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First Impression: ADVANTYS WorkflowGen

Summary

WorkflowgenOn the final day of bpmNEXT our team had the opportunity to see a demo of the latest version (7.9.1) of WorkflowGen, a low-code workflow automation and application development platform from industry pioneer ADVANTYS. We had known ADVANTYS from their long-standing involvement in the WfMC (Workflow Management Coalition) and their participation in the development of the XPDL (XML Process Definition Language) which today remains the language of workflow, as well as the primary serialization format for executable business processes. Yet that was the first comprehensive demonstration of WorkflowGen we had received. We were immediately impressed with both its core capabilities as well as its obvious extensibility. During the demo the ADVANTYS team walked us through scenarios and use cases involving the development of both enterprise applications, as well as the delivery of third-party services with robust workflow automation.

Delivering Low-Code Simplicity With High-Code Capabilities

The dirty secret in the industry is that most low-code platforms come with out of the box technical debt. For the uninitiated, “technical debt” is the overhead incurred by the inevitable rework resulting from picking a short-term easier solution in lieu of a more robust design assumed to otherwise take longer to implement. This is the implicit trade-off with low-code frameworks. They typically lack the ability to apply advanced methods or best practices of software development, or the ability to tune application parameters as needed to ensure optimal performance. Instead, they too often present a limitation of just predefined development elements, especially when it comes to workflow definition, interface designs, or other run-time application parameters.

How does WorkflowGen deliver low-code simplicity without imposing technical debt? By abstracting a powerful application development capability (combined with fine grain precession of software definitions) behind a comparatively rich yet straightforward graphical development environment. Further, these functions are delivered through a mature and now well-tested set of capabilities that balance open standards with a well thought-out design premised on delivering enterprise-class workflow automation.

This allows WorkflowGen process designers to deliver more robust and integrated applications in the time other environments would allow only basic functionality, such as a routable form. The speed of development (read “time to capability”) is afforded both by WorkflowGen’s support of integration capabilities (described in greater detail below) as well as its ability to generate tunable code through an otherwise “codeless” drag-and-drop development process. The result is rapid application development, with software definitions and parameters which can be manipulated at the expression level via guided wizards and validation steps.

Overview of WorkflowGen Platform Components

WorkflowGen is at its core a comprehensive workflow automation platform within a single, unified environment for application development, data management, and defining user interaction. WorkflowGen has inherent capabilities typically associated only with high-end development platforms, such as the GraphQL API, the query language designed to perform real-time transformation of API data, as well as the Node.js event-driven framework for server-side JavaScript, running on top of a .NET workflow engine. Within the Web-based WorkflowGen development environment, these capabilities and others are exposed as graphical elements. The core components of WorkflowGen are described below.

Workflow Designer
WorkflowGen's drag-and-drop process design environment offers BPMN caliber capabilities with a low-code simplicity and ease of use

Workflow Designer - WorkflowGen presents a traditional GUI-based workflow designer with a notation similar to BPMN, yet simplified and streamlined appropriately for low-code process designers (significantly flattening the learning curve BPMN otherwise requires.) As with the complete WorkflowGen design tools and development environment, it is fully Web-based and notably rendered in HTML5. From here process designers use a familiar drag-and-drop approach for the definition of data elements, activities and actions, including manual tasks or user actions, automated system tasks, and sub processes. From this environment notifications can be defined, roles are associated, and fine-grained application actions are configured.

When shown to our team, we immediately recognized this environment as belonging to an enterprise-class workflow automation platform. This level of process detail clearly exceeds what you would find within other commonly used low-code development frameworks, which offer comparably limited process design functionality. An example of this is the ability to define roles and enforce control flow using a traditional swim lanes metaphor, which can be pivoted with a click to run horizontally or vertically. Not visible in the example above, however, is that roles can be synced with access privileges and existing roles in Active Directory, or other via LDAP or an exported file. Control flow is managed through WorkflowGen’s precise method of task assignment and escalation. Another point of the differentiation is the ability to define complex routing conditions expressed as JavaScript or VBScript, using a graphical wizard with operators and drop-down selection of the data elements associated with the workflow.

