Applications as a service is the end game, so where is the start? Kevin White finds out
“This could not have been done by any other start-up. It’s been 30 years in development and could not have been achieved without the learning we were able to take from our past experiences with ERP, which became the mother of all complexity,” maintains Jan Baan, serial entrepreneur, founder and CEO of Cordys, the business process management (BPM) software vendor.
Cordys claims to have ploughed €250m since 2001 into perfecting its next-generation BPM suite. Baan explains that a series of landmark decisions were taken in the last eight years over the best direction for the Cordys product, which only now is marketed as being the finished article.
The objective behind BPM is to be able to design, execute, monitor, change and optimise business processes and operations wherever they are deployed. It is a whole lot more complicated than it sounds. Added to its inherent complexity, many of the software tools that have been branded as BPM tools are actually no more than fancy workflow applications, blown up middleware or automated forms software. The software is also better at handling internal business workflows that are based around legacy on-premise applications, than they are dealing with processes that draw on Web 2.0-based, location-independent sources or on-demand applications.
Baan maintains his company is the only one to have tackled the challenge head on, by building a system from the ground up with the intention of it being future proofed from day one.
His investment and close involvement with the success of Top Tier, which SAP acquired, and WebEx, the online collaboration software house that Cisco eventually bought for more than $3bn, not only provided him with funds but insights to validate his plans for the then nascent Cordys product. “The experiences we had with these two companies informed us on the fundamentals of the next generation business application infrastructure, and what eventually would become the cloud,” he ventures. “Although it was more a feeling than a vision, I had set the course for Cordys.”
One navigation point was based on an early understanding that the future for 4GL would be an XLM object model. This kick-started an initial development within Cordys to build an XML-based enterprise service bus, followed by work based on an early appreciation of its limitations. To overcome these Cordys put together a highly scalable service-oriented architecture (SOA) grid, as a switch between different buses and which ties together the applications and communications architectures of the application server, integration broker and message-oriented middleware.
The BPM product would also allow business users to model processes and compose applications in a standard browser environment which would link to the underlying XML object models.
If enterprise BPM is complex, then the cloud will make it even more so, especially as the use of Web 2.0-based situational applications grows as a favoured way of composing fast-deployment aggregated business applications. Situational apps have a narrow focus on a specific business problem, and they are written in such a way that if the business problem changes rapidly then so can the situational application. This contrasts with the usual enterprise applications, which are designed to address a large set of business problems, require meticulous planning, and impose a slow and costly change process.
The Cordys Process Factory and its associated AppStore-like Process Factory Marketplace is designed to take full advantage of this. It allows businesses to mix and match services and applications from the Web with their existing on-premise processes that are so often wholly reliant on previously inflexible legacy enterprise software. Cordys calls these MashApps. Andy Mulholland, CTO at Capgemini explains that Cordys MashApps provide businesses with the capability to build workflow over Web 2.0 offerings such as Google Apps.
The way the Cordys suite has been developed acknowledges and pre-empted an important trend, he says. “In many ways the emphasis of enterprise computing has shifted from being transactional and is moving toward being interactional with Web 2.0. Cordys does open up a wide range of new opportunities. It can be used to boost the expertise of people in the front office using Web 2.0 services, and Cordys to integrate and manage those services.”
Cordys CTO Jon Pyke explains: “We propose that we use BPM technology to provision and process-enable these situational apps. It leads to better governance and a good level of control but it also allows them to be bridged back to on-premise systems and processes.”
Cordys managed MashApps can live in the cloud or integrate with on-premise or other on-demand applications and accessed from any browser and on any device. “The idea is to set business free to mix and match existing premised-based processes running on applications like SAP, Oracle, IBM Websphere, Microsoft .Net or even earlier legacies, with processes that have been designed entirely out in the cloud. Deployment of cloud applications of whatever hue can then become process driven,” Pyke says. Provided that is, “the business has an assembly and orchestration layer in the cloud to fully deliver useful business advantages.”
