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How to leverage the power of open source BPM

Establishing a relationship with open source BPM providers can help users quickly resolve technical issues and reduce internal IT staff.

Today, more domain experts with expertise in a particular industry or process are taking open source tools and building on top of them to sell their capabilities as a third-party service. "This is one piece of open source that is picking up interest and demand," said Clay Richardson, principal industry analyst at Forrester Research.

business people sitting at a table

Open source BPM frameworks like Colosa's ProcessMaker, Bonitasoft's Bonita BPM, Red Hat's JBoss Enterprise BRMS, Intalio|bpms and the Eclipse Stardust project are being rolled into cloud-based services. This open source approach, and the power of the cloud, can lower the barriers to entry for working with BPM concepts.

The vision is that this will allow experts in a particular domain, such as medical insurance billing, to create a business process for a specific industry. The end users only have to pay for use of these services, rather than the high startup costs typically associated with BPM platforms. "Those guys would never have installed a BPM solution because the tooling was too expensive and complicated," said Marc Gille, VP of product management at SunGard Financial Systems, which is sponsoring the Stardust platform.

An expert in a field like dental billing could develop an underlying template for this kind of process on the cloud that can be offered as a service for a nominal fee. In this way, the hurdle can be low enough that the process will be adopted by a much larger audience, Gille said. In SunGard's case, the goal is not so much to make money off the BPM technology directly, but to build out the underlying infrastructure that integrates with other SunGard services.

The case for customization

Other sponsors of open source BPM platforms are focused more squarely on deriving revenues directly from the BPM platforms and cloud services that leverage them, said Brian Reale, Colosa Inc. CEO and co-founder. The attraction to process experts is that open source platforms, like ProcessMaker, are more extensible than proprietary BPM tools.

Understanding the code is a big thing and a barrier to entry for many BPM tools.

Brian Reale

In the case of ProcessMaker, the underlying tool is built on top of the Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP stack. The underlying tool can be extended by programmers familiar with PHP, which makes it easy for developers to add integrations with various applications and cloud services. "Understanding the code is a big thing and a barrier to entry for many BPM tools," said Reale. This approach makes it easier for a company to extend a BPM tool through APIs and through PHP.

A number of domain experts are able to leverage the underlying ProcessMaker platform for a variety of domains. Furthermore, the open source nature of ProcessMaker can benefit from the shared development of the community supporting the platform.

While in theory an organization could leverage an open source tool like ProcessMaker to offer a competing BPM service, most mature organizations don't. Establishing a relationship with the open source BPM provider can put these users on a fast track to resolving technical issues, reducing internal IT staff, and then quickly turn around changes.

While open source allows more sharing of connectors and user interfaces, there is less sharing of business processes, said Mac McConnell, VP at Bonitasoft. Be sure to do research before betting on a better business process.

"Every organization thinks they have the secret sauce on a different process. In reality, most don't," McConnell noted. The domain expertise is not shared as widely as it could be between organizations and BPM suite vendors.

Don't give away the farm

Process experts need to strike a balance between improving the underlying tool and integrations without giving potential competitors a leg up in their specific domain. In the case of ProcessMaker, the software is licensed under the Affero General Public License. Improvements to the underlying software that are commercialized are mandated to be fed back into the platform.

However, OEMs are free to create APIs to the platform outside the scope of the platform. This allows them to innovate while maintaining a lead on new entrants into their specific market. In addition, they can leverage their existing relationships with suppliers in a particular process. Getting these relationships up and running smoothly can take time to set up and keep running smoothly.

More on BPM

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BPM delivers more than cost savings

An OEM, for example, might develop an API for integrating ProcessMaker to an ERP or CMS. One approach to keep an advantage is to develop custom plug-ins into the framework of the underlying tool, said Doug Lee, CEO of Resultares.

Resultares has developed a number of bolt-ons to ProcessMaker that makes it difficult for other companies to get into the same business. "Drug testing and background checking APIs are not difficult. However, it is difficult dealing with vendors to do this," Lee explained. "We have worked to make it as streamlined as possible, which would make it challenging for others to make an end-run behind us."

Adding features like credit card billing, signature capture and automation to back-end office systems to its clients' existing application set would create other barriers for potential competitors.

Provide a single point of contact

A good practice for those interested in sharing a domain expertise with a specific field industry is to provide a single point of contact for technical billing issues. Things could grow more complicated and less attractive. For example, FormShare provides a single point of contact for educational institutions, explained Matt Ross, CEO of FormShare. The company has a license through Colusa to put the ProcessMaker software within Resultares' own IaaS instance, which is in turn carved up and separated for its individual customers.

When a problem occurs, FormShare's customers call the company directly for support. When these can't be solved directly, FormShare works with Colosa staff to resolve more serious technical issues. FormShare also provides a single integrated bill based on licensing and transaction fees to its end users, which reflects any licensing fees and support fees paid to Colosa.

Create a security audit trail

A big concern with moving to the cloud is the potential for security vulnerabilities and privacy leaks when information is moved offsite. In many cases, smaller organizations may not have a high level of sophistication in managing information on its own systems. At least when the information is stored locally, the organization may feel more confident about these issues.

One way domain experts help allay these concerns is to open up the process and infrastructure behind its service to third-party security experts. This kind of audit trail helps put to rest concerns from end users and makes the shift to the cloud more palatable.

"A lot of their data is sensitive, and they want to make sure it is well taken care of and protected," Ross said. To address these concerns, FormShare contracts with an outside company to audit its security practices and systems, which includes an annual security test. The company can show this audit trail to schools, which reduces security concerns.

Not just open source BPM

A commitment to open source isn't necessary to share expertise with others. There are opportunities to build businesses sharing expertise on top of proprietary platforms as well. E. Scott Menter, VP of business solutions at BP Logix, said it has plenty of partners building solutions on top of the BP Logix platform for vertical markets, and he expects these types of applications to become more common.

"If you can build these on top of a BPM solution without coding, your life will be simpler," Menter said. "The packaged industry apps are going to disappear except for complex specialties. We will provide the glue between virtually anything."

About the author:
George Lawton is a journalist based near San Francisco. Over the last 15 years, he's written more than 2,000 articles on computers, communications, business and other topics. Find out more at

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