Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Modeling Business Processes for SOA, don't forget the Information Model

Recently I have done a few architecture reviews at customers struggling to get their SOA efforts going. The common problem of these attempts on service-enabling legacy systems to support agile business processes have been - except from system designers not grasping that SOA is in fact a paradigm shift from invoking-operations composition thinking, and those using RPC over web-services - that they focus solely on business process management (BPM) modeling. From this model they try to identify services without having a taxonomy for classification of services (activity services, information services, composite services), struggling with service granularity and how to identify what goes into the message and data contracts.

The problem is that modeling your business processes typically misses out on the central building block of service-oriented solutions: the data and the semantics of the data as related to the business processes. This is typical for workflow models like the 'UML Activity Diagram'.

The data should represented by a Common Information Model (CIM). The CIM should be the starting point of your modeling efforts, in combination with Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) diagrams, as BPMN encompass process, events, messages and business documents. Based on the CIM, you must then design a business process information model (BPIM) for each business process domain. Then you could follow the SOA mantra coined by David Linthicum: data-service-process (much like the TDD red-green-refactor) and create mashups based on composite services. 

Last week Jean-Jacques Dubray posted an article about 'The Seven Fallacies of Business Process Execution'. The article contains a lot of good points about the 'case-tool grail' dreams about business people doing agile modeling in BPMN and then just generating systems that automates the business processes.

The really interesting part of the article is in 'Fallacy #5: Business Process Execution' where Jean-Jacques differentiates business objects (resources) and their lifecycle from the business processes that drives the lifecycle of the resources. The article explains how the data aspects are missing from BPMN even if it is the most important part of the business - just the problem I see so often.

Another point made in the article is that it is the resource lifecycle events that are important when trying to identify the services that your business process will depend on. The business events advance the business data through a state machine until the end of the business process. This is what Jack van Hoof, Nick Malik, myself and others have blogged a lot about this year: it is the business events and their message and data (documents) that are the key artefacts in your modeling efforts when creating a service-oriented architecture.

The article also shows how process service composition (orchestration of service execution and resource lifecycle management; BPEL) is different from user-centric business processes (human workflows and tasks; BPMN, WS-HumanTask, BPEL4People).

The article goes on to discuss how development is the glue that joins the different artifacts that constitutes a SOA. Developers are needed to actually implement the BPMN using the provided services. I strongly agree. Even if you could do BPMN to BPEL code generation, professional testing and QA in a development-staging-production environment is still a must. I will only go as far as to allow business people manage a set of goverened business rules, never directly implement any process (i.e. declaratively configure the diamond shapes in flow charts). Read more about business rules/decision service at James Taylor's blog.

Finally, the need for a durable 'composite service container' for the orchestrations is also something that is often disputed during my SOA reviews. "Command-and-control" developers rarely consider how the availability of autonomous services affects the fault-tolerance in the overall SOA solution. The question I always ask is: "What is the availability of a business process that composes five services that each have 99% availability? Is it 99%?" The answer is of course less: 95%. This is where a container for providing long running + reliable processes and 'resource' state machines comes in handy.

I recommend that you read and, most importantly, understand the concepts and the architecture blueprint presented in the article. I have to give Jean-Jacques a big credit for the good figures he has made to illustrate the taxonomy and ontology presented in the article.


JJ said...


I wanted to thank you for taking the time to read the article in detail and provide your feedback.

Simply thank you.


John Currah said...

Neat article, lots to think about. Thanks.