These very elements of assembly and orchestration are provided by what Cordys calls its Business Operations Platform. Billed as a secure, highly available and fault-tolerant SOA/BPM platform, it delivers a complete platform-as-a-service designed to facilitate software-as-a-service.
Within it are functions that handle all the usual BPM activities of business process modelling, and it contains the rules engine and a business process activity monitoring module. But uniquely, the system also builds in collaborative workspace features that are used to model processes blended out of both the highly structured, prescriptive and rules-based business process activities and also the more unstructured activities which centre on the human interactions that occur between employees, supply chain partners and customers.
Importantly, BOP is cloud ready. “Support for multi-tenancy was built into the Cordys platform long before the cloud was ever mentioned,” says Yefim Natis of Gartner. “BOP was architected for SaaS delivery and has the concept of multi-tenancy at its core. It provides an overall context in which every request and transaction needed for a business process is executed,” Baan confirms.
Natis is of the view that multi-tenancy is one of the defining characteristics of a cloud-enabled application platform, in that it is the means by which processes, memory use, data access and performance of multi-teneted applications are isolated from each other. “Aspects of cloud service management like the on-and off-ramping of tenants, users or applications are vital attributes of the cloud-enabled platform. Tenant-aware error tracking, diagnostics and recovery are other essential elements for the cloud” he says, noting the special role of so-called platform-as-a-service (PaaS) aligned BPM software in this regard.
The emergence of PaaS is seen by Forrester as a better option for an enterprise applications infrastructure that over time will need carry a variety of legacy, on-demand and rich media Web 2.0 programmes. “Second-generation SaaS applications deploy on a multipurpose platform and are based on PaaS, not on a proprietary hybrid business application and platform” says Stefan Ried of the analyst firm.
It is an approach which eventually is expected to replace existing corporate middleware infrastructures and go on to underpin the use of all cloud services.
According to Ried, Google AppEngine, Microsoft Windows Azure, Salesforce.com’s Force.com and Cordys will feature among the leading PaaS options, around which the industry will consolidate over the next 5 to 10 years. The market could be worth as much as $15bn in five years time, but for now the analyst group estimates that as few as 15% of organisations have started to implement these types of deployments.
Those that have, appear to have scored some early successes. Lem Lasher, president of CSC’s global business solutions group, says the Cordys product has great commercial potential in today’s enterprise. “Let’s face it. Lots of service-oriented architecture deployments have pretty much collapsed under their own weight. With Cordys, things are different. The system helps us identify all of the elements of a business process, and all the data that’s involved in those elements wherever they may be. You can then set up a SOA grid and straight away set about refining and automating the business process.”
Ready in three months?
Cordys markets its product line using a 3 + 3+ 3 engagement model whereby a new process can be designed in a three-day workshop, implemented in working prototype in three weeks, with the new process installed as a full-blown production version in three months. On the back of that promise, Lasher claims CSC has been able to win over some highly discerning clients.
One US financial services company that had ten different billing systems spread across the globe used Cordys BOP to provide the business process logic above its existing billing applications. Because business abstraction combined with a multi-tenant approach effectively shields the core code and billing engines from change, it was possible to develop and deploy a new solution faster than traditional methods would support.
Base functionality for the new application of billing, taxation and collections, was provided by the purpose-built engines and modification to these bases limited to configuration changes only. No code changes were made. Overlaying multiple billing systems with a single platform had a major impact on the total cost of ownership, and development times were estimated to be between 25% and 35% less than expected.
CSC has managed to deploy a first phase of the project in approximately half the time than previously expected, realising a development cost savings for its banking client of nearly $8m in the first year. Further savings are expected. Not only does the multi-tenant approach allow succeeding regional rollouts to take place without the need to re-test earlier deployments, it ensures the bank can provide meet its compliance obligations and support multi-national data requirements and regulations.