Over 150 attendees turned up to watch the first-ever “Workflow Shootout” at the European SharePoint Conference this past week. Anticipation for the event was enhanced the scattering of promotional signs throughout the expo halls. These signs had a pretty clever design, making it look as if an American-style Old West gun battle was in store for the participants: Datapolis, Nintex, and K2. The shootout promised to pit three SharePoint workflow providers together on stage to face-off in an unscripted contest of product capabilities. It didn’t really matter if you were in the market for a workflow tool or not. The opportunity to possibly witness a train wreck as vendors were forced to step outside the comfort of their canned demo datasets was just too interesting to miss. So, did the shootout deliver? Well, that depends on what you wanted to see. If you went hoping to see a one of the vendors crash his demo server or crack under the pressure of the moment and run offstage in embarrassed tears, then no, you probably wouldn’t say the session delivered. But in my opinion, the shootout did deliver, and ended up producing some clear winners and losers.
The Workflow shootout followed a strict format. Each vendor was given a certain amount of time to complete four tasks. The spirit of friendly competition was stressed, and the ground rules laid out a gentleman’s contest where no interrupting or heckling was allowed. Despite its billing as a shootout, the point of the session, as stated by the announcer, was exhibition – not competition. The session organizers did a great job building excitement and U2 was played in the background as each “master of workflow” was introduced onstage. Mike Fitzmaurice was called upon to represent Nintex, Andrew Murphy stepped up for K2, and Datapolis’s Pawel Wrobel showcased their product. Each introduction gave some company info, customer counts, and personal background on the participant. It was clear at this point that Datapolis was definitely the new kid in town in terms of customer lists. We were about to find out if Pawel was the next Billy the Kid, or if he’d be cut down in broad daylight by his more seasoned opponents.
It was high noon, so to speak, as Task 1 was announced. Each master of workflow had five minutes to create and publish a travel request workflow. Mike Fitzmaurice, representing Nintex, was called upon to go first. He asked the audience whether they wanted to see a workflow built from scratch or for him to complete the task with a prebuilt workflow. The audience requested to see a workflow built from scratch and Mike responded. Within five minutes he had set up and published a basic three-step travel request approval workflow. He configured email notifications at each step of the process and added the wrinkle to allow a manager to approve the request instant message. It was very well done and he set the bar pretty high for the next shootout participant: K2’s Andrew Murphy. Andrew began dropping in a generic approval workflow template that’s provided with their product. To this template, he then walked the audience through the steps required to configure the workflow steps, added an additional approval step if the cost of the travel exceeded a certain amount, and even used a node to automatically add the approved calendar event to Exchange. It was an impressive display of flexibility. Pawel Wrobel of Datapolis then began his presentation by displaying a handwritten sketch of the travel request workflow that he and another Datapolis team member had decided upon. He then showed, laid out on paper, how complicated this workflow was, and how it was even more complicated when represented by SharePoint’s out-of-the-box workflow. Pawel then showed the workflow from within Datapolis’s workflow product. This didn’t distinguish them from the competition, however, as both Nintex and K2 had just shown similar drag-and-drop workflow builders. Pawel then showed how easy it was to add an additional approval step and then did something the other presenters did not – and that was to show how end-users in SharePoint interacted with the workflow through item context menus. Although he took a different approach than Mike and Andrew’s, his coverage of the first task was deftly handled. So, who won the first task? Like I said, each of the presenters did a good job of it, but I’d have to give the edge on Task 1 to Andrew. Mike was a close second, and I was tempted to call this one a tie, but I think Andrew showed some impressive wrinkles that the others did not.
