Lombardi Teamworks conquers BPM with superb tools, flexible execution

The most well-rounded business process management system (BPMS) we’ve tested to date, Lombardi Software’s Teamworks combines an execution and events monitoring engine with a close-knit IDE and tools for modeling and simulation analysis.

With the inclusion of human-centric, collaborative workflow and services-based integration hooks, Teamworks can deliver near-seamless mapping, testing, and deployment to execute most any enterprise workflow.

Where Teamworks truly stands out from other players is its well-integrated performance server, which draws on a unified tracking data store for both real-time process optimization and historical playback in design phase analysis, where testing for optimal flow and efficiency can be challenging.

Teamworks gains additional yardage with a superb simulation facility. Embedded directly within the IDE, the process simulator allows analysts to test multiple “what if” scenarios, displaying heat maps that highlight pain points in process flows and even offering suggestions for optimization.

On the downside, although Teamworks uses standard BPMN (Business Process Modeling Notation) for designs, its runtime engine is proprietary. This could limit execution portability compared to engines such as BEA/Fuego or Fiorano that handle BPEL natively.

I also found the business rule development tools, although well put together, not quite as easy to use as those of Appian (see my review of Appian Enterprise 5.1), and not as capable as those of Pegasystems. Nevertheless, the drop-down configuration interface is sufficient for directing most common scenarios, and hooks to outside rule engines including Fair Isaac’s Blaze Advisor and ILOG JRules are included.

A number of new features highlight this Teamworks release, including a Web services interface that augments the Java API, ad hoc process intervention for in-flight flexibility, and improvements to Lombardi’s SaaS (software as a service) add-on, Blueprint, that bolster collaborative process discovery and lifecycle management.

With its clean portal interface, good reporting facilities and performance dashboards, and superb development environment, Teamworks offers a solid BPM solution that doesn’t demand the development expertise required by most high-end solutions. Lombardi Software has scored a touchdown with this latest release.

Tooling for BPM

Lombardi has done a terrific job building its Eclipse-based IDE. Perspectives for process and service modeling, as well as validation, debugging, and optimization, will help developers quickly find their footing.

Modeling tools consist of the usual palette of drag-and-drop, BPMN-compliant constructs and familiar swimlane layouts. Drill-down into services is good, and the Teamworks Library of saved services and connections encourages the encapsulation and reuse of best practices.

The Activity Wizard made creating rules, and defining human- and system-side interactions, much easier tasks. Solid introspection across Java and Web services — including a new UDDI tool — helped hasten discovery and development. Transports are well represented with SOAP and HTTP/REST-style invocations, as well as JMS and others. Support for BPMN intermediate events helps you flag exceptions and initiate compensation rollback procedures in the absence of more ACID-grade transaction management.

SLA definitions — used at runtime to trigger corrective processes, e-mail alerts, or updates to a manager’s scoreboard — were easy to implement. Other capabilities, such as organizational routing (based on employee competencies) and built-in audit trails, round out an unusually rich feature set by today’s standards.

I did find minor nits in the process modeler. For example, you must manually reroute flows whenever you insert new steps into an existing process. But other time-savers — such as built-in dependency tracking, which is essential for change management and often overlooked by vendors — more than make up for the blemishes.

The built-in forms editor offers easy creation and testing of AJAX-based forms. These “coaches,” as Lombardi calls them, help keep collaborative processes on track with an integrated help facility that guides users. While Lombardi could enhance certain aspects of forms development — by providing AJAX widgets and tools for CSS, JavaScript, and XSL manipulation, for example — the editor provides a good start to creating dynamic, forms-based interfaces.

Lombardi’s simulation tools rank among the best that I’ve ever used. They’re also the easiest to implement, requiring neither a separate deployment process nor involved instrumentation, as is the more prevalent practice in the market today. I was able to launch into process validation, step-by-step debugging, and time-lapse simulation immediately, via the Process Inspector within the IDE.

I found it easy to tap historic playback via the Performance Server repository and to test process updates with quick-click changes; you can even switch perspectives on your data (say, average value vs. number of instances) without missing a beat.