Workflow Designer
Wizard-driven configuration allows for fine grain definition of process activities and integration components

Yet what perhaps sets WorkflowGen’s Workflow Designer apart the most is the level of integration complexity supported while still following the same codeless approach. As shown to the right, when selecting a new Action from the palette the user is able to select between a Web form (the common UI for user actions) or define any number of system-to-system actions. These range from data transformation and precisely defined CRUD services, to complex task assignment using conditional logic to look up a specific user from the directory and uniquely assign them an action, to a fully automated action performed by WorkflowGen (in a similar capacity as Robotic Process Automation) This also allows for sophisticated notifications, sent as email, SMS text, or as HTTP POST, directed either to a user interface or to another application as a system-to-system message.

Form Designer
The Form Designer allows visual design and development of Web forms that enable an optimal user experience (UX)

Form Designer - WorkflowGen’s Form Designer provides a similar level of fine-grain, “high-code” level of precision and control working within the same Web-based visual design environment. Forms can also be built in Microsoft Visual Studio, but full capabilities are exposed through the Form Designer. Users are guided through a process of visually building Web forms with capabilities including pre-population of data, field level as well as form level data validation. This includes out of the box functions such as grid views and calendar pop-ups. WorkflowGen’s Form Designer steps users through the creation of Web forms similar to a modern website builder, rather than more common workflow screen designers which typically leave a lot to be desired in terms of esthetics. Users have full control over look and feel, but are guided through a design process. Although the Workflow Designer and Form Designer are set up as separate tabs, the Mapping function allows the workflow associated with the form to be viewed and stepped through, so data elements can be mapped and validation can be defined.

Form Designer
The Workflow Portal provides real-time process intelligence, contextual views, as well as a user interface for workflow actions

Forms can be defined to behave or dynamically render uniquely based on the role executing the task, the step in the workflow being executed, as well as the medium of access for the form (e.g., Web, mobile, or otherwise.) WorkflowGen supports native iOS and Android apps with React Native, a framework for building mobile apps using the React JavaScript libraries. Like GraphQL, React was first developed by Facebook prior to its commercial release, and today React Native is one of the most popular approaches for delivering full-client level capabilities on a mobile platform.

Another core function is the ability to perform remote approval of work via email, text, or through a mobile app. This level of interaction is distinct from providing full participation through either a Web form or on a mobile device, such as would be involved launching a workflow requiring the completion of a full request form or application. Yet with remote approvals, designated roles can respond to escalations or approval requests without having to launch a full form environment. This can be done in a simplified form, or even simpler via responding to an email, text or chat message. In our estimation, in the not to distant future it seems likely that users will be able to respond to a remote approval task via natural language, such as speaking to a “smart speaker” device like Amazon Alexa or responding to a voice prompt in your car (as long as you keep your eyes on the road!) In fact, given WorkflowGen’s modern and forward-looking architecture and innovative integration capabilities discussed below, this can almost certainly be built today.

Workflow Portal – Although the majority of user interaction is performed within a Web form or mobile app, the WorkflowGen Workflow Portal provides the user work management environment for both launching new process instances and managing historic completed workflows. As illustrated below, this includes both a worklist capability and configurable dashboard for reporting on all live and archived workflows. This allows management roles to monitor work across multiple workstreams, or search for a specific process instance by worker name, work type, status, or other parameters.

The Workflow Portal is provided ready-to-go out of the box, which includes standard reports on workflow activity, with audit reports and drill-down to graphical depiction of a given workflow’s status via the workflow model itself (albeit not a heat map of multiple instances of the same workflow). Yet consistent with WorkflowGen’s “no code” approach, real-time changes can also be made to reports and KPIs through a guided click-and-change approach. These same capabilities allow users to also create new dashboards as well as comparatively complex calculations on workflow data elements. For example, managers can define queries on process activity, which can also be saved as part of an on-going/continuous report within the dashboard. Portal capabilities focused on end-user productivity include the Quick Mass Approval feature, which allow actions to be taken on multiple workflow requests with a single response. This includes the ability for requests to be grouped based on process data (rather than simply where they appear in the worklist) thus creating contextual views of live processes.

Webhooks, APIs, and Innovative Integration

WorkflowGen provides all its core capabilities exposed as dozens of .NET Web services (a total of 69 discrete methods by our count). All the methods and actions exposed within the Workflow Designer are available through the Web services API, which can be used to perform both run-time and design-time WorkflowGen operations, callable using POST, GET, or SOAP. Runtime Services can also be embedded within .NET code. In addition to the standard Web services, WorkflowGen also offers some more innovation integration approaches, notably the GraphQL API and Webhooks.

