AgilePoint Anounces Office 365 and Forms Capabilities at SPC14

Well, it's that time of year again where all the SharePoint product companies trot out to Las Vegas to strut their stuff.

Today, we have a big anouncement from the SPC 2014 Keynote Sponsor, AgilePoint.

AgilePoint - SharePoint Conference New Product Highlights

In this release, there are two things I noticed right away that we've been eagerly awaiting for a long time. 1) AgilePoint support for Office 365 not just as something that can be manipulated by workflow, but in a fully integrated fashion similar to Nintex workflow. 2) An alternative to InfoPath forms that emphasizes responsive web design.

As readers of our blog will know, we're quite fond of AgilePoint's product. One of the difficulties we face in working with it, however is that it didn't really play well with customers working in Office 365. We're happy to see now that is a possibility, and we'll be putting together some demonstrations in the next few weeks, as we definitely want to be able to take this out for a test drive and see what's possible.

Who Really Has the Best SharePoint Workflow Product?

I came across this blog article today, asking the question "Who has the best SharePoint Workflow Product?" This seems to have gotten a lot of attention, and so far I see that over 4,500 people have voted. That's some serious interest!

I sometimes get this question from our customers, and this is particularly challenging for me because often the correct answer is "it depends". Sure it sounds like a copout, but it's really not a very simple question.

It gets even a bit more complex for us, because we partnered with Nintex and AgilePoint, and needless to say Thanksgiving dinner can get a little bit awkward if I were to try and declare a unilateral favorite. But, read on and you'll see there's a reason that things played out that way.

I'm going to do my best to approach this question as impartially as I can. I will be very candid. From my point of view, the three workflow products mentioned in the article, AgilePoint, Nintex, and K2 are certainly the best of breed for all SharePoint workflow products. There's also Bamboo, Datapolis Workbox, HarePoint, MetaStorm, and Global360 to name just a few; but I really feel like most of these have missed their chance to take a leadership position in this space, in one way or another.

So here it goes: the good the bad, and the ugly of SharePoint workflow and third-party products.

Why Not OOTB SharePoint Workflow?


You can't have a serious discussion of third-party workflow products in SharePoint without asking the obvious question, "Why not use SharePoint workflow in the first place?" Personally, I am not a fan of SharePoint so-called out-of-the-box workflow for a lot of reasons.

OK - deep breath, inhale…

The first thing that jumps out at me is the way that Microsoft has absolutely bungled SharePoint workflow when you look at what they've done over the past ten years. In SharePoint 2001, they had workflow, but in SharePoint Portal Server 2003 they took it away completely. In 2007 they brought workflow back, using something like Outlook rules to help end users develop simple workflows, or Workflow Foundation in Visual Studio for the really complex stuff. These had serious limitations and neither could be effectively created by analysts alone, so in SharePoint 2010 they introduced some Visio capabilities - but then totally dropped the ball by taking away any ability to do simple workflows with loops or anything like "go back to step 2". I was sure they'd get it right in SharePoint 2013, so I was horrified to learn that they have completely revamped the workflow system so that now 2010 workflows and 2013 workflows are completely different and incompatible - and that in the 2013 version there are a significant number of actions you can no longer do that worked in the 2010 version. To me, this is not a stable and mature part of the platform; to leverage it will be like building on shifting sand and you should be prepared to rebuild everything in a couple of years if you go this way.

More so, SharePoint's native workflow cannot handle complex, recursive, or long-running flow patterns. Some processes are just too complex, long-running, or rapidly changing to be supported by SharePoint's native workflows without either a great deal of custom code - unless you use a third-party workflow product or in some cases a full-blown Business Process Management (BPM) suite.

As for Visual Studio workflow, custom code is expensive and time-consuming both to create and to maintain on an ongoing basis, so the best practice in almost any situation where the problem can be solved by either custom code or an existing product on the market is to use the existing product.

