What it will take to deliver BPM as SaaS?
An increasing number of BPM vendors are starting to talk about offering BPM software-as-a-service (BPM SaaS). These include Appian, Lombardi, Savvion and Ultimus. Given the buzz around SaaS, this is understandable as these vendors are trying to position themselves for a growing opportunity despite the fact that the SaaS model has serious challenges from a business perspective. So the question for users of BPM is what does it really means to have BPM SaaS?
Let us first make clear what BPM SaaS is not. First, the ability to run a hosted version of one aspect of BPM is not BPM SaaS. BPM is a combination of applications used by different stakeholders. Offering only one of these in a hosted, subscription-based model is not SaaS. For example, offering process modeling tools in a subscription-based hosted model is “process modeling software-as-a-service”; it is not “BPM software-as-a-service.” However this would be a very good first step towards BPM SaaS which can offer customers as well as vendors not only the benefits of SaaS but also the experience necessary to move towards full-fledged BPM SaaS. Second, creating customer-specific automated processes and then enabling the end-users of the customer to participate in the process using a browser/Internet is also not BPM SaaS. There is nothing new about this and customers and vendors have been doing this ever since the early days of the Internet.
In my judgment BPM SaaS has to have the following characteristics as a minimum. First, it must have the ability to model and modify executable processes in a hosted application. The ability to design executable processes, in contrast to simple flow diagram, is pretty challenging. Many vendors will start by offering pre-designed process templates and then allowing users to modify them in a hosted model. This is a good way to start and over time an increasing number of parameters (rules, flows, user interfaces and integrations) can be exposed to modification by users. Second, BPM SaaS must have the ability to allow customers to integrate with their inside-the-firewall data and other applications. This is crucial because BPM deals with company’s data and interacts with other applications. Without effective integration only the very simplistic BPM processes are candidates for SaaS, and CxOs are reluctant to invest money or mindshare on simplistic processes. Integration is the Achille’s heel of BPM SaaS and solutions for this will evolve only gradually. Perhaps the best approach for BPM vendors is the emerging class of “application appliances” that leverage virtualization technology to deliver inside-the-firewall solutions on a SaaS basis. This has the potential of solving the integration problem. I will discuss it in another blog as this is a topic on its own. Third, and easiest, is the ability for end-users to participate in business processes using a browser. This is easily accomplished by most vendors and the growing using of AJAX and Rich Internet Application (RIA) technologies will make it even easier and richer for end-users. Fourth, BPM SaaS must provide a means for customers to monitor and administer their processes over the Internet. Again, with the emergence of AJAX and RIAs, this is not a challenging obstacle. And fifth, BPM SaaS must provide some web-based reporting, BI and BAM capabilities.
With these five capabilities, BPM SaaS can empower customers to design, integrate, deploy, use, administer, monitor and measure their business processes. It provides the full value-proposition of BPM in a SaaS model. Vendors will move towards this in small steps and the more agile ones, who adopt SaaS and new technologies such as RIAs and application appliances, will have the competitive and time-to-market advantage. The key challenges are modeling/design of executable processes and integration. I will use other blog posts to elaborate on likely approaches to tackle these challenges.