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Bursting the Boundaries of Your Current Business Processes

by Alan Rickayzen | SAPinsider

April 1, 2002

by Alan Rickayzen, SAP AG SAPinsider - 2002 (Volume 3), April (Issue 2)
 

The exchange infrastructure is SAP’s new open-integration platform, designed to handle the integration challenges that companies face as they try to manage the heterogeneity of their systems — not to mention those of their partners and customers. With this new technology, SAP promotes a flexible, message-based infrastructure, based on open standards such as XML, to integrate a variety of components. As a result, it becomes easier than ever to develop and implement large-scale business processes that cut across various systems and technologies (often referred to as an “outside-in” approach).

Of course, not all of your business processes will require this kind of scope or complexity. Sometimes processes are better suited to an “inside-out” approach that many SAP customers have used for some time now — where processes within a single application drive processes in other components, and are integrated with other systems via RFCs, XML messages, or SOAP, for example.

Take the scenarios in Figure 1. For something like purchase requisition approvals, nearly all the processing takes place via a single EBP system. The technology that drives this inside-out process is the WebFlow engine, SAP’s long-standing technology for integrating workflow with the Web. In contrast, the materials master process is more appropriate to an outside-in approach: data entry takes place across many sites and end users, and requires multiple — and often different — views maintained in a variety of components. The exchange infrastructure includes a message-based Business Process Engine to help drive these types of processes. With this approach, it is also easier to keep the process running when one component is upgraded or even when it is replaced by a component from a different vendor.

Figure 1 Application-Based (Inside-Out) versus Message-Based (Outside-In) Approaches

Although application-based and message-based processes are quite different, many of the very same features are needed for each. The exchange infrastructure will give you the flexibility to choose the approach — either the message-based (outside-in) or application-based (inside out) — that best matches your particular business scenario.1

If you are evaluating the exchange infrastructure or want to extend the boundaries of the processes running in your mySAP components right now, then this article is for you. You’ll learn about the collaboration capabilities currently available with WebFlow, and preview some of the functionality that will be available in the Business Process Engine when it is released later this year.

This article does not cover the major new features that are under development for the Business Process Engine, such as:

  • Completely new mechanisms necessary for supporting a message-based infrastructure

  • The fresh new appearance of user interfaces for the different tools, such as the process modeler and process monitor

So let’s go through the WebFlow features that are currently available for enabling inside-out process control, listed in Figure 2.

WebFlow Feature SAP Release Description
Wf-XML 1.0 4.6C and up Interface using an open standard to trigger and pass data between processes using XML messaging.
Wf-XML 1.1 6.20 An extension of 1.0, allowing more powerful synchronization capabilities.
SOAP 6.20 Commonly accepted protocol for invoking methods.
BPML 0.4 6.20 Interface using an open standard to transfer process designs between components.
Web services 4.0 and up Use HTTP to call dialog and background services and collect the results. WSDL standard descriptions can be imported to configure the services.
Figure 2 Current and Future WebFlow Features for Inside-Out Processes

Business Processes Are Already In Your System — Whether You’re Driving Them or Not!

If you are asking yourself, “But do I even have business processes in my system right now?” the answer is certainly “Yes.”

For example, let’s take an engineering change request, where experts from both the business and technical sides of a project team up with component suppliers to process requests as quickly and reliably as possible. In a smooth-running company, these processes will be automated and under control.

What’s the difference between something like a basic exchange of messages and a “business process”? Typically, business processes can be represented by flow diagrams and involve deadline handling and audit trails. Most important, a business process has a state. In order to work out what to do next, a business process keeps track of where it is — i.e., what it has accomplished so far. Contrast this with a simple message exchange where incoming messages spawn new messages based on their content, irrespective of their history.