Finally, even in SharePoint designer there's a valid point that if you have developers available to do SharePoint workflow in Visual Studio or SharePoint designer, there is a very, very, very good chance that there's something (anything!) else that they could be doing instead which would give you a better return on their development time. Thus, we strongly recommend that you pick at least one third-party workflow product.

That being said, let's move on and take a look at some products!

Nintex Workflow


Nintex is an excellent choice if you have workflows that are more complex than can be easily done out-of-the-box with SharePoint. It's comparatively easy to set it up and use it when you contrast it with anything K2 has to offer. As a result, Nintex is commonly used to supplement SharePoint Workflow within the vast majority of SharePoint farms.

 

I haven't recently looked for any market data, but I'm pretty sure that Nintex is by far the most successful SharePoint product in terms of pure sales, and as a partner we love the Nintex web site for their ability to give us the resources we need to market and demonstrate their product. You will have no absolutely difficulty finding a reseller in your area to help you with professional services - although I hope that you'll just call on us instead. We'd be happy to give you a demo. Personally. ;-)

Nintex has pretty good integration with systems outside of SharePoint. Off the top of my head I know that we can use it to do most basic tasks within SharePoint, plus we can call web services from outside systems or manipulate databases. These features are pretty easy to use, but I would not say that your average SharePoint user or site owner will necessarily know how to leverage them. That said, most business users will be able to get by doing things purely inside of SharePoint.

Nintex has EXCELLENT support for the cloud. They have a version of their product that runs on Amazon Web Services and integrates with Office 365 SharePoint Online. At this writing, I'm not aware of any other workflow product for SharePoint that can claim this.

As far as downsides go, I'd say that Nintex architecture suffers from the same issues that SharePoint workflow does, so on SP 2010 or older your workflows are going to run on the web front end and will consume resources there. As a result, you may need to add more WFE to your farm the more you use it. This is mighty convenient for Nintex, since they license the product per WFE in your farm.

One other thing to note is that Nintex can't really handle the high complexity in some of the processes that we develop for our clients. We're talking about long-running processes that could take months or over a year to complete, and they have hundreds of steps. You see things like this in government agencies a lot. I've done really mind bogglingly complex ones for NIH, FAA, and most recently USDA. Personally, I wouldn't want to try to use Nintex to solve these sorts of problems.

AgilePoint (particularly Genesis Edition)


Considering all the workflow products for SharePoint, probably the main thing to point out about AgilePoint is that it is so much more than just a workflow engine. There just aren't that many players out there in SharePoint workflow who can honestly claim they are a fully functional business process management system, or BPMS.

 

As a result, AgilePoint workflows can be changed while running. A long-running flow will not be "orphaned" by changes to the process that occur while it is in progress. This is perhaps the very best feature. As a rule, if you process has 25 or more steps and is completed over the span of a month or more, you should strongly consider AgilePoint.

And yet, in contrast to many other BPMS systems, AgilePoint is designed exclusively for the Microsoft .NET framework, and relies heavily on the MS product suite for its creation and implementation, rather than using a proprietary tools. AgilePoint uses Microsoft Visio to design workflows and InfoPath to create forms, so any office with full Microsoft Office licensing already has all the tools AgilePoint requires. It integrates natively into SharePoint workflow; AgilePoint workflows can be deployed to SharePoint at least as easily as SharePoint's own native workflows can be deployed from SharePoint Designer.

AgilePoint Genesis installs natively alongside (and co-exists with) other SharePoint workflows. It supports every known pattern of dynamic and ad-hoc workflow identified by the BPM industry and provides 36 different functions for interacting with SharePoint. More are available with the Enterprise edition, and the possibilities with custom AgileParts are virtually limitless. This functionality leads us to conclude that AgilePoint sports A+ level “tight integration” with SharePoint. Users will never know their process has left the SharePoint server, yet AgilePoint will not negatively impact SharePoint performance in any way.

