Beeping in Minnesota
by Deborah Volk on April 10th, 2009

I used to live near train tracks. By train I mean the old-school garden variety industrial animal that huffed, puffed and choo-chooed loud enough to rattle the double-paned glass windows in my house. On days when the train density approached positive infinity (must have been a shortage of cucumbers somewhere) and the noise levels exceeded the wildest dreams of experimental music fans, I dreamt I was in one of those Japanese shinkansen trains that silently fly at 360 miles per hour. My dreams were rudely interrupted by incessant beeping (beep jeep, say 30 times fast) and that was as much as I remember.

Fast forward to now. I was reading Bruce Silver's BPMS Watch blog and saw his note that 2.0 release of Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) standard is close to being out. That's one loud beep about to be heard round the world! WaittaBangaloreminute, you might say, what does Business Process Management (BPM), Business Process Management Systems (BPMSes) and BPMN have to do with identity and access? They're aliens from a different universe, shoot them with a laser and turn them into stones.

Aliens they are not but an invasion is coming and we all need to be prepared. I am going to let you all in on a BIG secret that United States, nay, international military-industrial complex has attempted to hide from you: identity management is nothing but a flavor of business process management. BOOM! Yes, we have our own special tools and jargon (reconciliation of provisioned entity failed due to a misguided attestation attempt) but that just makes us different and misunderstood (like all teenagers), it doesn't mean we're not related. Managing identities doesn't make sense outside of a business process and even though our workflows may not span applications and be orchestrated with a fancy engine that claims to do XML-driven pirouettes, they're still workflows that are very much a reflection of real business processes. If you believe that we're part of the extended BPM family, then you also know a certain truth: don't ever take sides with anyone against the family or you might end up on a mainframe project in Florida (or Minnesota).
What does the family use to communicate amongst its many and far-flung members? The answer is BPMN. As a modeling notation, BPMN is lingua franca of BPM practitioners who employ it when communicating the details of a new or changed process. Just like UML, BPMN is a formal notation, it means business when you draw something so there's no ambiguity about what happens to, say, a process task when it doesn't get the answer from a remote system in 60 seconds. Naturally, any type of formal notation carries complexity and a learning curve, you must spend enough time with it in order to be fluent. There are tools that make this much easier for you (see Bruce's blog for reviews and recommendations) and Visio has a plug-in.

Why bother with BPMN, why not use Visio and "simple" diagrams? You have to remember the family, they are coming. Identigral Analyst Group predicts with 1.89 probability that the next generation of IDM tools will rely on BPM standards. The other reason has to do with a more involved discussion that I will attempt to shortcut. BPMN as a modeling notation has a kissing cousin in the runtime space, that being Business Process Execution Language (BPEL). You draw a process in BPMN but you cannot stuff it into a tool and have it be executed, it first has to be translated to BPEL or a proprietary execution language/substrate. This causes all kinds of issues. As befits kissing cousins, the relationship between BPMN and BPEL is challenging to describe but suffice it to say that the gap is closing. With BPMN 2.0, the gap may be artificially reduced to none by a tool vendor.

Imagine this: instead of configuring a workflow in your favorite identity management tool via XML or by clicking or by writing Java code, you draw the process in BPMN, right down to attributes and communication protocols...and you're done, the tool would do the rest for you. You would import your BPMN diagram into your revolutionary IDM tool that would translate it to executable tasks, pull in the necessary connectors to other apps, wire the tasks to the connectors and so on. The job of IDM developer would be reduced to its proper denominator , namely the subject-matter (business process) expert.

As of today the above vision is largely science fiction but all major vendors are thinking about the convergence of BPM and IDM spaces. Until then, it's BeeP(in)MN.

Posted in Identity Management    Tagged with bpmn, bpel, bpm


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