«DAVID CHAPPELL MARCH 2010 SPONSORED BY BLUE PRISM CONTENTS Business Process Automation with Blue Prism The Role of Presentation Integration An ...»
INTRODUCING BLUE PRISM
AUTOMATING BUSINESS PROCESSES WITH
SPONSORED BY BLUE PRISM
Business Process Automation with Blue Prism
The Role of Presentation Integration
An Overview of Blue Prism
A Blue Prism Scenario
The Technology of Blue Prism
Creating Blue Prism Applications: Visual Business Objects
What is a Visual Business Object?
Choosing a Connector
Creating an Application Control Interface
Creating Blue Prism Applications: Processes
What is a Blue Prism Process?
Creating a Process
Deploying Blue Prism Applications
Managing Blue Prism Applications
Securing Blue Prism Applications
The Blue Prism Methodology
About the Author
BUSINESS PROCESS AUTOMATION WITH BLUE PRISMEvery organization wants to lower its costs and keep up with change. Using technology effectively is an important part of doing both. Yet business needs can sometimes outpace an IT group’s ability to satisfy those needs.
For example, automating a business process can make it faster, more reliable, and less expensive. But doing this typically requires integrating multiple applications, which can be time consuming and expensive. And once the integration is done, the process is often hard to modify. What’s needed is a way to automate a business process quickly while still letting that process adapt to change.
One way to do this is through presentation integration. Once derisively known as “screen scraping”, this technology has matured into an effective approach to interacting with applications. Because it’s simpler than more traditional integration technologies, using presentation integration to automate a business process can be faster and less expensive. And because presentation integration can be used today on a wider scale than was possible with screen scraping, it can support enterprise processes. This makes it useful in a variety of situations, including cases where automating a process in the traditional way would be too expensive.
Blue Prism provides process automation based on presentation integration. By providing tools for business analysts, the product can also help people who aren’t technology specialists create and modify automated processes. And by exposing application user interfaces through reusable services, it can help those applications fit into modern service-oriented environments. This paper describes Blue Prism, explaining how the technology works and how it attempts to reach these goals.
THE ROLE OF PRESENTATION INTEGRATION
Automating business processes requires connecting to the applications that support those processes. This can be done using either presentation integration or an alternative that’s often called business logic integration. Figure 1 shows how each approach looks for a process that relies on three applications.
Figure 1: Process automation can be done by connecting to application business logic or by interacting with application user interfaces.
As the left side of the figure shows, business logic integration uses adapters that connect directly to each application’s business logic. The automated process then interacts with these adapters to carry out the steps required. The right side of the figure shows the alternative, presentation integration. Here, adapters connect to the user interface of each application (how the application “presents” itself to users) rather than to its business logic. The automated process plays a role much like a human user, accessing each application as a person would.
Both approaches have value. Today, though, it’s fair to say that business logic integration is more popular.
Most mainstream integration products use this approach, as do typical business process management systems (BPMSs). In fact, the idea of service-oriented architecture (SOA) can be seen as a generalization of business logic integration.
Yet automating processes through presentation integration has a lot going for it. Among its attractions are
It can be fast and relatively easy to implement compared to business logic integration. No changes to the applications are required, and with the right tools, creating adapters for existing user interfaces can be straightforward.
It can cost less than automating processes through business logic integration. To some degree, this is a corollary of the relative simplicity of presentation integration. It also means that presentation integration can be used with lower-value business processes. For example, perhaps an application’s transaction volumes don’t justify the effort and expense of business logic integration, or maybe the technical complexities of business logic integration exceed the business value of automating this part of the process. Because presentation integration is quicker and less expensive, it can make sense in situations like these.
Because the implementation effort isn’t huge, automated processes that use presentation integration can be relatively easy to change. This is important, as many business processes are quite dynamic. Automated processes that are difficult to change can be worse than manual processes, since they make a firm’s operations more inflexible. With appropriate tools, it’s even possible for business analysts to make the necessary modifications, freeing IT staff from dealing with many small change requests.
Presentation integration can be used to access all kinds of applications, from modern Web solutions to legacy mainframe software. An application doesn’t need to expose special integration interfaces. Think about a mainframe application, for example, that doesn’t provide any interfaces for business logic integration. Presentation integration can still be used to access it, since this approach requires just a terminal interface. Or perhaps an application is accessible only via a remote access technology such as Citrix XenApp or Microsoft Remote Desktop Services.
With the right support, presentation integration can also be used to access this kind of software.
Even processes that depend on client/server applications with extensive client logic can be automated using this approach.
Presentation integration allows automatically logging what would otherwise be manual operations in a business process. These logs are then available for audit, providing a written record of the process. This can be useful for things such as determining why a process raised an exception and meeting regulatory requirements.
