BPEL4People advances toward the mainstream

Do people need BPEL4People?

BPEL (Business Process Execution Language) is too machine-oriented, catering to applications talking to other applications, they say. Most business processes need the human touch somewhere along the line.

Do people need BPEL4People?

Consider these un-automatable scenarios: A process may need an executive's approval to proceed any further. Work may flow like a river, but it also encounters plenty of waterfalls, dams and locks on the way -- points at which humans may need to jump in to keep things moving. Workflows are as unique as the companies that create them, and all have their own points where humans intercede.

That's why OASIS announced it is forming a technical committee to explore how the proposed BPEL4People standard (WS-BPEL Extension for People) could rectify this. This is a step toward becoming an OASIS standard, and work will commence on both both BPEL4People and WS-Human Task. WS-HumanTask was created by Adobe, Active Endpoints, BEA, IBM, Oracle and SAP.

As OASIS puts it, the Technical Committee "would define: (1) extensions to the OASIS WS-BPEL 2.0 Standard to enable human interactions, and (2) a model of human interactions that are service-enabled." The case for BPEL4People vision was first laid out in a white paper jointly published by IBM and SAP in July 2005.

BPEL4People and its cousin WS-Human Task is already appearing on the market. Just this past week, Active Endpoints announced that an update to its open-source ActiveBPEL Community Edition 5.0 Server includes implementations of both standards.

For those who want more details on how BPEL4People works, Andrew Doble provides a deep dive into how BPEL4People fits into the architecture.

But, ultimately, can BPEL4People finally bring SOA closer to the business processes its supposed to support? Just as BPEL has taken its knocks over the years, there are conflicting viewpoints on whether BPEL4People can effectively do the job.

Fred Cummins, for one, doesn't think it can. "BPEL isn't designed for business users," he says in a new post, "it's designed for programmers. ...BPEL4People won't change that." BPEL does not have a standard graphical representation, and business users have trouble recognizing processes transformed for BPEL.

Instead, Fred calls for a "true business process language must be designed to represent business processes that make sense for the business and can be, in some cases, implemented manually, as well with a BPMS (Business Process Management System)."

Fred favors BPMN (Business Process Modeling Notation), which, he says, "was specifically designed for graphical representation of business processes for businesspeople, and it has been widely adopted by the industry." Plus, he adds, BPMN is now supported by BPDM (Business Process Definition Metamodel), which also is SOA-friendly.

The BPEL4People-BPMN discussion needs to continue. The bottom line is that we need ways to help bring BPM and SOA closer together, which is the next challenge facing implementations in both areas. The important thing is that vendors and industry experts are obviously recognizing that this is an important piece of the puzzle that needs to be addressed.