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The Race to Create Standards

The Race to Create Standards

The number of Web service business process (BP) specifications trying to make their way to standards status makes it difficult to tell who is doing what, especially given that many efforts are redundant.

This article makes sense out of the morass by classifying Web service BP specifications into four categories.

  • Business analyst graphs: When business analysts write the high-level business logic for a BP, they need a standard way to communicate that logic, usually graphically, to each other and to BP programmers.
  • Message choreography: When multiple BPs want to interoperate there needs to be an agreement on not only what messages are to be sent back and forth, which is provided by WSDL, but also the order in which messages are to be sent.
  • Platform-independent business process programming languages: When writing the code to actually execute a BP it can be very compelling to use a solution that will run on Java, .NET, and everywhere else.
  • Platform-specific business process programming languages: BP languages written directly for platforms like J2EE get a jump on everyone else by inheriting from mature, proven platforms.

    We will explore each of these programming categories and explain what specifications are available in each category and their status. Please keep in mind that the status reflects the state of the specifications at the time of this writing (April 2003).

    Business Analyst Graphs
    The job of business analysts is to express the business logic that a BP is supposed to implement. Business analysts typically are not programmers so they express their logic through a combination of graphs and prose. It is the job of BP programmers to take the business logic provided by the business analysts and create running code.

    Specifications such as BPDM and BPMN (see Table 1) are intended to make it easier for business analysts to communicate with each other and with BP programmers through UML-based models. Such models both standardize notation amongst business analysts as well as provide a foundation by which code skeletons can be automatically generated for BP programmers from business analyst's graphs.

    BPDM has not yet begun substantive work and there are concerns about how appropriate BPMN is for business analysts. BPMN is so complicated it almost seems to be targeted at BP programmers.

    Message Choreography
    For multiple BPs to interoperate, all participants in the conversation must agree not only as to what messages are to be sent, which is specified by WSDL, but also the order in which they are expected. For example, a WSDL description says that a purchaser can receive purchase orders and a shipper receives shipping orders, but it cannot say that once a purchaser receives a purchase order the next thing the purchaser will do is send out a shipping order.

    Message choreography specifications (see Table 2) tackle this problem by providing mechanisms to describe messaging order. There are two general approaches to message choreography - Turing-complete and declarative.

    Turing-complete solutions, typified by BPEL Business Protocols and BPML Abstract Processes, use programming language to describe message choreography. Declarative solutions use directed graphs.

    The trade-off between the two types of solutions is that the Turing-complete solutions can describe the message choreography in more detail than a declarative solution but at the cost of making the message choreography harder to understand and possibly more brittle. To understand a Turing-complete message choreography you must literally read and understand source code. In addition, one of the keys to interoperability is to know what not to say; in some ways Turing-complete solutions enable you to say too much. In practice the two solutions are complementary in that you can create a higher-level description using a declarative solution and then fill in details using a Turing-complete solution.

    Although WS-Chor has taken WSCI, which is the foundation of BPML, as an input, it is not yet clear if WS-Chor will try to standardize a Turing-complete or a declarative message choreography solution. At the time of this writing the issue was still open within the working group.

    Business Process Programming Language
    BP code is typically written using a dedicated BP programming language (see Table 3), usually via a graphical tool. Two flavors of BP programming languages are being developed: platform independent and platform specific.

    The term platform independent is generally taken to mean a BP execution language that can run on top of J2EE or .NET. But the term "independent" is a misnomer. It would be more accurate to say "a new platform that runs on top of existing platforms." For example, BPEL and BPML, both "platform independent" solutions, define a full XML-based programming language, an exception handling model, a compensation model, a threading model, a message handling model, a type system, and a process life-cycle model. By any reasonable definition they constitute platforms in their own right.

    Both BPEL and BPML are still very new so their feature set is limited. For example, they can only deal with XML values, which can only be manipulated using XPATH 1.0. They don't have easy to use models for communicating with local resources such as databases and file system; they don't have solutions for issues such as deployment or access control, etc. But these limitations only reflect their relative immaturity rather than oversight or design flaw. Over time, as the specifications mature, they will inevitably grow in features and complexity.

    JSR 207 (Process Definition for Java; PD4J), which was proposed and is being led by BEA, typifies a platform-specific standard. PD4J takes the full-featured, fully developed, standardized J2EE platform and provides a few simple extensions to enable BP programming. While it is possible to write BPs on top of J2EE today, PD4J adds BP-specific extensions to J2EE in order to make it easier to write BP programs.

    BPEL in particular has been positively received by efforts such as Siebel's Universal Application Network (UAN), which will use BPEL to write templates that describe best practices for certain types of BPs, such as a BP for entering information about a new employee into multiple independent data stores in a company. By using BPEL, Siebel's UAN BPs can potentially be imported and run across a wide variety of platforms. Since Siebel partners with all the major application vendors, this flexibility is desirable and the cost in terms of limited functionality is acceptable.

    PD4J, scheduled for completion in March 2004, will be the officially approved Java standard for BP programming. In addition, because it benefits from J2EE,PD4J will have access to more features and be more mature than BPEL or BPML. Therefore, PD4J will almost certainly be the richest and most portable BP programming solution available.

    WebLogic Integration 8.1 will ship with support for Java Processes (JPD), which is the foundation technology for PD4J. When the PD4J expert committee releases the official PD4J standard BEA will migrate JPD programs to the standardized format.

    Users will be able to move between platform-independent and platform-specific business process programming languages via import/export functions. For example, after the release of WLI 8.1, BEA will provide users with tools to enable the import and export of BPEL process definitions to and from JPD and upon standardization, PD4J.

    It is not clear if WS-Chor will attempt to create a platform-independent programming execution language. The issue is being actively discussed within the working group.

    Conclusion
    Looking at the status of the various listed specifications described above you can see that the race to create Web service-based BP standards is just starting. Unlike more mature business process standards such as ebXML there is still an enormous amount of work to be done before Web service business processing can be said to be mature. In the meantime, you are encouraged to review the various specifications and to evaluate them in terms of their technical completeness as well as how open a standard they might eventually become.

    References

  • Business Process Definition Metamodel - Request for Proposal (BPDM): www.omg.org/cgi-bin/doc?bei/2003-01-06
  • Business Process Execution Language for Web Services (BPEL): http://dev2dev.bea.com/technologies/webservices/BPEL4WS.jsp
  • Business Process Markup Language (BPML): www.bpmi.org/specifications.esp
  • Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN): www.bpmi.org/specifications.esp
  • JSR 207 Expert Group - Process Definition for Java (PD4J): http://jcp.org/en/jsr/detail?id=207
  • W3C Choreography Working Group (WS-Chor): www.w3.org/2002/ws/chor/
  • Web Service Choreography Interface (WSCI): www.w3.org/TR/wsci/
  • More Stories By Yaron Y. Goland

    Yaron Y. Goland is a senior principal technologist in the Office of the CTO at BEA, with responsibility for BP standards. Yaron is a coauthor on BPEL and BEA’s representative to the W3C Choreography Working Group.

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