Out there on the Web and on your intranet, there are myriad services
just waiting for you to make use of them: conference bookings; "who's
who" services; hotel, flight, or car reservations; fax and paging
functions; procurement services… Wouldn't it be great if you could
use these functions in your workflow processes as transparently as calling
an SAP transaction? Well, with WebFlow, SAP's workflow technology for
intranet/Internet use, this is now possible. We at SAP have implemented
a service handler that enables services to be included within a workflow
definition, and using plug-in technology, this is available for SAP systems
even as early as Release 4.0.
For example, suppose an employee needs
to attend a conference. After his manager has approved the WebFlow request,
the workflow sends a new work item to the employee to take care of conference
registration. When the employee executes this work item, it launches a
Web service, where the employee fills in his personal preferences in his
Web browser. The registration confirmation number is returned to the workflow.
The same procedure applies to the hotel
booking and travel arrangement functions (see Figure 1), although
the work item for the travel arrangements will likely be sent to a secretary
or the travel department. Finally, an e-mail with a trip summary is automatically
sent to the applicant and the departmental secretary. If the employee
needs to cancel the trip, WebFlow can take care of it, since all the reservation
numbers and details have been stored in the workflow's basic data.
||Accessing a Web Service Directly from SAP WebFlow
This article describes how to add a Web
service to a workflow definition, along with the add-ons you will need
to support releases predating the 6.10 SAP Web Application Server. But
before you add a service to your workflow definition, there are a few
things you need to consider:
Thorny Question of Standards
There are a number of standards evolving to support services offered
on the Web. Several have been recommended by the W3C.1
As a W3C member, SAP is actively involved in the definition of several
of these standards, and it is a sure bet that some of these standards
will eventually dominate the Web. However, many companies have created
their services without using any interface or definition standards, simply
to have the service available sooner rather than later - something particularly
true of services created within a company's intranet for internal use
In order to support the maximum number
of existing services, WebFlow implementation does not depend on one standard
or another. In this sense, it acts as a simple glue that binds together
disparate Web services in a workflow definition. However, in contrast
to Wf-XML (a "snap-on" method of integrating workflow systems
with each other using a well-defined interface), when using WebFlow Web
services you will need to analyze each service to determine whether or
not it can be used with WebFlow. This depends on whether the service can
Clearly the ultimate goal is to support
major standards as they emerge,2 so the architecture
of WebFlow Web services is in an excellent position support W3C interfaces
as they are finalized.
of Services Supported
By its very nature, workflow supports two types of processes - user interactions
and automatic functions - which in turn can be conveniently mapped to
two types of services. First, dialog services support user interactions,
such as performing research in a search engine or selecting a hotel for
a conference. The user will receive a work item in his or her inbox and
execute it. At this point, the Web browser is launched with the correct
URL, together with the correct parameters. The user can finish the task
from within the Web browser.
The second type of service consists of
automatic procedures, called background services. In this case,
the WebFlow system calls the URL in the background without any user interaction
at all. In both cases parameters are passed from the workflow to the service,
and results can be returned to the workflow.
With a background service, these results
can often be returned right away. In the case of dialog services, results
will not be returned immediately because the user interaction will probably
take several minutes. Rather than block the system while a user navigates
in the Web browser, the WebFlow system surrenders control to the browser
and returns to other duties until the service calls back with a result
or confirmation. At this point WebFlow kicks back into action and continues
with the next step. This is called an asynchronous interaction.
The complete palette of services supported
is shown in Table 1. You will see that it does not cover all permutations,
but it does cover those that are used in practice.
The distinction between these different
types of services and interactions has important practical consequences.
For example, with dialog services, the user has the freedom to surf off
to other Web sites for additional information before completing a Web
service. The user could also cancel an action and execute the work item
at a later time.
Asynchronous background services come in
handy in cases where there is a time lag - when there might be a matter
of days between sending an order (work item started) and receiving the
goods-delivered acknowledgement (work item completed).
|Type of User Interface?
|Results Returned to Workflow?
|| Perform a Google search
|| Make a hotel reservation.
|| Send a preformatted pager message.
|| Send a preformatted pager message and return an acknowledgement
after the message has been recieved on the mobile device.
||Examples of Types of Web Services
There are two possible landscapes for WebFlow Web services. You may either
use the SAP Web Application Server as the service handler or, alternatively,
use a simple standalone Java engine with XML configuration files (for
those customers who do not yet have access to a 6.10 Web Application Server).3
In Figure 2, notice that WebFlow's
directory of Web services does not reside in the component system. It
is stored centrally, so that it can be called by any of the SAP component
systems without duplicating the maintenance.
In other words, if you set up one service,
it can be used by all other SAP systems in your system landscape, provided
they have the WebFlow Service plug-in installed and use a Basis platform
that is not older than Release 4.0. The plug-in is simply an independent
suite of ABAP code and database table definitions, so it is release independent.
The next step is to configure a Web service
and generate a workflow task that integrates that Web service. For this
article, our examples will only consider the SAP Web Application Server
engine, not the Java engine, although the principles are more or less
||Directory of WebFlow Web Services in the SAP Web Application
Configuring the Web Service
Configuring a Web service in WebFlow's central service directory is a
piece of cake using transaction wf_extsrv, shown in Figure 3.
||Definition of a Web Service
In this example, we are defining a messaging
Web service like the one detailed in the sidebar "Messaging from
Your Workflow Using Web Services."
