In my last article I hinted about investigating the use of an open source tool in support of my current employment. I won’t go into details about the use case itself but I will gladly describe the tool and its potential. First, a little background.
As noted in previous articles, a large part of my work the past several years has been in information management, specifically product and application configuration. I’ve so far had the pleasure of leading and supporting work on two major enterprise rollouts of workflow solutions, each employing different commercial offerings and approaches to implementation.
The first project addressed a huge gap in product data and change management for consumer products development. PTC Windchill was selected for the workflow solution based on its own strengths and helped by the fact that PTC product engineering applications were already in use.
The next project at a later employer involved replacing a claims handling application with a true process workflow solution. Serena Business Mashup (SBM) was selected over competing products due to its rich feature set and seemingly unlimited extensibility. I found the development environment (Mashup Composer) to be flexible, powerful and intuitive.
Both projects were very successful in streamlining and improving the ability of stakeholders to view end-to-end processes and manage events in their domains. The commercial products involved proved their value although expenses were certainly significant.
An Open Alternative
In my current employment I am once again faced with the need to improve management of an enterprise activity, except that the prevailing economic decline prevents the sort of corporate funding that had been required for the other two projects. This led me to search for low cost or even free solutions.
I found several tools that looked promising, but just about every search highlighted one in particular: the open source ProcessMaker. Glowing write-ups such as this one by Python Developer’s Journal gave the impression that this free tool just might be close enough to WindChill or SBM to significantly improve our change management process.
The Short Take
ProcessMaker is 100% web-based and managed at popular open source hoster SourceForge. The PM website states that its code “… is licensed under the GNU Affero General Public License version 3”. It is provided in Windows and Linux versions.
I downloaded and installed the latest Windows version (1.2-2865) to my work laptop running XP. The installation included MySQL and the Apache web server. The first installation attempt hung up on the Apache portion at the end, but the second try went smoothly. I’m not sure what happened (or didn’t happen) the first time.
I’ve barely explored what ProcessMaker can do and yet so far I am impressed. While its mashups have not yet reached the number that one can access for Serena’s offerings, the same potential is there and hopefully the open source community is already at work developing more to be shared. ProcessMaker supports Web Service Definition Language (WSDL), enabling a process developer to integrate numerous off-the-shelf applications that provide similar access.
The interface is clean and fairly easy to navigate. However, I could see immediately that I’ll have to read the documentation and/or follow tutorials before being able to develop a useful process model. Still, by sheer intuition alone I was able to create a new user, associate him with a group, install a sample weather report mashup and run the activity successfully. This speaks well for the UI design.
I did find some minor but obvious phrasing issues in some areas, possibly reflecting ProcessMaker’s international heritage (Colosa has offices in New York, Bolivia and Peru and partners with a Danish IT firm) but they were not showstoppers. Indeed, even in my untrained fumbling I did not run into anything that raised any real concerns.
ProcessMaker has recently brought data table creation and management to its set of features, bringing it closer to its commercial peers. I’m eager to test this particular addition and see how it stacks up against Mashup Composer’s robust equivalent.
WindChill was the first purely Internet-architectured data management and collaboration tool, so by now (version 9.1) it’s very mature. Too much time has passed since I worked with WindChill so I couldn’t do a post mortem justice. I do recall that it easily handled everything we threw at it and integrated well with our other enterprise systems… SAP, BPCS et al. It’s strictly a commercial offering.
Serena’s Business Mashup solution certainly has the power to wire together any silos across an enterprise landscape. Serena has taken a hybrid approach in this space, offering a closed commercial product supported by a growing collection of popular user-developed mashups.
ProcessMaker, however, is completely free and open so that the developer community can create and push upstream additions and improvements not only to mashups but also the core product. Colosa, the group behind ProcessMaker, charges only for training, hosting and other support.
There’s nothing wrong with PTC’s and Serena’s commercialization of course but lately I’m coming to believe more and more that ProcessMaker’s open mode is that of the future… assuming of course it reaches the critical mass necessary to attract enough mashup developers. My initial take is that it definitely has the potential.
I plan to continue exploring that potential and expect to do at least one more general follow-up once I’m more familiar with the product… hopefully soon!