As a company, AgilePoint's primary focus is in workflow, and it’s designed to make creation and modification of workflows easily accessible to business users, rather than requiring high levels of programming skill. A business analyst with strong knowledge of Visio can be trained to create a fairly complex workflow within half a day. Workflow activities can be based on InfoPath forms created by anyone with technical savvy to create forms in Microsoft Access. Most process revision consists of moving objects on a diagram and doesn’t require a developer at all.

Call me a total geek, but one cannot discuss the strengths of AgilePoint without at least mentioning some of the obscure but important technical aspects that make it a truly impressive product. For one, AgilePoint’s model is declarative, meaning that there's almost entirely no code generated to drive the workflow process, only XML; this is in sharp contrast to many BPMS as ell as the MS Workflow Foundation Engine (SharePoint, K2, Nintex) which all use a high amount of dynamically generated source code to drive the workflow logic. In fact, AgilePoint actually uses the Visio document format itself to drive its workflow engine, so the process is literally running the exact same flow-charts drawn by the business analysts and developers! Another advantage is that AgilePoint is one of only a very few pure-play .NET BPMS out there in the market. Also, the product is built entirely on .NET; there is no part of the product which inherits from COM as many older and more well-established players in the market still do (over 10 years after .NET’s debut).

That’s not to say you can’t program against it if you want to; developers can write full featured extension in .NET, and they often know tricks to make InfoPath and SharePoint do things that go well beyond out-of-the-box capabilities. We've found that many additional things can be done if you're willing to add custom web services to the mix (also true for Nintex, to be completely fair). For example, we built a set of web services for one of our clients that allows them to move and copy Documents Sets around in SharePoint using AgilePoint, and it also implements structured creation of new team sites which is an important aspect to SharePoint governance.

Finally, the very low cost of AgilePoint's Genesis product is a significant advantage, putting it within reach of smaller companies and even single-project level budgets. AgilePoint's Enterprise Edition is traditionally a product costing five-figures; however they recently reduced their pricing quite substantially to be competitive in the SharePoint market. For 100 users, a typical annual fee for Genesis with AgileReports and InfoPath support would be less than $5k, and governments and non-profits get even better pricing. They've also proven to be flexible about selling additional components a-la-carte from the higher edition of the product if you only need a few. It's worth pointing out that even at the Enterprise price, it holds its own nicely against many six and even seven figure alternatives.

For up to date AgilePoint pricing or other product information, please fill out our short request form. You'll be taken to their product information and download page afterwards If you decide to download the free version, please let them know we sent you.
By now you probably realize that I truly love working with this product. So, I will mention a couple of disadvantages, just to prove I am being completely honest.

Firstly, I have to say that while AgilePoint comes closer to the promise of developer free workflow than just about anyone else does, their system is still quite complex and you will need the help of an experienced consultant to really make it sing. (I swear I am not saying that just so that you'll hire us.) For simple workflows, you will be fine following the basic patterns for which there are many demos, and I think most business users could probably make minor adjustments to processes. This is where a ley AgilePoint strength can become a bit of a weakness, because it really lets you build these amazingly complicated workflows. Once something gets that complex, of course it is going to require a specialist.

Also, AgilePoint does have a runs-in-the-cloud option, but it lags behind Nintex in terms of support for Office 365. Last we heard, you can't initiate a workflow instance from inside a SharePoint Online list or document library. However, their support for Office 365 sites as part of a workflow that starts in some other way is pretty good. If you're running a hybrid farm scenario with one foot on-premises and one foot in the cloud, you might be able to work around this. Also, their technical team is pretty savvy, and I live in hope that they might catch up pretty soon.

Another drawback is that AgilePoint Genesis is reliant on InfoPath. That could be a strength, depending on how you look at it. Microsoft has promised that InfoPath will be a part of SharePoint until at least 2020, but they've pretty effectively bumbled the message to customers and partners alike about what we should use instead of InfoPath. AgilePoint does have their own forms engine that is part of their enterprise product, and we're hoping to see some flavor of that included into Genesis edition so we can offer an option for folks trying to actively avoid InfoPath in their solutions.