The bottom line is that if your business processes do not work, your business does not work either. Getting your processes to run faster, more reliably, and more inexpensively while keeping them flexible is what it takes to have the competitive edge. Driving the processes with an engine like WebFlow is far more likely to enable you to reach this goal than simply relying on written procedures or word of mouth.

The exchange infrastructure will soon be able to handle outside-in scenarios, but for the time being it is sufficient to handle processes using the inside-out approach.

Wf-XML Snaps Processes Together, Irrespective of the System or Software that the Process Runs In

Wf-XML is an open interface from the Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC), which any vendor is free to implement. Wf-XML Release 1.0 supports the triggering and canceling of processes as well as the transfer of data between them.

The newly released 1.1 Wf-XML standard supports better synchronization between processes. Typically, several business processes will run in parallel, independently of each other (which saves time), but they have to synchronize at different checkpoints to exchange data, or wait until another process has set up the prerequisites that enable the first process to continue.

Enhancements made to SAP R/3 4.6C and up include the ability to define rules for formatting the context data, and rules to determine a partner’s URL and authentication data. These rules are based on the data in the current process, so that one process definition can deal with all possible partners involved.

As you can see in Figure 3, all the capabilities needed for Wf-XML handling are taken care of in a comfortable user interface.

Figure 3 Transmitting a Wf-XML Message via HTTP and the Step Definition

BPML — Business Process Modeling Language

BPML is an XML standard from the Business Process Management Initiative (BPMI.org), which allows process flow definitions to be mapped to XML. The Workflow Builder can export or import BPML documents to display them graphically. In keeping with SAP’s strategy of open interfaces, this is a non-proprietary interface developed by BPMI.org.

BPML describes the process flow, but not the individual activities that are executed in the process. These activities will need to be described by something else, such as WSDL2 (see the next section). For more on BPML, please refer to the Web Application Server 6.20 development news at www.sap.com/technology.

WebFlow Web Services

WebFlow Web service support was described in detail in the January 2002 issue of SAP Insider using the example of mobile messaging via a remote Web service.3 The essence of WebFlow’s use of Web services is that an activity within a process calls a remote resource over the Internet or intranet. This service can pass results back to the process, just as if the standard business method had been executed within the local component. Dialog services are also supported, such as querying a company’s intranet “who’s who” database to select a colleague for a particular task.

It does not matter what language the Web service was developed in — whether it’s Java, Business Server Pages, or Active Server Pages, to name just a few examples. There are standards to describe these services — the most prominent being WSDL — and Web sites that support catalogs of external services, such as UDDI (www.UDDI.org).

In the SAP Web Application Server Release 6.20, simple WSDL service descriptions based on HTTP binding can be imported directly into the WebFlow service catalog without the need for manual customizing.

Where Do We Stand Now?

WebFlow incorporates the open standards that are needed to reach across the Internet, but are also needed to link to individual system components. The Business Process Engine will support these same standards, too.

For more information on WebFlow technology, visit http://service.sap.com/webflow. For more on the exchange infrastructure and the Business Process Engine, see the SAP white paper “Exchange Infrastructure: Process-Centric Collaboration” at www.sap.com/solutions/technology/brochures.asp and the articles on the exchange infrastructure in this issue of SAP Insider.


1 For more information on the Integration Engine and the Exchange Infrastructure, see the white paper “Exchange Infrastructure: Process-Centric Collaboration” at www.sap.com/technology, and the articles in this issue of SAP Insider.

2 WSDL is an open standard that has been submitted to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

3 See “Workflow Wizard: Accessing External Web Services from SAP WebFlow” in the January-March 2002 issue of SAP Insider, or in the Article Archives.


Alan Rickayzen is the Product Manager for WebFlow. He has been with SAP since 1992 and in data processing since 1988. In 1995, he joined the SAP Business Workflow group, performing development work as well as consulting for various major US customers, and as a result amassed a good technical knowledge of the product. In 1998, he moved to the area of workflow product management. The author may be contacted at alan.rickayzen@sap.com.

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