Because process automation through presentation integration is relatively inexpensive and fast, it can be used to verify the value of automating a particular business process. If greater performance is needed, an organization might then decide to invest in a more expensive business logic integration project.
Presentation integration is often a good choice. Still, there are situations in which it’s not the right
solution. Among the challenges of this approach are the following:
Performance isn’t always great. For example, suppose the information required for a single operation is spread across several different Web pages or screens. While data or business logic integration might be able to access that information in one chunk, using presentation integration requires stepping through all of the required pages or screens.
Only information exposed through an application’s user interface is available. If the process being automated requires access to more than this, presentation integration isn’t a good option.
Its limitations have led a number of people to dismiss presentation integration. In fact, the original notion of screen scraping truly was problematic. Like many technologies, this first version wasn’t robust enough to meet enterprise requirements. Today, though, more modern approaches have appeared, along with better tools, improved management capabilities, and more effective methodologies. For example, a more modern object-oriented approach can avoid the security and maintenance challenges of customized perapplication scripts. Similarly, rather than requiring multiple desktop machines to scale a process that uses presentation integration, many virtual machines can now run on a single physical server.
The truth is that, like every technology, presentation integration has pros and cons. It’s the right choice for some scenarios, but not for everything. As the lists above suggest, here are some of the characteristics
of a process automation project for which this approach is a good fit:
Getting a solution running quickly and inexpensively is important.
The business process doesn’t need to handle extremely high transaction volumes.
The business process changes frequently.
The business value of automating a process isn’t high enough to justify the investment required for business logic integration.
For example, think about automating a process that spans a range of different applications from different eras, including recently built Web apps, client/server software, and 25-year-old mainframe software. If the goal is to create an automated business process that handles tens of thousands of transactions a day and doesn’t change often, and if the time and money are available, business logic integration is probably the best choice. But if the automated process is needed quickly for as little cost as possible, if it will change frequently, and if it need handle only a few thousand transactions a day, presentation integration may well be a better approach.
Don’t be confused, however. While there are situations that can be solved using either business logic integration or presentation integration, it’s more accurate to think of these technologies as complements than as competitors. Depending on the business requirements, both have value. In spite of this, there aren’t a lot of products available today that support this approach. One that does is Blue Prism, which provides a modern take on presentation integration. The next section gives an overview of the Blue Prism technology.
AN OVERVIEW OF BLUE PRISMBlue Prism is a set of tools, libraries, and runtime environments for automating business processes through presentation integration. Figure 2 shows the product’s main components.
Figure 2: Blue Prism lets business analysts and developers create visual business objects, define processes that use those objects, track the execution of those processes, and more.
Blue Prism has built-in support for connecting to various kinds of application user interfaces, including browser-based HTML interfaces, Windows interfaces, mainframe applications accessed via terminals, and interfaces built using Java. Whatever the interface technology, the adapter used to connect to an application is called a visual business object (VBO). Each VBO implements a particular set of operations against an application’s user interface. For example, a VBO might be capable of logging in to an application, entering a customer name into a particular screen, retrieving a result, then logging off. A developer or business analyst uses Blue Prism’s Object Studio to create these objects graphically—writing code isn’t required.
Each VBO exposes its operations to a Blue Prism process. To create a Blue Prism process, a developer or business analyst uses Blue Prism’s Process Studio. This tool lets its user graphically define the steps in the process, each of which invokes operations in VBOs to interact with an application. Once again, writing code isn’t required. In a very real sense, a Blue Prism process acts like a human user accessing each application to carry out the business process.
To store VBOs, Blue Prism processes, and information about them, the product provides a SQL Serverbased database. IT and business people can use a tool called Control Room to start Blue Prism processes, view information about running processes, and more. Another tool, System Manager, allows configuring users, viewing audit logs, and performing other management tasks.
Automating business processes through presentation integration isn’t hard to understand. Still, to see how these pieces work together, it’s useful to walk through a typical scenario. The next section does this, showing how the various parts of Blue Prism are used.
A BLUE PRISM SCENARIO
Imagine a simple business process carried out by a call center operator to determine a customer’s shipping cost and place an order. This process requires the operator to interact with three different applications, entering information into each one and getting information in return. Figure 3 illustrates this scenario.
Figure 3: In this example process, a call center operator interacts with three different applications to place an order.
As the figure shows, the process first requires the operator to enter the customer’s name into a client/server application with a Windows interface, then get back a code indicating how much business the firm gets from this customer (step 1). The process next requires the operator to enter the customer’s name into an mainframe application, retrieving the customer’s mailing address (step 2). Finally, the operator enters all of this—the customer name, code, and mailing address—into a Web-based application that determines the shipping cost and places the customer’s order (step 3).