One final note is that we've learned that very, very large forms could cripple the ability to do parallel process. This is because each step in the AgilePoint process is a view in the same InfoPath document; two people can't edit the document at the same time. However, it's possible to work around this issue, by designing you processes with this limitation in mind.

All in all, we find that AgilePoint pros far outweigh the cons. If you want a six-figure BPMS at a four-figure price and would like to avoid spending millions of dollars to support a system that might see fewer actual workflows implemented on it than I have fingers on one hand, skip the big boys and build it in AgilePoint.

K2


K2 BlackPearl and BlackPoint, its lightweight SharePoint version, are great products built on .NET technology and well suited to strong integration with SharePoint. K2 has been around a long time, and as a result their product has a great feature set. They were the dominant player in SharePoint workflow until Nintex came along and ate their lunch as people made the switch from 2007 to 2010.

K2 has good integration with products that are not SharePoint. In fact, I'd describe their flagship product is a standalone workflow product that just happens to play really well with SharePoint. As such you won't have any serious issues using it to connect to Oracle or other non-Microsoft systems - though it is built on Microsoft so it's going to be stronger in that scenario.

In some ways, I feel a little bit guilty - as if my review of K2 should be a little bit longer. However, simply put, they're far too expensive for my taste. It costs a lot to buy, there aren't that many people who know if really well, and development isn't lightweight enough to give to the business users, so there will always be a development cost for using it.

My recommendation is that if you already leverage K2 in your enterprise, then using it in SharePoint is a no brainer; if you haven't already got it In house, you should weigh it against the other options available.

(More of my thoughts on this are now in the comments; thanks to the community for challenging my thinking on this.)

MetaStorm


As a BPMS platform, MetaStorm has considerable strengths. Its primary focuses are on forms creation and business process modeling (i.e., analyzing and optimizing a flow that is not well understood in order to improve it). Its proprietary forms creation mechanisms are fairly robust, and they are fully integrated with its process flows. In addition, it can be integrated with Microsoft Office - a toolbar at the top allows work in MS Office applications to be integrated into MetaStorm processes, once the MetaStorm client has been installed. MetaStorm's design philosophy was to create a "One-stop shop" where flows, forms, reports and dashboards can all be created and managed within the same interface. For those who are adept with that interface, this can be an enormous advantage.

However, MetaStorm's weaknesses make it less than ideal for managing the workflow within SharePoint.

To begin with, while both products make the claim that they are integrated with SharePoint, it is very important to point out that MetaStorm is only “loosely” integrated with SharePoint. It offers web parts that are "windows" into the MetaStorm engine, allowing access to forms and dashboards, but these web parts can't be used to create MetaStorm elements, they merely interact with them. The actual forms and processes are housed entirely within the MetaStorm server, and users of the web parts are frequently directed to external web pages within that server. Sometimes web users are forced to accept functionality that is much more limited than that provided by the MS Office add-on.

The connections to SharePoint processes are not native and need considerable configuration and technical expertise. While MetaStorm processes and forms used solely within that product can indeed be developed by mid-level Information Workers, the ability to wire MetaStorm flows to SharePoint at various connection points requires strong developer-level skills; it is our opinion that it's a tool best suited for large organizations where an entire IT department exists to create and modify workflow, where that department can be trained on the use of a specialized, proprietary tool. There would be a substantial technical cost for most organizations to acquire these additional skills on top of skills in SharePoint development.

On a recently completed project, we had approached the company to show us how we might do manipulation of SharePoint sites, documents, and other assets from within MetaStorm. What we found was that this always came down to custom code. OpenText does have some impressive libraries of scripts that can be used for this purpose and they seem willing enough to share; but I keep coming back to this - it is more code and it will need to be maintained.

Finally, we could find no example of anyone leveraging InfoPath as the form repository with MetaStorm as the BPMS nor could OpenText point us to one, although this issue may pale compared to the complete confusion regarding Microsoft's plan vis-a-vis the future of InfoPath.

