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Has Windows Workflow got shifting foundations?

A software developer, who would prefer not to be identified, has drawn our attention the the following discussion about Microsoft's Windows Workflow Foundation (WWF) platform. The comments were first posted on the Visual Studio Magazine (www.visualstudiomagazine.com) and seem to indicate this could be a major issue for anyone who has built significant workflow capabilities into their products/solutions with the current Workflow Foundation platform.
 
Our contact says “I believe that typically Microsoft take 1-2 years to move from PDC to release code so to do anything with WWF in the meantime could mean significant re-work that equates to almost starting all over again from scratch if I am reading this correctly (and this is no doubt the positive spin!). That means that even if a vendor is able to re-create or partially migrate their existing solution to the 'new' WWF platform, any client who already has used it as a basis to start and deliver their own customised solution for file opening or anything else built on that platform will quite possibly have to re-implement all of their work again.” (Our contact adds that when Microsoft did something similar with the move from Visual Studio to Visual Studio.NET, the subsequent 'migration' equated to a 90% re-write.)

Here's the comment – the question is answered by Kathleen Dollard and you can read more on her blog at http://msmvps.com/blogs/kathleen/

Q:  I've been hearing that Windows Workflow 4.0 was announced at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC), and that it “changes everything.” Is this true, and if so, what does this mean to those of us that have existing workflows?

A:  Windows Workflow Foundation (WWF) 4.0 was unveiled at PDC and is available now as part of the current .NET 4.0 Community Technology Preview (CTP). As such, details aren't complete, so remember that my answer is based on these preliminary announcements. If you're contemplating using WWF and can wait until .NET 4.0 is released, I suggest waiting. This is particularly true if you have an existing state-based solution you can nurse along for another year or two. If you do write new workflows in the interim, I've collected a set of preliminary guidelines for preparing workflows to transition. If you've worked with WWF 3.0 or 3.5, this is a jaw-dropping list; many of the primary elements you might think of as WWF disappear in the transition to WWF 4.0.

Be careful with data. The tracking and persistence databases are likely to change significantly between 3.5 and 4.0. Holding data only in tracking is hazardous, unless you prepare a strategy for extracting data, such as when a workflow completes. If you're using rules for simple data retrieval for values that should be set outside the workflow, consider holding this data in a configuration file or database. Note that these are preliminary suggestions. Check out my blog for pointers towards Microsoft's formal guidance, as well as tools (as they become available) that will help you transition workflows.

Another important aspect of your transition strategy concerns long-running workflows. The simplest transition strategy is to allow all workflows to complete in 3.0/3.5 but to begin new workflows in 4.0. If you have aggregate information or if you have long-running workflows, this might not be an acceptable strategy. In this case, you need a strategy to bring down existing workflows and bring them back up in WWF 4.0. If you're writing workflows today and believe you'll need this strategy, consider building in events to initiate the process. If you have existing workflows, you might need to alter them later, but it's not yet clear whether Microsoft will provide a tool to help automate the 3.0/3.5 workflow-modification strategy.

10 replies on “Has Windows Workflow got shifting foundations?”

I'm not sure you can compare it to Visual Studio, VS 6 to VS 2002 (.net) was a complete change of language and platform.
You can't take a boat and run it on the road? No really?!?!?!

Fair enough – but I think the point here is that when you've just built a boat, you don't want to discover that Microsoft have just concreted over your boating lake?

You've got some parts of it right, but it's very incomplete.
First off, a nit-picky item: the acronym is WF…There has already been at least one trademark fight over WWF, and it's unlikely we would fare better than Hulk Hogan. 🙂
Secondly, there seems to be at least a few folks putting up blog posts that are citing other blog posts as information. While we greatly appreciate the enthusiasm and interest for WF, it would be helpful for folks to go back to the PDC sessions (videos are posted and freely available) about what's planned for WF in the .NET Framework 4.0.
It is true that we are introducing a new workflow model, and it is drastically different from the model introduced in .NET Framework 3.0, but .NET 4.0 will still allow developers to build and support their WF 3.x workflows – the 3.x namespace and designer will still be part of the .NET Framework 4.0 and still be available within Visual Studio 2010. In an application running on .NET 4.0, workflows developed in 3.x and 4.0 will both be able to run side by side (meaning that developers can still use new features in ASP.NET or LINQ or C# or whatever else in 4.0 while still using their WF 3.x assets). To take advantage of the new features in WF 4.0 (the new flow chart, fully declarative workflows, the new activity model), developers will have to upgrade to 4.0 – but we are striving to ensure that investments in 3.x are preserved and continue to be useful.
All of that being said, I posted a blog entry on the topic last week – trying to separate fact from fiction – on the team blog for WCF and WF (direct link -> http://blogs.msdn.com/endpoint/archive/2009/01/20/the-road-to-wf-4-0-part-1.aspx). In the entry, I highlight (at a decently high level – we'll get into the weeds over the coming months) why we made these dramatic changes, and what that means for developers.
And to continue your example, what we're doing with WF 4.0 is putting a nice road along side that lake – allowing you to continue to take your boat out for a spin if you like…or drive a nice convertable along it on the road, too…but the choice is yours – the lake is still available and well maintained. 🙂
Cliff Simpkins (Sr Product Manager, WCF and WF)

