Business Process Management in Free and Open Source: An Overview of the Demand and the Supply

  • Written By: Yu Chen
  • Published: June 1 2010

A while ago, I wrote a product note about Aras Innovator, the only enterprise open source solution available on the product lifecycle management (PLM) market. After that, my interest in free and open source software (FOSS) did not fade but I changed my focus to another category of enterprise software—business process management (BPM). This time, I was able to find more than one BPM solution that’s offered without license fees and had an impression that in the BPM area, FOSS- as-a-software-licensing-model has established noticeable ground. 

A market is comprised of two major sides—one side has the demands and the other side has the capabilities to satisfy these demands. In order to verify the relevance between BPM and FOSS from the user side, I used Technology Evaluation Centers' (TEC) data on demand trends to explore the stats of end-user demand for FOSS BPM solutions as well as users'  requirements for deploying BPM solutions (be it FOSS or proprietary) in a FOSS environment. For the supply side, my findings are not as quantitative but still suggest that some vendors are addressing BPM users’ requirements in FOSS.

The Demand Side
Every year, thousands of users come to TEC’s BPM Evaluation Center looking for suitable BPM solutions. By answering a questionnaire regarding their business characteristics and requirements, users walk away with a working list of BPM solutions that are likely to fit their specific BPM initiatives. Although defining a working list is the first step of TEC’s entire software selection services, the aggregated answers captured in this process show a good picture of the overall requirements from the user side on different issues, in this case, FOSS. In order to have a long-term view of the demand, I looked into the aggregated data for specific years (2007, 2008, and 2009), and below are the results.

TEC data shows that almost a quarter of software seekers think the FOSS model is considerable when looking for a BPM solution—higher than all major application types that are more business process-specific (figure 1).

One of our questions allows users to identify their customization, software license, source code, and other miscellaneous requirements. Amongst the valid 2950 responses to this question, 23.0 percent said they wanted software licensed under an official free or open source license. Compared with the same percentages in some other enterprise software categories, this 23.0 percent is higher than all the others except for that for enterprise content management (ECM). I’m not sure whether the 23.0 percent of BPM initiatives would all end up with FOSS BPM solutions as wanted, but at least the percentage shows that the FOSS awareness in the BPM area is relatively strong.

Figure 1. Percentages of people indicating a desire for a FOSS solution in different enterprise software categories (2007-2009)

BPM Running in a FOSS Environment
Besides looking for FOSS solutions, BPM seekers also showed high interests in running BPM systems on top of a FOSS database and server platforms.

Figure 2. BPM seekers’ preference on database management system (DBMS) (2007-2009)

Figure 2 shows that FOSS databases—MySQL and PostgreSQL—are ranked third and fifth, respectively. We structured the DBMS question with multiple choice answers—an average BPM initiative selected 2.1 options—even though the percentage shown in figure 2 suggests that there is a considerable large group of users who are considering FOSS database while planning their BPM implementation.

Figure 3 BPM seekers’ preference on server platform (2007-2009)

Figure 3 shows that FOSS operating system (OS) Linux is ranked second. In this case, an average BPM initiative selected 1.9 options when asked to identify server platform preference.

The DBMS and OS preferences in Figure 2 and 3 are captured from all BPM initiatives regardless if BPM seekers were looking for FOSS or proprietary BPM solutions. By separating the BPM initiatives that preferred FOSS BPM solution from the rest, I was able to find that the two groups (named as the FOSS BPM group and the non-FOSS BPM group) showed significantly different preferences on FOSS DBMS and server platform (Figure 4).

Figure 4.Preferences on FOSS DBMS and server platform, FOSS BPM group vs. non-FOSS BPM group (2007-2009)

Clearly, Figure 4 shows the correlation between FOSS BPM and FOSS IT infrastructure preferences. However, it also shows that even if an organization doesn’t plan on having a FOSS BPM solution, it may want to run proprietary BPM solutions on top of FOSS software, though less likely than a FOSS BPM seeker.

The Supply Side
Where there is a demand, there is a supply. Again, this is true in the BPM area regarding the FOSS issue. Let’s take a look at how some BPM vendors’ support FOSS database and OS.
Amongst the 27 BPM vendors that are currently listed in the TEC BPM Vendor Showcase, 15 vendors support Linux. Amongst these 15 vendors, 10 of them support MySQL, and amongst these 10, seven of them also support PostgreSQL (figure 5).

Figure 5. Percentages of BPM vendors that support FOSS’s database and OS

Although these 27 vendors don’t make an exhaustive list, the percentages in Figure 5. give a sense of priority when supporting Linux, MySQL, and PostgreSQL from high to low, coinciding with the demands from the user side as we have previously seen.

Now the question is, as there is a considerably-sized group of users willing to adopt FOSS BPM solutions, how many options do they have? Although none of the 27 vendors currently available for evaluation in TEC's BPM Vendor Showcase deliver their solutions through the FOSS model, there are FOSS BPM solutions such as ProcessMaker, Intalio|Works, uEngine, Runa WFE, and BonitaSoft. If you want to find more options, is a convenient place that hosts over 80 FOSS BPM downloads under the Business Process Management category. However, one should be aware of that many of the downloads listed here are just subsets of today’s general convention of a BPM suite in terms of functionality.

Software selection is a process of measuring what you want and what the alternatives are able to provide. When a BPM seeker is interested in FOSS solutions, cost might be a major reason, but IT strategy, existing IT infrastructure, experiences of the IT force, etc., might also play a role in the decision-making process. Below are a few points you should consider when regarding a FOSS BPM solution as an alternative prior to a more detailed evaluation.

• Think of what functionality you want, for now and in the near future. Without a doubt, FOSS software gives you more financial convenience to roll out your BPM initiative. Typically, with a phased approach, you may start from business process modeling, and then expand to business process execution and monitoring, and later on find that process analytics and process mining should be added. With that being said, you need a solution that not only provides you with a convenient start but also helps you explore during your BPM journey.

• Know the boundaries of “free”. Some BPM vendors may deliver their solutions in both FOSS and proprietary models. In this case, you should be clear about the differences between the two offerings and make sure you will be able to stay with the free version relatively long or be able to move to the proprietary version if your requirements go beyond what the free version is capable of.

• Be prepared to spend some money. Although the license is free of charge, you will still need to invest in the implementation. In case you don’t have enough in-house BPM experts and IT force in planning, implementation, and training (which is quite likely for many organizations), you need a budget before you hit the road.

In conclusion, I’d like to emphasize that, you are not alone if you are tying FOSS with your BPM implementation plan. The demand is out there, and the supply is growing to meet the demand. For those who want to run proprietary BPM software in a FOSS database and OS environment, you will find support from many BPM vendors; for those who want to go one step further to FOSS BPM, different options are also available. The extent FOSS should play in your BPM implementation is a decision to be prudently made starting from the understanding of the demand-supply relationship on the market.





comments powered by Disqus