Comment lines: Working with the business mashup application service

Continuing the WebSphere cloud experiment

Learn about the latest IBM® WebSphere® cloud experiments on business mashups, which enable power users to compose applications by mashing up existing services from the Web without coding. This article provides an introduction to this new cloud service and invites you to evaluate the early alpha that is currently available under IBM LotusLive™ Labs and provide feedback. This content is part of the IBM WebSphere Developer Technical Journal.

Christina Lau (clau@ca.ibm.com), Distinguished Engineer, IBM

Christina LauChristina Lau is a Distinguished Engineer and leads the BPM Architecture and Advanced Technology Team in WebSphere, focusing on emerging technologies. You can visit her blog on the BPM Experience .


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14 April 2010

Also available in Chinese

Automating day-to-day activities

As discussed in my last Comment lines article, we are continuing to incubate new cloud applications to support new delivery and deployment models . Our goal is to help you capture new business opportunities with agility, and accelerate time to value by reducing up-front infrastructure cost. This article looks at a new business mashup cloud service that can help you automate common day-to-day business activities.

Organizations need easier, faster and cheaper methods to develop many of the short-lived, relatively simple applications needed to serve short-term business needs. A business mashup enables such new applications to be created by "mashing up" or combining existing services and assets from the Web. A business mashup can coordinate processes and brings data from different systems together. Using this new cloud service, companies can enable their power users to create business mashups by simply using a Web browser and collaborating with other experts to create and deploy processes or forms directly in the cloud. An application can be up and running in weeks instead of months.

LotusLive Labs and Composer

This business mashup cloud service is currently available as a technology preview in LotusLive™ Labs under the name Composer. LotusLive Labs provides an opportunity for you to evaluate new technologies and provide feedback. To gain access to Composer, simply login to your LotusLive account and request access. (If you don’t have access to LotusLive, you can sign up for a free trial of LotusLive Engage.)

Once you have access, you can start using Composer, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. LotusLive Labs Composer
Figure 1. LotusLive Labs Composer

Authoring processes and forms

Similar to BPM BlueWorks, a BPMN Editor widget (Figure 2) is included for you to visually construct your business process. However, this process editor has an extended business palette where popular services (such as feeds, e-mails, forms, calendar, chats, databases, and so on) are pre-built and can be integrated into your processes as tasks. New processes and applications can be mashed together from these assets. Once a process flow is completed and validated, you can click on the deploy button and the process can be immediately run.

Behind the scenes, a lightweight workflow engine is used to script together the REST-based services with built-in security support that can seamlessly redirect to service providers for authentication and back.

Figure 2. BPMN Process Editor widget with extended business palette
Figure 2. BPMN Process Editor widget with extended business palette

Business processes rely heavily on forms. Many processes such as purchase orders, expense reimbursement, and employee vacations all start with forms for data entry, and often require users to interact with the running process to modify the data. The Form Editor widget (Figure 3) enables you to create forms that can seamlessly integrate with the processes so that rich, dynamic form interactions can be added to the workflow. By tightly integrating forms with processes, you can provide an end-to-end solution for Web-based interactions with automated processes in a secure, multi-tenant environment.

Figure 3. Form Editor widget
Figure 3. Form Editor widget

IBM Mashup Center and service providers

The more services that are available, the faster the community can gain value by leveraging existing assets to create new innovations. Catalogs become critical in discovering and locating these assets.

The IBM Mashup Center provides a catalog that stores feeds, data mashups, REST services, mashup pages, and widgets. The Composer Process Editor is integrated with the IBM Mashup Center. Service providers can use the Mashup Center to register their REST assets and services. After that, these services will be automatically discovered by the Composer Process Editor, and the Composer user can then select these assets to compose new applications.

Figure 4 shows an example of such integration for REST services using the HTTP Methods activity. When you drag and drop the HTTP Methods activity from the palette, its property sheet will display the list of REST services and feeds that are registered in the IBM Mashup Center. You can select a REST service and use it as a task in your workflow. If the REST service requires parameters, you can specify the values in the Input Parameters tab. The parameter values can also be derived from values in previous tasks in the workflow.

Figure 4. HTTP Methods extension activity integrated with IBM Mashup Center
Figure 4. HTTP Methods extension activity integrated with IBM Mashup Center

Administering business mashups

After a business mashup is deployed, you can use the Create Business Mashup widget in Composer to make a new request, or to complete the tasks that are assigned to you. You can also share a business mashup instance with others via e-mail or other social networking mechanisms.

Similar to other Web 2.0 businesses where users are enabled to play a part -- for example, by rating services (for example, eBay’s reputation-based selling), or product designs submitted by community members (for example, Threadless, which produces designs submitted by the community) -- the business mashup cloud service will enable a new way to think about business processes. You can start from a repository of basic every day business processes (for example, expense report or sales promotion), locate the ones that meet your needs, and then customize them for their own use. Through rating and other users’ participation, processes can evolve and improve, and provide better value to a company.


Scenarios and applications

Let’s look at some example applications that would be good candidates for building out with the business mashups cloud service:

  • There are many form-based approval applications that are simple and require human interactions. For example, expense approvals or special travel requests. These are situational applications that might need to be put in place quickly to meet a short term need. A cloud-based solution empowers domain experts to create these situational applications quickly using a browser -- without replying on the company’s IT department, and with very little cost.
  • Many companies may want to create simple applications to integrate with other SasS applications such as Salesforce or Zoho. For example, a simple application that can help close a sales opportunity might require interactions between the sales team using Salesforce to capture sales opportunities, and the managers at the office to review the opportunities. The relevant data captured in Salesforce needs to be seamlessly extracted and forwarded to managers for their approval and with support for traceability.
  • Many workflows have both rigid steps (structured) and ad-hoc steps (unstructured). For example, a request for proposal process might have some structured steps, such as receiving a request and archiving a proposal. However, the steps involved in creating the proposal can be quite ad hoc, involving subject matter experts that are unknown ahead of time. Extra steps might also need to be taken based on the nature of the request. A business mashup that integrates LotusLive Engage collaboration services, such as activities for ad-hoc steps, with traditional enterprise services for document archival will be useful for these scenarios.
  • Simple task tracking is another example. Many day-to-day activities involve initiating a well known task and getting notified when the task is completed. For example, you might want to cater lunch for a special event. You fill in a form to submit the request to a food service provider, with special instructions that are sent as attachments. You expect the service provider to respond by e-mail to indicate if the request can be satisfied.
  • To enable more flexible collaboration, you might want to collaborate with your partners natively using the Web and not rely on existing internal protocols or infrastructure. Business mashups can help you and your partners integrate with Web 2.0 services (for example, Google Apps) in support of such business needs. Suppose two companies want to schedule their shipping and receiving events using the Google Calendar. Using Composer, they can create a process to retrieve and update entries in the Google Calendar via REST services.

See demonstrations of some of these scenarios in the Learning widget in LotusLive Labs Composer.


Conclusion

Similar to BPM BlueWorks, the LotusLive Labs Composer represents a continuous effort to evolve our thinking of the cloud and to bring additional application services to the cloud. Web 2.0 applications such as blogs, wikis, instant messaging, forums, document sharing, and social networks can enhance a BPM solution by enabling people to work together much more efficiently. By leveraging the flexible delivery model offered by cloud computing, you can now easily mash these services together, and enable knowledge workers to use Web 2.0 style interactions when creating their situational applications.

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