Graph API

GraphQL API – WorkflowGen’s GraphQL API uses the emergent GraphQL standard, which is the first time we have seen this made available natively in a low-code platform. The GraphQL API allows users building workflows to have fine grain control over data exchanged via APIs, providing a more modern alternative to RESTful APIs (or SOAP messages) where the consuming system is limited to whatever data package is published. That alternative otherwise requires the workflow to execute its own transformation over the course of multiple “fetches” of the desired data. Yet with the GraphQL API a single query is sent with just the data desired and a JSON object is returned with a precise answer. This provides notable advantage for use cases such as mobile apps, as well as allows a true microservices architecture to be followed. Because WorkflowGen’s GraphQL API is a Node.js application it is fully integrated within the WorkflowGen architecture; it leverages the core system’s security and access control, as well as allows for performance turn and high availability deployment.

Webhooks – WorkflowGen also supports both inbound and outbound Webhooks. A Webhook is something of a “reverse API” in that rather than being called by a consumer application, it initiates an action when given criteria or an event is met. A particularly innovative use of this with WorkflowGen is its integration with the Slack set of collaboration tools, fast becoming the medium of choice for quick-tempo collaboration (especially among developers and other tech industry players.) Incoming Slack Webhook allows users to fully participate in a WorkflowGen workflow within their own Slack channel.

Architected for Enterprise Scale

One of our common criticisms of other low-code platforms is that they are designed for horizontal scale but not enterprise class performance. WorkflowGen is designed for enterprise scale, running on tunable local infrastructure with clean separation between the user interface, application, and data management tiers. In its current version it leverages .NET Framework 4.6.1and Windows Server (2008, 2012 or 2016) as well as either an Oracle or SQL Server RDBMS.

This allows firms using WorkflowGen to setup their own security and performance environments, without having to rely on systems or infrastructure outside of their control. This also means that .NET development shops and those who have otherwise invested in Microsoft infrastructure can realize greater leverage of existing resources while extending these capabilities through the faster development process afforded by WorkflowGen. It offers a favorable alternative to native capabilities such as Microsoft Flow and Dynamics.

Summary

Our “first impression” of ADVANTYS’ WorkflowGen is a robust workflow automation platform designed for enabling the simplicity of low-code environments, without imposing the implicit compromises the majority of these otherwise carry with them. Although a seemingly subtle distinction, the fact that WorkflowGen has XPDL at its core is indicative that it is designed for enterprise-class capabilities. This is further evidenced by its widespread adoption, in use at over 500 customers across 70 countries, who collectively represented over 1 million users.

WorkflowGen is a proven platform, yet with modern components at its core such as GraphQL, React Native, HTML5, Node.js, Slack integration, and other Webhooks, it has the contemporary architecture you would expect from a Silicon Valley start up. We recommend WorkflowGen for firms considering a low-code approach to workflow automation and application development, who want to avoid the inevitable technical debt incurred with the traditional low-code platforms.

For additional information including pricing or to arrange a demo of WorkflowGen contact ADVANTYS directly at: http://www.workflowgen.com

Nathaniel Palmer
Author: Nathaniel PalmerWebsite: http://bpm.com
VP and CTO
Rated as the #1 Most Influential Thought Leader in Business Process Management (BPM) by independent research, Nathaniel Palmer is recognized as one of the early originators of BPM, and has led the design for some of the industry’s largest-scale and most complex projects involving investments of $200 Million or more. Today he is the Editor-in-Chief of BPM.com, as well as the Executive Director of the Workflow Management Coalition, as well as VP and CTO of BPM, Inc. Previously he had been the BPM Practice Director of SRA International, and prior to that Director, Business Consulting for Perot Systems Corp, as well as spent over a decade with Delphi Group serving as VP and CTO. He frequently tops the lists of the most recognized names in his field, and was the first individual named as Laureate in Workflow. Nathaniel has authored or co-authored a dozen books on process innovation and business transformation, including “Intelligent BPM” (2013), “How Knowledge Workers Get Things Done” (2012), “Social BPM” (2011), “Mastering the Unpredictable” (2008) which reached #2 on the Amazon.com Best Seller’s List, “Excellence in Practice” (2007), “Encyclopedia of Database Systems” (2007) and “The X-Economy” (2001). He has been featured in numerous media ranging from Fortune to The New York Times to National Public Radio. Nathaniel holds a DISCO Secret Clearance as well as a Position of Trust with in the U.S. federal government.