Have you noticed the slow build-up of business process engines available “as a service”? Force.com recently introduced a “Visual Process Manager”. Amazon is looking for product managers to help customers “securely compos[e] processes using capabilities from all parts of their organization as well as those outside their organization, including existing legacy applications, long-running activities, human interactions, cloud services, or even complex processes provided by business partners”. I’ve read somewhere (can’t find a link right now) that WSO2 was planning to make its Business Process Server available as a Cloud service. I haven’t tracked Azure very closely, but I expect AppFabric to soon support a BizTalk-like process engine. And I wouldn’t be surprised if VMWare decided to make an acquisition in the area of business process execution.
Attacking PaaS from the business process angle is counter-intuitive. Rather, isn’t the obvious low-hanging fruit for PaaS a simple synchronous HTTP request handler (e.g. a servlet or its Python, Ruby, etc equivalent)? Which is what Google App Engine (GAE) and Heroku mainly provide. GAE almost defined PaaS as a category in the same way that Amazon EC2 defined IaaS. The expectation that a CGI or servlet-like container naturally precedes a business process engine is also reinforced by the history of middleware stacks. Simple HTTP request-response is the first thing that gets defined (the first version of the servlet package was java.servlet.* since it even predates javax), the first thing that gets standardized (JSR 53: servlet 2.3 and JSP 1.2) and the first thing that gets widely commoditized (e.g. Apache Tomcat). Rather than a core part of the middleware stack, business process engines (BPEL and the like) are typically thought of as a more “advanced” or “enterprise” capability, one that come later, as part of the extended middleware stack.
But nothing says it has to be that way. If you think about it a bit longer, there are some reasons why business process execution might actually be a more logical beach head for PaaS than simple HTTP request handlers.
1) Small contract
Architecturally, the contract between a business process engine and the deployed entities (process definitions) is much smaller than the contract of a GAE-style HTTP handler. Those GAE contracts include an entire programming language and lots of libraries. A BPEL container, on the other hand, has a simple contract. It’s documented in one specification (plus a few dependencies) and offers basic activities like routing logic, message correlation, simple data manipulation, compensation handlers and service invocation. You may not think of BPEL as “simple” but would you rather implement a BPEL engine or a complete Python interpreter along with most of the core libraries? I thought so. That’s what I mean by a simpler (narrower) contract. And BPEL is just one example, I suspect some PaaS platforms will take a more bare-bone approach (e.g. no “scopes”).
Just like “good fences make good neighbors”, small contracts make good Cloud services. When your container only interprets a business process definition (typically an XML document), you don’t need to worry about intercepting/preventing all the nasty low-level APIs (e.g. unfettered network access, filesystem reads, OS calls…) that are not acceptable in a PaaS situation. But that is what Google had to do in the process of pairing down a general-purpose programming language to fit into the constraints of a PaaS container. There is no intrinsic reason why a synchronous HTTP request handler has to have access to image-manipulation libraries and a business process handler doesn’t. But the use cases tend to push you in that direction and the expectations have been set. As a result, a business process engine is architecturally a better candidate for being delivered as a Cloud service.
2) Major differentiator over IaaS-based solutions
Practically speaking, it is pretty easy today to get a (synchronous) Web app framework up and running “in the Cloud”. Provisioning a Django, PHP, RoR or Tomcat (plus the Java framework of your choice) stack on EC2 is a well-traveled path. Even auto-scaling these things is pretty well understood. I am the first one to scream that “here is an AMI of our server stack” is *not* the same as PaaS, but truth be told many people are happy enough with it. As a result, the benefit of going from a “web app on IaaS” situation to GAE-like situation is not perceived as very compelling. I suspect the realization may hit later, but for now people are happy to trade the simplified administration and extra scalability of PaaS for the ability to keep their current framework (MySQL and all) unchanged.
There is no fundamental reason why you can’t run a business process engine on top of an IaaS-provisioned infrastructure. It’s just that you are mostly on your own at this point. Even if you find an existing public AMI that meets your needs, I doubt you’ll find a well-tested way to manage, backup and auto-scale this system (marrying IaaS-level invocations with container-level and DB-level tasks). Or if you do it will probably cost you. In that “new frontier” context, a true PaaS alternative to the “build it on top of IaaS” approach is a lot more compelling than if all you need is yet another RoR-on-EC2 system.
When deciding whether to walk back to your hotel after dinner or take a cab, you don’t just consider the distance. How familiar you are with the neighborhood and how safe it appears are also important parameters.
3) There is an existing market
This may not be obvious to people who come to PaaS from a Web application framework perspective, but there is a large market for business process engines in enterprise integration scenarios. Whether it’s Oracle Fusion Middleware, Microsoft BizTalk, webMethods (now Software AG) or others, this is a very common and useful tool in the enterprise computing toolbox. If this is the market you are after (rather than creating Facebook apps or the next Twitter), then you have to address this need. Not to mention that business processes engines are often used for partner integration scenarios (which makes hosting in a public Cloud a natural choice).
In the end, both synchronous and asynchronous execution engines are useful, as are other core services like storage (here is my proposed list of PaaS container types). I just wanted to bring some attention to business process execution because I think PaaS is the context in which its profile will rise to higher prominence. I also anticipate that this rise will lead to some very interesting progress and innovation in the way these processes are defined, deployed and managed. We haven’t yet seen, in this area, the relentless evolutionary pressure that has shaped today’s synchronous Web application frameworks. Fun times ahead.
[UPDATED 2010/2/18: More information about Salesforce.com’s Visual Process Manager.]