It Takes Two to Tango: SOA and BPM – Part I

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Business Relationship Manager - Product Lifecycle Management, Chevron Corporation

SOA and BPM are two buzzwords you hear or read about in every magazine (well almost all) you open, IT conference you go to, analyst or vendor you talk to. Also, a lot of discussions (or should we say gossip) are focused on the relationship between BPM and SOA. People are curious to know more on their relationship, on how long it would last, etc, the usual stuff you get to hear in the start of any romantic relationship. In order for us to understand the extent of their relationship lets take a closer look at their nature and characteristics and predict if they are meant for each other.

Forrester defines BPM or Business Process Management as designing, executing, monitoring and optimizing of the cross-functional business activities that incorporate people, processes and systems. As per Bruce Silver of Bruce Silver Associates: “BPM is about optimizing and improving business performance at the end-to-end process level, innovating the business, making it more efficient, faster, more agile, more compliant with policies and best practices, and more measurable. It’s top-down because it begins with the end-to-end process”.

As per OASIS, SOA or Services Oriented Architecture refers to a paradigm for organizing and utilizing distributed capabilities that may be under the control of different ownership domains. SOA provides a uniform means to offer, discover, interact with and use capabilities to produce desired effects consistent with measurable preconditions and expectations. Bruce Silver of Bruce Silver Associates defines SOA as being “about transforming IT infrastructure, leveraging existing investment and breaking it into reusable parts, providing a high-performance reliable communications fabric for interconnecting those parts, and managing those parts for optimal discovery and reuse. The goal is making solution implementation faster and less costly, but it’s bottom-up because it begins with the parts, not the end-to-end solutions”.

SOA has its roots in solving integration and interoperability issues for IT whereas BPM has its background as a management discipline with an emphasis on business performance management. While the main drivers for SOA are cost-cutting and improving time to market by applying reusability of services, that of BPM is enhancing the business process agility by managing and controlling it. BPM and SOA have been separated based on past history and on alienation of business and IT. Also, the majority of the vendors for their own interest have been propagating the message (though in a subtle way) that BPMS suites and SOA products are separate product lines.

Though forces have been pushing SOA and BPM apart, instead of viewing these as competing disciplines the practioners with help from analysts have started to appreciate their complementary nature. SOA helps lower the cost of BPM by providing the business process orchestration and facilitate BAM or Business Activity (or Process for that matter) Monitoring through services monitoring. SOA enables reusability of services within and out side business processes following open standards. BPM provides process-centricity to SOA thus improving the visibility of the business services. It further provides business process agility through manageability and performance of business processes.

Lately, vendors are also realizing that their marketing would be effective if they support the Tango between SOA and BPM. As industries and technologies put pressure on the vendors, software products are being planned with the collaboration and interplay of BPM and SOA in focus. The vendors are planning the inter-operability of BPM and SOA in their product line. It is still in its infancy, but when the market matures it shall greatly help the enterprises. This marriage shall enable the collaboration of business and IT. Business understands the services aspect of the business processes and the role that SOA plays in the enterprise in reducing cost and providing business agility. Business gets exposure to services being the digital model of the business processes. Services provide a level of abstraction on top of the implementation technology and thus hide the complexity of the component architecture from business. SOA infrastructure becomes the technology foundation of BPM discipline. Business starts understanding SOA more with BPM putting a business face on it. On the other hand IT understands the business processes with SOA helping to put an IT face on BPM. This helps IT to partner with Business to facilitate building efficient processes, changing existing ones easily and enable building newer ones.

Note that it is not absolutely essential that BPM and SOA stay together and each have its own identity. Business process automation can be the sole focus of BPM and it can survive without service orientation. Similarly SOA can continue to focus on just integration and inter-operability. However, the quality of service for an organization greatly improves with the nexus of BPM and SOA. It is also not good for SOA and BPM to hold each other hands in all circumstances. In case of transactions that predominantly involve human workflow BPM can be a pure play independent of SOA. Similarly for the need of tactical integration of legacy, SOA exists without BPM. In case of complex business processes and those that involve complex orchestrations requiring system-to-system interactions, SOA does play a great role in improving the life of BPM.

This creates a recipe for a perfect relationship, with each having a space of its own, each can independently exist, and however in the majority of the cases – especially for larger organizations – BPM and SOA need to Tango in unison. The quality of service is much higher when SOA and BPM come closer to complementing each other. BPM’s conceptual top down approach facilitates business process modeling and process optimization while SOA’s bottom up approach helps in process execution and monitoring.

So are they really meant for each other or are they being forced to be together by the industry based on its need? I shall be exploring it further in part II of this series.

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