Among a slew of announcements at last week's Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC) was word of Windows Workflow Foundation, a workflow engine, programming model and tool set for developers to build workflow-enabled applications. Workflow-enabled apps represent the next big step for middleware, as enterprises strive to streamline processes and work in 'near-realtime.'
With the new software, developers can workflow-enable applications using the WinFX programming model along with Visual Basic.NET, C# or other .NET-supported languages in Visual Studio.
"It's a natural extension to the .NET framework, so if you know .NET you'll know how to use Windows Workflow," Eric Rudder, senior vice president of Servers and Tools at Microsoft, told the PDC crowd. "It's got a nice provider architecture, so you can plug in your own implementations if you have some workflow functionality in your solution," he said.
Microsoft and others have been working toward high-powered workflow app integration for years, although the business analyst who creates flowcharts and requirements lists, more than the developer, has often been the intended user of the software. Microsoft's main workflow or business process integration engine to date has been BizTalk, which somewhat targets the business analyst. Microsoft said that BizTalk will support the new Windows Workflow Foundation, thus positioning Windows Workflow Foundation as an important theme running across various MS servers.
At PDC, Microsoft showed SharePoint portal working with Office system applications to provide integrated workflow capabilities built on Windows Workflow Foundation. Document management, records management and Web content management may be early targets for this software.
Clearly, with this announcement, Microsoft is asserting that workflow apps have the best chance to reach broader use if developers are able to create the workflow schemes. Under the covers, the Windows Workflow Foundation is intended to provide infrastructure into which programs can tap, thus requiring less coding overall.
"With Windows Workflow Foundation we are redefining the term 'workflow,'" said Scott Woodgate, group product manager, Microsoft Connected Systems Division, "Our goal is absolutely to make workflow mainstream." He noted that Windows Workflow Foundation supports both system- and human-oriented workflow scenarios.
"The key thing we are doing different is crafting a workflow technology that is part of the development platform," said Woodgate.
"This technology is a platform level technology. It is available in the OS. So we think many developers and ISVs will build solutions on top of this plumbing," he said. He said that the embedded workflow engine will be adapted to create XML output in the form of supported workflow standards. He indicated too that Microsoft does not see favor in a language specifically-oriented toward workflow problems. You should be able to use existing .NET programming languages in the Microsoft plan, Woodgate suggested.
Get out the flow charts
Will developers, who are often nose to the grindstone creating code, cotton to workflow-oriented development? It may take a while, and some education effort.
"Developers have rarely thought about workflow up until now," said David Chappell, principal of Chappell & Associates. Nevertheless, he added, while the business analyst has sometimes been the target, major platform vendors have tried to provide at least some tools for developers to work with workflow.
The workflow-enabled platform has merit, Chappell said.
"Building without a foundation is nontrivial," he said.
"Microsoft's putting Windows Workflow foundation into the operating system is going to kick off a lot for developers using workflow in their apps – because the foundation is there," said Chappell.
"Every application that was ever written has a workflow in it," said Microsoft's Woodgate. "Most developers, when they first learn, think about flow charts. In the past that became documentation, and once you started writing code, you forgot about those flowcharts." Ongoing use of flowcharts is likely to become more common, if workflow development catches on.
Beta 1 of the Windows Workflow Foundation is available for download now. It is scheduled for release along with Office 12 in the second half of 2006.
Introducing Microsoft Windows Workflow Foundation: An Early Look - By David Chappell on MSDN