MetaStorm has been around for a while under different names and companies. It has both a Java version and a .NET version. Parts of the .NET version of their process engine pre-date .NET and require higher-level developer knowledge to program or troubleshoot. What will happen to MetaStorm in the future is really unclear to us, since OpenText also owns a couple other workflow products including the formerly known Global360.

For these reasons, we don't generally recommend trying to implement SharePoint workflow in MetaStorm. It's not necessarily a bad product, but it just doesn't seem like the right product for the job 99% of the time.

Other BPMS Products


The vast majority of BPMS products come from the IBM technology space, are written in Java, and they typically do not integrate with SharePoint at all. This makes the set of developer skills required to build and maintain flows in those products far different from the set needed for managing SharePoint. Many are also cost prohibitive. In an environment where SharePoint already exists this would certainly drive up costs beyond what is reasonable. In general, I don't think it's such a great idea to use these systems combined with SharePoint - YMMV.

SharePoint Workflow? Why Not Zoidberg?


If I had to pick a favorite from the list above, I would have a very hard time choosing between AgilePoint and Nintex. So, here's where I have to ask the question that I do not hear people asking very often. If these different products have such different strengths and weaknesses, why not simple use more than one?

I happen to think that's a great idea. Use Nintex for your quick-and-dirty, self service, six-guns blazing, SharePoint workflows that will work really well with the lazier faire approach to SharePoint collaboration - particularly in Office 365. Use AgilePoint to develop complex or long-running processes that will improve the maturity level of your organization and require continual adaptation and improvement. Especially when you look at prices for both AgilePoint Genesis and Nintex for Office 365, you'll see that you can probably fit both of them into your budget easily.

Did you like this article or find it helpful in making a decision? Do you work for one of these companies and feel like I didn't give your product a fair shake or left something out? Perhaps you've used one of these products in your organization and have an experience or opinion you'd like to share. Leave me something in the comments, subscribe to my blog (see upper right of this page), tell your friends about us, or give us a 5.0 on PinPoint - it's cheaper than buying me a beer and won't get lost in the mail.

----------------Comments from the old blog---------------------

Massimo
12/12/2013, 7:17:50 AM
Great write up and very useful for anyone wanting to make a decision on choosing the right workflow/BPM tool for their SharePoint. 
 
Thanks and keep them coming!


Jey
12/12/2013, 11:25:46 AM
K2 is a fantastic product. It provides simple and easy approach to bringing data, forms and workflow capabilities together into applications that are configured. Reuse is at the core and configuration is everywhere. This is where I see the product lending itself for people to learn it quickly and leverage it massively.


Dayv
12/12/2013, 11:46:04 AM
Your experience with K2 must be very outdated, as web based designers allow everyone to build processes. K2 also integerates with any .Net service application such CMS, SalesForce, SAS, etc., so there really are no limits.  
 
As to the price, well it is true that you get what you pay for. 
 
Too many of the SharePoint integrated BPMS products, especially those built on SharePoint Declarative Workflows (ah... extensions of SharePoint Designer), are too dependent on Microsoft not making any changes, and tend to break when SP Service Packs are rolled out.


Thomas Carpe
12/12/2013, 12:01:30 PM
Dayv and Jay, 
 
I agree with you that K2 is an excellent product. They've been around for several versions of SharePoint and so their feature set it robust and mature. 
 
I do not agree that it is a problem of you get what you pay for, as all these products are excellent for what they were designed to do. From my point of view, the main challenge with getting customers to adopt K2 has always been price, and that goes for any large scale product (take AvePoint's DocAve as one example). Especially since 2009, there's been a lot of downward pressure in the marketplace and with the appetization of the SharePoint market it is a challenge to get any but the largest enterprise to adopt a five or six figure solution no matter what bells, whistles, and unicorns are included in the box.  
 
Workflow (and the need for BPM) often starts at the project level and not in the enterprise - at least that's my experience where I have seen it succeed, and therefore the means are going to be on a much smaller scale in general. In particular, Office 365 customers have especially small budgets. 
 
