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Attack of the Killer B's

Attack of the Killer B's

Swat at them all you like, but these business buzzwords aren't going away soon

Hear that buzz? It's a swarm of "B-for-Business this" and "B-for-Business that" sniffing for nectar under your corporate petals. Why the B's? The intersection of business and technology is where software vendors make money. If you don't have a shot at competing in an existing category with "business" in the name, go out and hire an analyst to invent a new category.

It all started a few years ago with Business Intelligence (BI), a way for big shots to roll up data culled from various databases and make sense of the whole enchilada. It's like data mining only a lot cooler because, after IT toils long and hard behind the scenes, a business guy can create reports by pointing and clicking.

But BI was too slow and had limited appeal, so along came Gartner's Business Activity Monitoring (BAM). The acronym couldn't be cooler and neither could the interface: a dashboard display of what's happening in real time, usually aimed at line-of-business managers. It works pretty well - provided that IT works overtime to wire everything correctly behind the scenes and that you're not the type who overreacts to random fluctuations in minute-by-minute indicators.

BAM is the same as what IDC calls Business Performance Management (BPM). BPM (unrelated to the more common Business Process Management) is a way of isolating individual business processes and stringing them together across various applications to create complete workflows. At least, that's the top-down, business-driven way of looking at BPM; the bottom-up, IT-driven view is more like figuring out what you can really do with Business Process Integration (BPI), which seems more realistic about the constraints of application integration and message brokering and all that down-and-dirty, non-B stuff that nobody wants to talk about any more but with which everyone struggles.

Part of what makes BPM so cool is that a Business Process Management System (BPMS) insulates you from such details with pretty pictures - all the way from ordering to billing - by dragging and dropping processes together into lovely flowcharts. This should not be confused with a Business Process Modelling System, which looks a lot like a BPMS, except the pretty pictures aren't really hooked up to anything and don't change the way enterprise applications integrate with each other.

Although, depending on whom you talk to, mousing around with a BPMS might not do much either; it depends on the product and on how IT has set up the integration server. Enter Business Process Execution Language (BPEL), formerly known as BPEL4WS (the suffix means "for Web Services"), which could be my favourite acronym ever, because it looks so much like a randomly generated password. Most major app servers and BPI platforms now claim to support BPEL as the lingua franca of business process development. In other words, IT will master this new and complex language and create a middle layer of code between modelling and integration to ensure all that dragging and dropping really does something.

Which leaves us with my favourite B of all, the Business Rules Management System (BRMS). Its idea is to put all the business logic from an application into one container - the BRMS - and let the business analysts actually maintain a library of business rules in the form of relatively simple IF-THEN-ELSE statements. So if the business guys change the business rules, IT doesn't have to scramble around rewriting code. And business analysts actually do some useful work rather than writing requirements documents that ask for the moon.

Easing change management is the value proposition behind all the B's, ultimately, but the initial rollout puts the usual impossible demands on IT. And by the time you're done, someone in a C-level position has a bee in their bonnet about another B. So before we get stung by Business Process Optimization (BPO), I'm making a beeline outta here. Eric Knorr is executive editor at large at InfoWorld. He can be reached at eknorr@pacbell.net

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