Major players propose human workflow extensions to business processes spec

Enterprise software heavyweights—namely IBM, BEA, Oracle, SAP, and Adobe—are submitting a new proposal to extend the BPEL Web services business process orchestration specification to include human workflows. The proposals, to be submitted to the Web services standards body OASIS, will include an extension of the BPEL spec—named BPEL4People—which specifies the inclusion o...
By Staff August 1, 2007

Enterprise software heavyweights—namely IBM, BEA, Oracle, SAP, and Adobe—are submitting a new proposal to extend the BPEL Web services business process orchestration specification to include human workflows.

The proposals, to be submitted to the Web services standards body OASIS, will include an extension of the BPEL spec—named BPEL4People—which specifies the inclusion of a human workflow step as part of an orchestration of services. And the group proposed a companion spec, WS-HumanTask, which would actually describe the human tasks to be inserted into BPEL orchestrations.

Service orchestration is an approach to dynamically chain multiple services together as part of a larger process flow. The existing BPEL specification uses a series of XML headers to specify the kinds of steps that can be invoked to execute a series of Web services. The goal is to provide a way for service-oriented architecture (SOA) to support complex, sophisticated processes without having to make multiple service requests. But up until now, BPEL only supported the execution of automated steps.

“Our initial objective was to fix an obvious shortcoming in BPEL,” says Ed Cobb, VP for standards at BEA , explaining the rationale for adding human tasks and workflows to BPEL. Cobb says the group decided to submit the extensions as two separate specifications because the group wanted to make it possible to reuse common human tasks in scenarios that might not require orchestration. “We looked at how [human tasks] could fit into the rest of the world, and saw that other process engines besides BPEL could use that.”

Nonetheless, many pure-play business process management (BPM) vendors feel lukewarm at best about BPEL4People. “Critical constructs in workflow and how to deal with organizational hierarchies are kept out of the spec and left to the discretion of the implementer,” says Rob Risany, VP of product management for BPM vendor Savvion .

For instance, BPEL makes no reference to separation of duties, which are required for any processes that must comply with regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley. “BPEL does not understand process,” says Phil Gilbert, CTO for another BPM vendor, Lombardi Software , stating that it is a programming language that business analysts cannot understand.

Backers of BPEL4People and WS-HumanTask expect to submit the proposals to OASIS in the fall.