Teamworks tracks historical trends, workload metrics, and overall efficiency — even across multiple processes. The Process Inspector and Optimizer views zero in on hot spots and make recommendations for removing bottlenecks and improving process performance.

Because Teamworks manages the entire back end — schema definition, SQL, data transfer, etc. — using Performance Server is as easy as selecting which data to track while building your process definitions. We’ve come a long way from last decade’s OLAP hypercube manipulation.

Collaborative process discovery

To help business users jointly map out new processes, Lombardi offers a Web-hosted modeling tool called Blueprint. Since I explored the beta last February, Lombardi has made some marked improvements.

Backed by a chat facility that supports close collaboration, Blueprint’s browser-based interface helps nontechnical workers build text-based, hierarchical outlines of process information. From this outline, Blueprint creates a graphical BPMN map that can be synced back to Teamworks and integrated into the process engine.

Blueprint could use a few enhancements. It doesn’t yet directly import BPMN graphical notation, or BPDM meta-models, and I would like to see more insight (early variable association, duration expectations, etc.) captured here. Access to live data, such as org charts, would be helpful.

Also, traversing large models in a browser can be cumbersome without a zoom thumbnail. But Blueprint’s ability to capture goals and key information (process ownership, I/O points, support docs) at the start of the planning process is invaluable.

Blueprint does provide export to PDF and PowerPoint. Nice improvements since my look at beta include an undo command, revision histories with quick rollback to previous versions, and process goal analysis.

Although the price for Blueprint is a bit steep on a per-user basis, Lombardi deserves kudos for this effort. No one else is offering such an easy way for business users to embark on the important, exploratory first steps into BPM.

The human touch

Teamworks offers multiple entry points for human-centric processing, including a Web-based portal and a plug-in for Outlook 2003. The portal interface offers fast and easy deployment, giving users quick, browser views into awaiting tasks and drill-down into process performance with Flash-based dashboards. I liked being able to view individual performance and workloads, along with comparisons to overall team metrics.

Authorized users can be granted autonomous access to make changes — like shifting due dates and priorities on in-flight processes — as well as initiate ad hoc processes when required. The result is extreme flexibility in adapting processes to new and sudden requirements, without the technology locking you into a regimented workflow redesign.

Although Teamworks portal users cannot create new reports on-the-fly, reporting options are good, with a number of canned standards to start you off. A report wizard helps authorized users write new reports as required.

Teamworks offers an add-on that is sure to satisfy Microsoft Office users. Teamworks for Office 2003 — Office 2007 is not yet supported — provides support for InfoPath forms and allows users to manage tasks, as well as view scoreboard charts from inside Outlook.

Although all InfoPath development is accomplished outside the Teamworks IDE and imported for linkage, benefits such as offline synchronization and the familiar Office interface are sure to be a boon to user adoption and efficiency.

Monitoring and management

Lombardi’s administration tools for process engines and the performance server are slightly light on ability and heads-up insight, but they cover the necessities.

I had access to calendar definitions, user-access security, and metrics on process queues — but not a direct means of implementing performance tweaks. The Performance Server console reveals details on load queues and runtime stats, as well as cache performance, transfer rates, and historic resource metrics; these are displayed in text, suitable for auditing, but not in runtime, graphical dashboards.

Finally, Lombardi would do well to add industry-specific process templates to guide best practices, as vendors such as TIBCO do. Lombardi does offer professional services, at additional cost, wherein you gain access to rapid onboarding tools, process patterns, and other benefits.

However, not much of significance is missing or amiss in this exceptional, soup-to-nuts BPM solution. Teamworks is rich in features and strong on tools, with additional perks such as a SharePoint add-on to build Web parts portlets, good subprocess exposure via Web services, a connector for Progress Sonic ESB (with hooks to Teamworks from Progress Actional in the works), and SAML support (one of the few BPM solutions to make the claim).

All said, I am a huge fan of the innovation I’m seeing from Lombardi. I highly recommend Lombardi Teamworks 6 Enterprise to any organization looking for flexible, scalable, soup-to-nuts BPM.

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