Microgen Aptitude: BPMS with a difference

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Most BPM Suites have a number of things in common. However, Microgen Aptitude does a number of things that other BPM products generally do not. Perhaps the most important of these is that it is focused specifically on transaction process management rather than simply offering generic (lowest common denominator?) capabilities.

However, I am getting ahead of myself.

Microgen is a UK-based, publicly listed company that also has offices in New York, Wroclaw, Hong Kong, Cape Town and the Cayman Islands. The odd one out amongst these cities is Wroclaw: hardly a hub of financial activity. The reason is that what has now become Aptitude (previously known as OST-Business Rules) was originally developed in Poland in the ‘90s as a rules engine that was first implemented by a leading bank. The technology was subsequently acquired by Microgen in 2002.

Aptitude is Microgen’s core technology. It is used internally as a development platform for the solutions that Microgen markets to the financial community and other commercial sectors. In addition, Aptitude is also available as a free standing BPM Suite that combines business process management, business rules, integration capabilities and web services orchestration into a single platform based on a common data model. It is in Aptitude as a stand-alone platform that I am most interested.

The first thing to note about Aptitude is that it is entirely graphical. This might not seem revolutionary but when I say “entirely” I mean entirely. It is not unusual, indeed it is common, to develop your business processes using an iconised, drag-and-drop palette but what is rare is that in Aptitude that is it—there is no compilation process or anything similar—the graphical model is the application (technically p-code), which is executed at run-time by the Aptitude engine. Moreover, the same applies to the design of any forms (including web forms) that you might need to include in business processes and to any business rules that you define in association with your processes. This is in fact rarer, as by no means all rules engines are graphically based. One of the advantages of this approach is that both developers and business users use the same interface to design processes and rules, thereby allowing closer co-operation between the two groups.

In fact, the whole environment has been designed so that business analysts can construct their own applications. These applications can be of any kind, of course, though it is particularly worth mentioning that Microgen is pushing the use of Aptitude as a replacement for Excel spreadsheets for building complex financial and risk models. Once the application has been tested and signed off by the business it is then passed to production and it is only at this stage that IT will get seriously involved, principally in defining configuration details: they shouldn’t need to touch the application itself.

As far as replacing Excel is concerned one important factor is that Aptitude’s Expression Builder, which provides a variety of pre-built functions (including an unlimited number of calendars), provides up to 28 places of precision in its calculations, which is rather more than Excel does. In some banking applications, for example, this can be a significant issue.

Specifically with respect to transactions, you can define transaction regions within business processes by graphically creating relevant boundaries. There is full support for XA compliant two-phase commit and you can enforce persistence into an embedded version of BerkeleyDB (previously SleepyCat’s and now Oracle’s database). Further, because the modelling provided supports parallelisation (in a similar fashion to, say, an ETL tool) this can be applied to transaction-based (and other) processes in order to provide high performance and scalability. For example, the company claims that it can distribute trading data with a latency of just 10 milliseconds. While we are on this subject, within Aptitude the integration components of the platform provide ETL (extract, transform and load) capabilities. Typically these are used either when you want to reference data that is held within, say, an Oracle or SQL database or when you want to access, for example, a Maths Library. The software will also handle message queues, SWIFT messages, and specialised data feeds such as those from Bloomberg, Reuters and so on, amongst others, to provide an event-driven environment. Data quality and transformation capabilities are built into the product in the former case providing cleansing and standardisation functions, though the product does not handle more complex data quality issues such as what to do with missing data.

Deployment of an Aptitude application can be in a complete SOA (service oriented architecture) environment with full orchestration of other programs, libraries, web services and workflow as opposed to just employing web services. In this context it is important to note that BPEL (business process execution language) has only limited SOA support. Microgen supports BPEL and you can use this if you wish to but the company views it as restrictive.

Finally, some further points: the product includes its own repository (with check-in and -out, versioning and so forth) to support team working, it can be deployed across multiple servers to provide replication and failover, it has complete auditing capabilities and full role-based security (LDAP and Active Directory are supported) is provided. The only exception to this last point is within business processes themselves, where people in a workflow currently have to be identified by name. However, roles will be supported here too in the next release, which is scheduled for September.

So, that’s a brief overview of Microgen Aptitude: it has a number of nice features, not least its graphical nature, its parallelisation, the integration of all its components and the collaboration it promotes between business and IT users. Most important, however, is its transactional nature. This is very rare: indeed the company reports that its most common competition comes not from other vendors but from in-house developments. I would have thought that the use of Aptitude in these situations would provide a significant advantage. Moreover, when other tools are being considered, Aptitude’s advantages, in terms of its transaction process management and business/IT collaboration in particular, should mean that Microgen has a significant competitive advantage.