition, in that Changengine was designed after the Web existed."

HP is not hoping to deliver its E-services vision without some help. The company has "committed" US$100 million to middleware vendor BEA Systems over the next three years to develop and sell integrated solutions based on BEA's EAI tool, eLink, as well as its WebLogic application server and the Tuxedo transaction server, and HP's Changengine and OpenView applications, among others.

BEA has spent a lot of time already on providing ways for some of the more innovative e-commerce companies to forget about tweaking their Web site for a moment to concentrate on back office integration.

"Some of the more innovative companies have thought it out, like E*Trade. E*Trade started at the back end. They got us in to do that, although they were a Netscape customer. Other than E*Trade, I can't think of any other e-commerce company that started at the back end," said Ivan Ruzic, marketing and strategic services director for Asia Pacific for BEA Systems.

Mr Ruzic said linking the logistics of such systems is a long process, pointing out the sophistication needed for true records management. "You try to initiate a transaction in one of those systems and they try and change it. You'll find that most won't allow you to go into the system, retrieve the record and change it," he said.


One would think that given the theme of integration running through all of these products, that interoperability would be trumpeted by every vendor, but this is not the case. Alan Everard of IBM said one objective of his company's Commerce Integrator was "minimum breakage" to existing systems, so that business process reengineering was not needed, but one element would have to be replaced: workflow.

"We don't have a way that I know of to work with Staffware. You would have to replace that [with IBM's Workflow for OS/390 application]," he said.

He argued that this would not be the case very often, because few candidate customers would have existing workflow applications installed which have been integrated with e-commerce systems.

"This is definitely a coming thing, and the base who have done it with workflow is relatively small," Mr Everard said.

Hewlett-Packard has "preferred partners" for its e-services software, like BEA for its middleware, and Oracle for its 8i database, but these are not restrictive deals.

"You can certainly build in some interoperability. but you would have to build custom elements," said HP's John Cooper.

Other vendors are more open to working with competitors. "In the context of a particular project, there will be hostile technologies, and we think we can do the integration," said Mr Spiers of FortŽ.

Julian Quinn, MD of the South Asia region for BEA Systems, said his company was open to working with installed workflow applications, and had already been doing so with customers like Bank of Queensland (see story page 2).

"If you're going to put a bet on your business system out there, you've got to do it properly. You've got to get the architecture right," said Mr Quinn.