Round 2: Workflow Conductor vs. SharePoint Designer Workflows

OK. So we've already talked about SharePoint's Out-of-the-Box workflows, and about how they differ from Workflow Conductor, but how does Workflow Conductor differ from Microsoft's custom workflow creation tools? The answer to that is pretty long, so I'm going to break it up into two parts, the first of which I cover here. I'll have another post up shortly to talk about Visual Studio workflows, but for now, let's chat about…

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft's SharePoint Designer is a multi-function Web site editing tool that (among other things) allows users to create custom workflows in SharePoint. Workflow creation involves using a text-based, wizard-style interface to define worklfow "steps" consisting of "conditions" and "actions". Workflow creation is relatively simple, though not necessarily intuitive. While there are a lot of things that can be automated using SharePoint Designer, it is not without its limitations, and some of them can be crippling depending on what you are trying to do. There has been some progress on these in the 2010 SharePoint Designer, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Probably chief among the complaints of SharePoint Designer users is workflow reusability (more precisely "lack thereof"). If you create a workflow in SharePoint, it is associated with a single list, and cannot be used again somewhere else. If you want to do the same thing somewhere else, you need to build it again … from scratch.

There are also issues with the interface. When businesses map out processes, they usually use flowcharts because they are an intuitive way to chart a series of activities. So, why wouldn't you use a flowchart-style designer to create your workflows? Microsoft realized this, and has created a work-around of sorts in 2010 (import from and export to Visio), but it's far from ideal, and it doesn't help anyone on 2007. It also requires yet another client-side app, which brings me to a third point.

SharePoint designer is a client-side app that was designed to edit Web sites. It grew out of Microsoft's old FrontPage web page creator. As such, it has all kinds of extra tools that make admins everywhere nervous. You may want someone to create a workflow, but do you want them editing site structure and CSS too? With Workflow Designer, you get a web-based, flowchart-style, drag-and-drop workflow designer that was built just for that purpose. It lets you not only create reusable workflows, but also lets you create workflow templates which can be used to create different workflows that do similar things. 

Another big complaint about SharePoint workflows is the lack of centralized management, or even visibility into the workflows that being run. To see what has been run, you need to view each item or list individually to get information, or to effect workflow settings. Workflow Conductor goes beyond just creating and deploying workflows, and gives you the ability to see and manage workflows across a SharePoint farm. It includes centralized settings in Central Admin that allows administrators to view all the workflows that have been run, as well as custom Web Parts for reporting and viewing logs. It even includes Web Parts that let users to view workflows they've started, or workflow tasks they've been assigned.

Since SharePoint Designer does let you build custom workflows, it's a little easier to draw comparisons to some of the features in Workflow Designer. Unlike the high level differences I mentioned for out-of-the-box SharePoint workflows, here is a slightly more detailed list of …

Advantages of Workflow Conductor over SharePoint Designer: 

  • Reusable Workflows
    • Workflows can be activated for multiple site collections and reused across a farm
    • Templates can be used to create a base workflow which can be updated later, or can be used as a frame for building similar but different workflows
    • Configured widgets can be copied/pasted within a workflow 
  • Web-based, drag-and-drop, flowchart-style workflow designer
    • Allows for easier design/construction of workflows
    • Makes workflows easier to understand for future edits
    • No client-side application required
    • Does not allow users to modify other non-workflow settings that could "break" a site
  • Request Approval and Request Feedback activities
    • Similar to the one-step workflows in MOSS, but with some more advanced features (ex. approval types)
  • More powerful workflow logic
    • Ability to repeat a sequence of steps until a condition is met (Repeat While)
    • Ability to run multiple sequences of events at the same time (Run Parallel)
    • Ability to start one workflow from within another workflow
  • Simple "Task" widgets
    • Create Task
    • Update Task
    • Complete Task
    • Delete Task
  • Ability to use external data sources
    • Web services
    • Databases
    • External SP data (via the REST widget) 
  • Ability to create/delete entire lists
  • Additional functionality for actions that are similar to those in SPD 
    • ex. Use variables or references for addressing an email
    • ex. "building" a field value using a combination of direct entry, variables, lookups, and references
  • Ability to use Lookups, References, and Variables on almost any setting
    • Provides more flexibility by defining what data to grab data at runtime rather than design time
    • "Easy References" provide the ability to easily insert complex lookups like "Initiator's Manager"
    • Ability to define initial variable settings for a workflow 
  • Improved workflow management and status information
    • 4 unique Web Parts that provide workflow status reporting, log viewing, and customized user-specific views of workflows and workflow tasks
    • Centralized workflow settings and management in Central Administration, including the ability to see all workflows that have been run across the entire farm
    • An "Associated Workflows" page that allows admins to see/remove a workflows that are associated with a list
    • A workflow status page that shows the status of workflows run on a particular item

So, I hope you are starting to get a clearer picture of what makes Workflow Conductor stand apart from your average workflow. If you're ready to check it out for yourself, go ahead and download your free 30-day trial now.  

What's that? You're still not convinced Workflow Conductor is the solution to all of your process woes? You're thinking of building your own solution from scratch and want to know how Workflow Conductor stacks up against Visual Studio? OK. Just because you asked so nicely …

Coming soon to a blog near you, "Workflow Conductor vs. Visual Studio"!

Score all three rounds of the bout between Workflow Conductor and Microsoft's workflow offerings in SharePoint:

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