Tackling complexity: Using Process maps to improve visibility of integrated system features

“Entropy always increases– second law of thermodynamics

Enterprise systems are similar to isolated physical systems, where the entropy or hidden-information always increases. As the business grows, our technology footprint grows as new systems are implemented, new products and cross-functional features are imagined and an amazing network of integrations emerge

Knowing how information flows and managing the chaos is therefore critical organisations are to move beyond “Functional-1.0” into “Lean-2.0” and “Strategic-3.0”  in their implementations. We discuss how current documentation and technical registries simply “tick the box” and there is a better approach to manage increasing complexity through better context

Enterprise Integration Uses Integrations

Current state: Integration Interface Registries with little context

The network of integrations/interfaces (blue-circles above) are often captured in a technically oriented document called “Interface Registry” in a tabular form by teams performing systems integration. While these tables provide details around “who” (producer/consumer details) and “how” (the type of integration) they cannot describe “when” and “why” (use case).  As projects grow and interfaces grow or are re-used the number of when and whys increase over time and entropy (hidden information) around these interfaces grows; this leads to chaos as teams struggle to operate, manage and change them without proper realisation of the end-to-end picture

As a result, only maintaining a technical integration Interface registry leads to poor traceability (business capability to technical implementation), increased maintenance-cost of interfaces ( hard to test for all scenarios) and leads to duplication of effort over time ( as change becomes complex, teams rewrite)

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Integration Interface Repository

Therefore without proper context around Integration Interfaces, organisations will struggle to manage and map cross-functional features leading to slower lead-time, recovery etc over time. We propose that documenting integration use-cases, in a business-friendly visual language and related them to technical interface lists and enterprise capabilities is the key to mastering the chaos

Mastering the chaos: Building a context map

Context is key as it

  1. It drives product-centric thinking vs project-based thinking
  2. It makes our solution more operable, maintainable and re-useable 

In order to  provide better context and do it in a clear visually-oriented format, we believe documenting integration user-stories as technical process flows is a good start

Consider the following use-case: “As a user, I must be able to search/register/update etc in a system”.  Use-cases begin all start with some activation point – a user, timer or notification and then involve orchestration of services or choreography of events resulting in actions within microservices or end-systems eventually delivering some value through a query or command. We can render such a use-case into a map showing the systems, interfaces and actions in them (activation point, services, orchestrations, value) and do so in a standard manner

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For example, we leveraged the Business Process Management Notation – BPMN 2.0 standards to map integration technical use-case flows where we used general concepts like “swim-lanes” for user and systems, “arrows” for Interfaces (solid for request-response interfaces, dotted-lines for async messages) etc.

The Picture below shows this concept along with the “Interface” lines and “Messages” connecting the boxes (actions) between systems. Each interface or message then was linked to the Integration Interface Registry so that it was easy to trace reuse and dependencies

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It was also important that the context picture above is fairly lean as it avoids documenting too much to avoid becoming a single giant end-to-end picture with everything on it. It is best to stay within a bounded-context and only refer to a specific use-case such as “User Registration” or “Order submission” or “Customer Management” etc. This has the added advantage of helping teams which speak a ubiquitous language talk to a collection of pictures belonging to their domain and integration-practitioners to identify a collection of such teams (bounded-contexts)

Building a library and related to EA

The journey to improve visibility and maintenance of integration artefacts then involves capturing these integration use-case context maps, storing them in a version-controlled repository, relating them to other technical and business repositories

This collection of context maps would contain similar information to a “high-level enterprise system integration view” but with a greater degree of clarity

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This collection can also be linked to the Enterprise Architecture (EA) Repository for full end-to-end traceability of Business Capabilities into Technical Implementations. In fact, the TOGAF framework describes an external Business Architecture repository pattern as part of Solution building blocks (see TOGAF structural framework )

We imagine the Integration Context Map repository linked to the Enterprise Architecture Repository and the Integration Interface repository as shown below – this would provide immense value to cross-functional teams and business stakeholders, allowing both to see a common picture

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Sequence flows or process flows?

Sequence diagrams can also be used to document technical use-cases with systems and interfaces, however similar to the Integration interface list, they then to be difficult to consume for the non-technical users and lack the clarity provided by process maps

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As a general rule of thumb we found the following segregation to be useful:

  1. What: Technical process flows for end-to-end visibility, especially useful in complex long-running distributed features.  Sequence diagrams for technical component designs, best for describing how classes or flows/sub-flows (in Mule, for example) interact
  2. Who:  Context maps by Business Analysts (BA) or Architect and Sequence flows by Developers
  3. When: Context maps by Business Analysts (BA) as early as during project Discovery, providing inputs to sizing and visual map of what-is-to-be (sketch?). Sequence flows by Developers, as a task in Development story
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Let us talk tools

There are a variety of tools that can help document process context maps in a standard BPMN 2.0 format. The key criteria here is to produce a standard artefact – a BPMN 2.0 diagram so that it can be managed by standard version-control tools and rendered to documents, team wikis etc. though tools/plugins

Below is a list of tools you can try, we recommend not getting too hung up on tools and instead focus on the practice of documenting integration use-cases

Tools

Recap

  1. As enterprise projects deliver more integrated solutions, it becomes harder to manage and change integration interfaces without proper traceability
  2. Improve traceability of a single end-to-end use-case through a context map
  3. You can use BPMN 2.0 for a standardised notation to do this and use tools to generate these context maps as .bpmn files
  4. You can version control these .bpmn  files and build a collection of context maps
  5. You can link these context maps to Integration Interface registry and Enterprise Business capability registry for increased traceability across the enterprise
  6. There are many tools to help you write the .bpmn files, don’t get hung up on the tools. Start documenting and linking to the interface registry

Conclusion

The context map collection then becomes very useful for enterprise architecture, integration operations, new project teams, testing etc. as a common visual artefact as it relates to the users, systems and interfaces they use 

Enterprise Integration process maps then become a powerful tool over time as they greatly improve visibility across the landscape and help teams navigate a complex eco-system through a contextual and meaningful visual tool; this leads to better open and maintainable integration products leading to reuse and cost-efficiency