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Microsoft adds built-in workflow to Windows

As Microsoft builds in workflow capabilities to its OS and some applications, it hopes to make life easier for IT administrators, who want better control over their apps.

Windows administrators are increasingly being asked to map the IT world to business processes, and Microsoft wants to better meet that need by adding the ability to build workflow into its applications.

At the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference 2005 in Los Angeles this week, the company released its Windows Workflow Foundation (a programming model), engine and tools for building workflow-enabled applications on Windows. The technology includes a WinFX namespace, an in-process workflow engine and designers for Visual Studio 2005, the company said.

Windows Workflow Foundation betas are available for Windows Vista and Windows Longhorn Server, which are due out in late 2006 and late 2007, respectively. Microsoft also said it would use the Workflow Foundation to workflow-enable Office 12, BizTalk Server and Microsoft Dynamics, the former Project Green.

A workflow-enabled application is a way to specify connections between the processes involved in business-to-business or Web-service interchanges, explained Jonathan Eunice, a principal consultant at Illuminata Inc., a Nashua, N.H., consulting firm.

Typically, independent software vendors write workflow themselves. "Office has its own workflow, as do all other Microsoft applications, and we are trying to consolidate those workflow technologies over the IT stack," said Steven Martin, group product manager of business process and integration at Microsoft.

The Office upgrade challenge

Microsoft has been challenged to get IT executives to upgrade beyond Office 97. Broadly, the company's answer to this has been to build collaborative features into its applications to entice corporations to upgrade.

At PDC, for example, Microsoft showed how developers can build enterprise content management systems using SharePoint, Office 12 and the Windows Workflow Foundation, which improves an administrator's ability to manage content end-to-end.

Today, most programmers are not tied into workflows; they don't even think about workflows first. Rather, it's something a business analyst would think about. At the same time, IT staffs have been transitioning from managing individual point products and problems to overall business problems, of which workflow technologies are a part.

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"Everyone is struggling toward this goal," Eunice said. "It's nice to have foundation capabilities, but all they are right now are a toolbox, which developers use to map to the business process. There is still a lot of work to figure out what your business processes should be."

Evolving standards

Workflows are typically found in high-end software. In IBM's application server, WebSphere, for example, there is a modeling component that is tied into WebSphere. Its job is to set up those process flows. The Windows Workflow Foundation is a more general foundation layer for person-to-application, person-to-person or application-to-application communications.

Today there is no real standard for doing workflows, though in the World Wide Web Consortium Web Services working group there has been more standardization around orchestration, program-to-program workflow and choreography, which direct how services engage with one another.

Many IT executives and administrators use some form of workflow software for business process management. The fact that Microsoft will be building workflow capability into its platforms will be worth exploring down the road, said Randy Robinson, vice president of IT at UnumProvident Corp., a Chattanooga, Tenn., insurer.

"Anytime you can find integrated solutions that reduce the complexity of an environment, it's good," Robinson said.

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