JBoss takes on business process management

JBoss Inc. has added business process management (BPM) to its growing roster of open source software.

The company has hired Tom Baeyens, the founder and lead developer of jBpm, an open source workflow engine, it announced Monday. As with its other products, JBoss will sell services and support for jBpm (which becomes JBoss jBPM) but the software will continue to be available for no charge under an open source license.

BPM software is used to orchestrate a series of transactions involving separate applications into an automated flow of events. For example, a company could use it to automate the steps involved in approving and reimbursing an expense report. Oracle Corp., BEA Systems Inc., IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp. are all adding BPM capabilities to their products.

JBoss Inc., which is best known for its open-source Java application server, has been expanding into new areas, often by hiring the lead developers of popular open source middleware projects. In the past 18 months it has hired prominent developers from Hibernate, Tomcat, JavaGroups and Nukes, among others.

Its goal is to make businesses less wary of using open source software by providing consulting and support services and the backing of an established vendor. It typically integrates the products more tightly with its application server, although it has pledged that it won't compromise their ability to function with Java servers from other vendors.

"The benefit to customers is that we are making jBPM safe to use. We now provide support, training and indemnification, so it's not just a stand-alone project out there with nothing behind it," said Bob Bickel, JBoss vice president of strategy and development.

Baeyens began the jBpm project about two years ago and version 1.0 was released in December. On Monday, JBoss announced that JBoss jBPM version 2.0 is now also available. The upgrade is easier for developers to use and can support more complex workflow patterns, according to JBoss.

However, jBPM does not yet support BPEL (Business Process Execution Language), a popular emerging standard for BPM. The company plans to add native support for BPEL by the first quarter of 2005, Bickel said.

JBoss is also working on better developer tools for the workflow engine, which Bickel acknowledged are quite limited today. Over the next year it will release a graphical workflow designer that integrates with the Eclipse platform and a process manager for Web-based workflow applications. It will also integrate jBPM with Nukes, which is a portal framework.

Ron Schmelzer, an analyst at Zapthink LLC in Waltham, Massachusetts, said good tools are essential for a workflow engine.

"BPM is less about specs and more about providing good tools to help developers and business analysts define and deploy loosely-coupled business processes," he said. "So far, all the tooling in the space is really lacking good usability and true coarse-grained, loosely coupled operation."

Baeyens, who is based in Belgium, said in a statement that it became difficult to provide support for jBMP as more people started to use it. Becoming part of JBoss Inc. will help the software evolve and reach more users, he said.

It will do so under slightly different licensing terms, however. The first version of jBpm was released under the GPL (General Public License). Version 2.0 will be released under the less restrictive LGPL (Lesser GPL), which JBoss considers more business-friendly.

If a user connects GPL code to other code that is not freely available, the GPL requires that the code for the entire combined work be made public. With the LGPL, the user has only to release any changes that are made to the open source code. This makes LGPL a better option for users such as ISVs who want to embed open source code in other products, Bickel said.

ObjectWeb, a European software consortium whose members include Bull SA and France Telecom SA, also launched an open source BPEL server project recently, called MOBE (MidOffice BPEL Engine).

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