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BPEL trends update: We’ll always have orchestration

BPEL’s role as Web services orchestrator seems assured, but the broader spotlight has moved to BPMN 2.0.

As improved Business process management (BPM) workflow tools have emerged, some underlying infrastructure tools have gained less attention. Notable among the latter is Business Process Execution Language (BPEL), which has often been used to convert business visions into things that run on computers. Where is BPEL now?

Today, BPEL faces an uphill battle against the new kid on the block: Business Process Model and Notation 2.0 (BPMN 2.0). In fact, BPMN 2.0 may be the route to BPEL services infrastructure for some enterprise practitioners; BPMN 2.0 adds support for export to BPEL.

In many ways, BPMN 2.0 has grabbed the spotlight from BPEL. Still, BPEL appears to have found a steady role in the technical orchestration of software services underlying workflow integrations. Its importance for human-based BPM is less clear.

“BPEL is still alive and kicking. In its own space it is actually pretty successful as a standard modeling notation,” said Neil Ward-Dutton, research director at MWD Advisors, a process consulting firm. “Customers are using BPEL as a notation for modeling of application integrations.”

At the same time, “it has become understood by the broader community of practitioners that it is only suitable for certain classes of the modeling domain,” he continued.

In fact, BPEL’s native role today is very much as an orchestrator of Web services, albeit ones related to business processes.

Web services orchestrator role

The orchestrator role is a natural one. BPEL arose during the first era of Web services, when a slew of XML-based languages came into being for different purposes. Its use was very much limited to machine-to-machine interactions. That is a shortcoming in most BPM applications, where humans are usually a very intrinsic part of the process.

In most BPM systems, people are central players, and classic BPEL modeling did not speak to this need. An effort to create “BPEL4People” has sought to address that shortcoming. However, many of the same companies that drove BPEL have also put effort behind BPMN. Here, it is a broader approach—and a promise that it may support development by non-programmers—that pique managers’ interest.

To some, BPEL4People seems late to the party. “Some things that you really want to do are really just not suitable for BPEL. But it has value for orchestration of Web services for workflow,” Ward-Dutton said.

“Today, the landscape of available notation [languages] has become more mature and a lot more vendor investment has gone behind BPMN,” he added. Before, this same landscape was a lot more fractured, led largely by infrastructure vendors who were delivering tools to help people orchestrate Web services, he said.

Primary use cases for BPEL

BPEL’s primary use is for Web service orchestrations rather than human facing activities, said Sandy Kemsley, a BPM architect and industry analyst. “BPEL is used as a serialization and interchange format primarily between systems that use BPEL as their core execution language,” she notes in a recent blog post reviewing the past five years in BPM.   

This has led to some deprecation for BPEL. “BPMN 2.0 is now a ‘superset’ of BPEL,” according to Mariano Benitez, head of Ataway, a BPM consultancy. Is performance an issue? Not in his view: “You can model and execute any BPEL model in BPMN, and the performance of the business process management system should be somewhat similar to a BPEL engine,” he said.

Benitez points to BPMN 2.0’s notation and its consideration of users in the model, as well as its execution semantics and XML format, as benefits. “I do not see a business reason to use BPEL, other than for true service orchestration without human intervention,” Benitez said.

Power shortage for Bpel4people?

A few years ago, BPEL had more vivid vendor backing and was seen to have broader potential use. That’s changed, and it forms a backdrop to the BPEL4People effort, Ward-Dutton said.

The “machine bias” that BPEL4People enhancements sought to address may be somewhat moot now. The reasons may in part be political, Ward-Dutton said. “It’s all about which vendors put investment into which standards,” he said. “Those same infrastructure vendors that were really so instrumental in driving BPEL have now put the vast majority of their effort into driving BPMN.”

Meanwhile, some viewers question the depth of need for a standard execution language for business processes. While users do want assurance that they have lessened their vulnerability against code lock-in, actual reports of such migrations are hard to come by. Going back to a BPMN-level description may offer the same assurance as BPEL-level assurance.

BPMN 2.0 is still new, and its suitability for nontechnical team members—business-side non-programmers—is still a matter of controversy. Meanwhile, BPEL’s narrower role in orchestrating services integration seems intact. As BPM moves to encompass business activity monitoring and operational BI, this will be where the modeling pedal meets the runtime metal.

About the Author

Jack Vaughan, co-editor of Business Agility Insights, is editor in chief of E-mail him at [email protected]

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