Task 2 gave each master of workflow 10 minutes to showcase a workflow to onboard a new employee. The order was kept the same from the prior round and Mike Fitzmaurice from Nintex drew from his holster first. He again asked the audience whether they wanted to see a workflow built from scratch or a prebuilt workflow. The audience chose the from-scratch method for a second time. As Mike pointed out, he could do it either way, but a “from scratch” workflow would obviously be less complicated than a prebuilt one. Mike didn’t seem to be having to pull any punches though. His employee on-boarding workflow created Microsoft Exchange and Lync accounts, claimed an office space for the employee from a list, and even demonstrated the use of a Web service call to Azure cloud services. This was done fairly quickly and the balance of the ten minutes allotted was used to show how to configure the details of the workflow and add additional steps like the scheduling of the employee’s next review. K2’s Andrew Murphy was up next. Andrew used Task 2 to showcase the utilization of InfoPath forms the K2 product. He demonstrated how no-code functions on the form could allow a default password to be generated for a new employee. He had his workflow also generate the creation of an ID card that included a user step to actually print the card. Because the visual complexity of multistep workflows can get crazy, Andrew did well to showcase the use of processes and subprocess in the K2 product to hide the complexity of workflows. To end the round, Datapolis’s Pawel Wrobel presented his employee on-boarding demonstration. His workflow was similar to the two others in features and functionality. He also added the nice wrinkle of creating a welcome card for the new employee. The Datapolis product also has a way to separate the more detailed workflow steps into dual layers that can insulate the high-level business process view from technical level complexity. In my opinion, Mike’s performance on Task 2 carried the day. Although the workflows were all similar, Mike was able to produce his from scratch and still have an impressive amount of time left over to customize it.
Now that the products had been put through their paces, the third task was for each vendor to explain their licensing and pricing at the lowest entry-level option and then at a medium-level option consisting of two Web front-end servers, one application server, and 500 users. At the entry-level, Nintex and Datapolis offered inexpensive but limited versions of their products for approximately $2,500 and $5,000 respectively. Both products limited either the number of sites or the number of users that the product could handle. K2’s low-end option started at $10,000 and was only limited to the requirement to utilize only one app server. Offerings that covered the mid-level requirement ranged from approximately $14,000-$28,000 and differed based on what features one wished to have enabled. My impression was that at the mid-level, K2’s licensing was much more straightforward and actually much less expensive than the other two vendors. Those seeking a lower-end solution under $5K would be better served Nintex or Datapolis depending on which had the licensing limitation they could live with.
The final task required each presenter to take five minutes to describe how their product compared to the other two vendors and to answer the question, “what makes you unique?” Mike Fitzmaurice did well to hang his hat on the ease of use of the Nintex product and to stress that their product ran on SharePoint and did not require any extra infrastructure. He cited the capability to integrate with both on-premises and cloud services and the availability of over 100 workflow tools. K2’s Andrew Murphy highlighted their product’s scalable architecture that did not require it to sit on the SharePoint server. He also pointed out that their product was deep enough to not only handle workflow but could also cover requirements for BPM and case management. Pawel Wrobel then explained how the Datapolis product compares to the others. He mentioned that they were 100% SharePoint and highlighted the use of dual layers – business and technical, that could be used to hide complexity in workflows. He mentioned the ability to perform operations on batch items through workflow and the seamless use of a “taskless” workflow that allowed for faster user adoption. In the end, it was very difficult to make heads or tails of who did or didn’t do what when it came to specific features.
So, who was left standing when the shootout was over? I believe that the strongest product of the three appeared to be K2’s solution. For a larger enterprise, their ability to scale off the SharePoint server appears to be a big differentiator. Nintex was a close second as they outclassed the competition when it came to ease of use. Although Mike’s giving the audience a choice for him to build from scratch or use a prebuilt workflow could have easily created a perceived feature gap when the others showed prefabricated workflows, it only proved to show how easy their own product was to use. Coming into the contest, I was pulling for the underdog Datapolis and Pawel did a great job keeping up with the other two. I was impressed with the depth of the Datapolis product and my only knock on it was that I don’t believe his presentation did enough to communicate how their product differed from the other two. Among the three participants, I don’t think there were any outright losers. The only losers were exhibiting vendors like my own Bamboo Solutions which also has a workflow product, Workflow Conductor, but were not asked to participate. I don’t begrudge the conference organizers for that omission. There were no fewer than eight companies at the SharePoint Conference with a workflow solution, and logistically, they had to limit their choices to those participants who they perceived as being the most recognizable. The shootout was the brainchild of Michael Greth who told me that he has lobbied for this type of session for years, and finally was able to convince a conference to attempt it. Well done, Michael. I think it made this year’s conference unique and added some fun and excitement to the event.
European SharePoint Conference Feedback
I have collected some comments on the European SharePoint Conference 2011 from several blogs: AvePoint
Eventos: European SharePoint Conference 2011
Una vez pasada la European SharePoint Conference 2011 en Berlín – Alemania, y a la espera de la