Amazon's New Simple Workflow Service

Yesterday, Amazon launched an adjunct to its successful Amazon Web Service (AWS) elastic cloud offering. While we don’t normally comment on every product release, this one is significant — primarily because of who is doing it. The Simple Workflow service (SWF) clearly has nothing to do with Adobe’s Flash offering (although techno-nerds may initially think so, given the acronym).

So what was this all about? The business model is certainly interesting: an elastic, configurable workflow capability that’s distributed across any number of access points. Essentially, this will allow an organization to orchestrate processes in the cloud, linking participants up and down the value chain.

“Amazon Simple Workflow Service (Amazon SWF) is a workflow service for building scalable, resilient applications. Whether automating business processes for finance or insurance applications, building sophisticated data analytics applications, or managing cloud infrastructure services, Amazon SWF reliably coordinates all of the processing steps within an application.”

Pricing is initially free and then transitions into a blended, low-cost consumption model, with charges oriented around execution steps, bandwidth usage, how long the task is active, and signals/markers, etc. With usage charges at around $0.0001 per execution step, this gives you an idea of how small the operating overhead might be.

So Amazon is obviously looking for large scale and transaction throughput. Indeed, this is a significant addition to the business process management (BPM) landscape. If nothing else, the move should rattle the cages of the relatively high-cost model incumbent BPM players. I haven’t done a detailed cost analysis, but my perception is that this is potentially an order of magnitude (or two) cheaper than some of the existing cloud offerings out there. Vendors such as Cordys, Appian, and even the likes of IBM and salesforce.com will need to look at the implications of this carefully.

But while it initially sounds like great news for customers, the devil is in the details. As I was trying to wrap my head around it, the descriptions seemed to ask more questions than they answered — until I realized that it is primarily a programming extension framework to AWS. That is, SWF requires relatively strong programming knowledge and deep IT understanding to configure and use. Of course, it probably only makes sense if you are leveraging the rest of the AWS platform.

Having discussed this a little internally, we think this offering is light years away from a BPM product and doesn’t address many existing BPM barriers — which are not about technology to begin with. “BPM” and “workflow” are not the same thing.

But we can see how emerging vendors of low-cost or open source BPM or other tools could leverage this platform to create distributed applications that meet business process needs. But my sense is that SWF is way beyond the average “power user” business analyst.

Perhaps all that is intentional; the real market they are trying to create is to make Amazon the cloud platform for the orchestration of other in-house BPM tools and applications. That would make sense. So perhaps the opportunity here is for BPM players to develop interfaces to each other through this sort of interface. I am sure there are plenty of vendors exploring that idea right now.