I am reminded of one of the points in the famous “If Microsoft made cars” quotes of several year ago.
9. Every time a new car was introduced, car buyers would have to learn how to drive all over again, because none of the controls would operate in the same manner as the old car.

Ooo-err…. not good news for a certain Microsoft-oriented WF PMS provider who's PR machine will now need to work overtime to deal with this… To have Microsoft state that their clients will need to use the 'slow lane' or re-implement to get into the fast lane is less than helpful I would imagine. Just goes to prove that being first with the Microsoft Platform isn't always the most visionary approach… One-up for poor old proprietary workflow-driven Elite 3e which has taken an unfair bashing in recent times.

🙂 Occasionally, you have to make the move from manual to automatic shifting. 🙂
That being said, 3.x and 4.0 really had different audiences in mind.
When we designed and built WF 3.x in mind, it was initially oriented at creating a common, foundational technology that Microsoft enterprise software products (SharePoint, Dynamics, BizTalk, etc) could build upon – allowing our customers to only have to write custom activities once, and use them across their assets. We released the technology with .NET 3.0 to allow our software partners (including SourceCode/K2, Captaris (now part of Open Text), GE/Fanuc, and many SharePoint partners) to enable enterprise customers in many different verticals – including professional services. And we are supporting customers that are shipping on WF 3.5; at least a couple very large internal customers at Microsoft will be shipping on the current WF model for a couple years.
Over the past couple years, we've absorbed the feedback about pain points in general and challenges that the 3.x model proved to the practical programmer. In 4.0, we've acted on them – it will make 4.0 applicable to a wider developer audience, and it make the tooling applicable to a much broader range of end-users at our customers. And, the best part is that we're not forcing folks to reimplement – the new model in 4.0 is more flexible and powerful, but the 3.x model will work just as well (if not a bit faster) in the .NET Framework 4.0. And, as an old school BPM programmer (as an old school FileNet Certified Professional, my code had to weather transitions from Visual Workflow -> eProcess -> P8…and having to convince my customers to rewrite every time), I find the capabilities and support options for our partners and customers amazing compared to what I've seen most vendors offer in the past.

Who are the legal software providers (if any) using WF as the foundation for their workflow/case management offering?

Well there's Aderant – so that's 30 of the largest law firms in the UK (including Clifford Chance) to be going on with.

To be fair to Aderant, one has to make a choice at a point in time and just a couple of years ago 3e was (and probably still is in truth given the development timelines required to re-engineer monolithic software like CMS Open for component-based WF environments) so far ahead of what Aderant had that they had to go with WF as there was no credible alternative. It does raise an interesting question as to the relative merits of going with something proprietary like 3e vs 'defacto' standard MS WF… which solution will give its users less grief when it comes to upgrading? In this case proprietary seems to have the edge.

Calm down Dears … it's only a commercial … Future stuff from Microsoft that no law firm will deploy for years…
The big question here is probably more about the shift of Finance Systems peoples skill set away from proprietary Workflow technology to more open technology platforms. The time/training costs vs. cashflow and benefit in the current market.
Who will do this stuff?
People who know the old ADERANT toolset plus legal process issues and who may have to transfer skills, or already Microsoft savvy folks who are generally based in IT rather than Finance but who have no idea of the processes?
Is re-training really going to happen? If so, if not, what will be that impact?
That is the real issue to think about, whatever your PMS.
The .Net 4 WF issue is a minor kick in the pants to ADERANT from MS, but one which reflects ADERANT, or anyone else's, influence on MS (almost none).
The fact is that ADERANT/Microsofts WF based stuff is yet to be adopted (though there is huge demand yet to be realised).
ADERANT do indeed need to answer the .Net v3(.5) to v4 WF question, but given that adoption of 'Golden Gate' by clients is yet to happen, then ADERANT have time to address the issue … But do need to do so quickly in order to reassure the client base who are looking forward to their MS WF items.
The fact is that the whole lot will be upwardly compatible, no law firm it yet to deploy .NET V4, and that by the the time this could possibly be an issue in reality it will all be resolved anyway…
Yawn!!

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