Before completing the creation of the Web
service, you will need to determine three things:
- Decide whether you will be using the HTTP or HTTPS (secure) protocol.
Enter this into the Log field in Figure 4.
- Specify how the service will be called - in other words, whether
it is a dialog or background service. Enter this information into the
Mode field. You also need to determine whether the service returns
results for processing in the workflow. A dialog task that does not
return a result will be called in the Web browser, with a button in
a separate frame that users will press when they want to complete the
- Specify the parameters used by the service. When adding information
in the "Parameters" screen, be careful - parameter names are
often case sensitive. These parameters are not usually assigned a type
(string, etc.), so you will also need to make sure that the workflow
data is converted into the type that the service will expect.
Each URL, like the one in our messaging
example, is divided into the domain and directory (in red) and the parameters
that are filled by WebFlow when the workflow executes (in purple):
This information is then stored in the
WebFlow Web service directory (see the sidebar, "Messaging from Your
Workflow Using Web Services").
||Configuring the Parameters of a Web Service
Messaging from Your Workflow Using Web Services
A synchronous Web service can be used to send external messages* from
a workflow via an external Web service, rather than by setting up
a paging system within the local system landscape. In this example,
we used a Web service offered by wireless data solution provider Unimobile,
and were pleased to find that one telephone call and thirty minutes
in the system was enough to get the scenario running. The URL generated
by WebFlow looked something like this:
The variable names telno, msg,
and customerid are specified in the Web service directory
and filled with values as the workflow proceeds. When the URL is
called, Unimobile sends the SMS message to the mobile phone and
the workflow continues. (Many Web services offer authentication
to provide access control, but here this will not be necessary,
since it is within the intranet.)
The service is synchronous because
the Unimobile service returns control to WebFlow immediately after
putting the pager message in its queue.
The handling of asynchronous Web
services is slightly different, because the Web service must be
capable of passing back the results to the workflow long after the
workflow engine has given up control. For example, if we wanted
to add a feature and design the service to terminate with an acknowledgement
once the message is received (which can be a matter of hours, if
the mobile phone isn't switched on until long after the message
is transmitted), we would set up an asynchronous service instead.
For an example that demonstrates some of the differences between
asynchronous and synchronous Web services, see the sidebar "Accessing
a Who's Who Service from Your Workflow."
* For this demonstration, SAP used SMS (Short Message Service),
a service that sends messages of up to 160 characters to mobile
phones that use Global System for Mobile (GSM) communication. SMS
messages do not require the mobile phone to be active and within
range, and can be held for a number of days. Although GSM and SMS
communication is primarily available in Europe, Unimobile, along
with other companies, support the equivalent North American (and
international) paging services, as demonstrated at the hands-on
session at SAP TechEd 2001 in Los Angeles last November.
TIP: One quirk of this scenario is that blank spaces cannot
be used in a URL, so WebFlow Service Packs convert them to escape
characters before calling the URL.
Using the New Service in a Workflow Process
There is no need to manually create the workflow task for a Web service.
Instead, it is generated directly from the Web service definition, using
the Business Service Page (BSP) wf_srv_task_generate/createtask.html,
which is part of the SAP Web Application Server or Java add-on. Once you
pick the Web service and the component system on which the workflow will
run, press the Generate task button. The task can be used just
like any other task.
You will notice that createtask.html
generates input and export container elements that match the parameters
belonging to the Web service. Bind the task into the workflow as usual
by selecting the container elements that are to be passed to the Web service
and those that will be returned.
Accessing a Who's Who Service from Your Workflow
Suppose your organization has a "who's who" service. From
this service, users can choose from an employee directory to help
determine, for example, the best customer service representative to
contact a customer. If you want to add this feature as part of a workflow
process, you would create an asynchronous Web service.
An asynchronous Web service differs
slightly from synchronous Web services because it must be capable
of passing the results back to the workflow long after the workflow
engine has given up control. It does this via a callback URL, which
is passed to the Web Service as the parameter SAPWFCBURL at
the time it is called. This is generated every time the work item
is executed to ensure that it is unique.
The who's who service requires the
input parameters area, skills, and callback url, together
with the export parameter Userid. The outgoing call made
by the workflow system to the workflow service might look like this:
The variables in the URL have been filled
automatically by the workflow, and the complete URL is then generated
and dispatched by WebFlow automatically. When the user executes the
work item, he will see the company who's who service with a list of
suitable colleagues. He can even navigate through the web site, to
consult calendars or skills profiles before making his choice.
Then, once he presses the Select
button, the Web service will call the callback URL passed to it by
WebFlow, together with the user ID of the customer service representative
he selected, for example:
After the callback, the workflow will
automatically transfer the user ID to the workflow container and continue
to the next step as usual.
The beauty of this feature is that so many Web services already exist,
especially within company intranet Web sites. These have been developed
outside the SAP environment, for example, using Active Server Pages (ASP)
or Java. Now these services can be used in WebFlow - and without upgrading
the whole SAP component that contains the workflow definition.
For more information on WebFlow Web services
and how to integrate them into your workflow, or to view a recorded demonstration
of how this works in practice, visit the WebFlow Service Portal at http://service.sap.com/webflow.
(www.w3c.org) is the international industry
consortium and resource for protocols, information, and applications for
the World Wide Web.
For example, in one feasibility test we integrated a Web service using
SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol), one of the hottest Internet standards
to emerge in recent years (authored by Microsoft, SAP, IBM, and others).
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 email@example.com.