I wouldn't say that my experience with K2 is limited, but I do admit that it is a bit out of date. The last time I used the product in a solution was on the SP2007 platform and at that time the engine was reliant on Workflow Foundation and thus had all the same fundamental flaws that Dayv describes regarding patching regimens and such. 
 
One thing I do feel like I need to rebut about your comments on declarative workflows: what you say about anything relying on SPD workflow, XOML, etc. is absolutely correct. One might say that same is true with WFE as a service packs and Microsoft product upgrades will almost certainly break workflow - just look at what happened with SP2010 vs. 2013 and workflow. However, AgilePoint's declarative model is their own XML schema and not based on XOML at all; therefore it has none of those drawbacks. In my view it has proven to be very reliable. 
 
It seems not we've heard a bit from some folks from K2, and I do appreciate that since my review of that product is a bit sparse and I think people need to hear about what it can do well in addition to where it falls short. I may take another look at the product if the opportunity presents itself.


Renier Britz
12/12/2013, 2:49:50 PM
Hi Thomas, 
 
Thank you for taking the time to put this post together.  
 
To be completely transparent, I work for K2.  
 
The first thing, you are correct by saying that K2 relies on Workflow Foundation our runtime execution engine is built on workflow foundation, to date we have never been disrupted by any updates on Windows Workflow Foundation. SharePoint ships with a workflow runtime that is also build on top of windows workflow foundation. You called out SP 2010 vs SP 2013 workflows, it’s not because of changes to Windows Workflow Foundation it is because of changes to the implementation of workflow runtime on top of workflow foundation. K2 is unaffected by changes made on the SharePoint workflow runtime as we don’t rely on the SharePoint workflow runtime and therefore don’t inherent the same set of limitations. 
 
The second point I would like to address: Pricing – as you mentioned “Workflow (and the need for BPM) often starts at the project level and not in the enterprise” I agree 100%. K2 pricing is competitive and allows organizations to start small, in many cases started on department level. We have more options in the works, lookout for major announcements in March ’14 at the K2 User Conference. 
 
Now back to what this is all about, workflow tools for SharePoint – With SharePoint 2013 Microsoft made a ton of existing enhancements, the app model being one of the most interesting changes. We had a choice, take what we have and make it work on SharePoint 2013 OR take full advantage of the changes and build something that will truly change the way people create forms and workflow-driven apps on the SharePoint platform (emphasis on create, this should not be a developer only play). The easiest way to get familiar with what K2 has to offer, go and have a look at the following recorded webcast: http://pages.k2.com/sharepoint2013beta.aspx 
 
If you have any questions let me know. 
 
Cheers, 
r


Thomas Carpe
12/12/2013, 3:15:45 PM
Renier, 
 
Thanks for sharing. I really do appreciate getting an outside perspective on K2. Our goal is always to make sure our customers get the right solution that works for them, which as I said before is one of the reasons that I may seem a bit ambivalent when it comes SharePoint workflow and third-party products. 
 
Going to what you said about WFE, you are correct and I am sorry if I was less than clear on this. WFE is a sub-structure which is different from SharePoint workflow in the same way that ASP.net is a sub-structure and not the same thing as the SharePoint API. What I was referring to in the comment about the move from 2010 to 2013 SP workflow is that there was a lot of shifting around in the way Microsoft implemented workflow between the two versions. 
 
Some of that may be like you said, part of a fundamental shift in the way Microsoft wants developers to deliver on the platform. Back in July, I heard Ira Fuchs present on the differences between SP workflow in 2010 and 2013 and I have to say that I was not impressed at the loss of capabilities on the new model and that MS has basically said that if you don't like the takeaways well then you can still build SPD 2010 workflows instead. 
 
Maybe they will provide it later - maybe not. Either way, if you can't manipulate SharePoint with it, what was the point in Microsoft making the update in the first place? For now, all the third-party workflow products are safe until MS figures out how to do it right, but after 5+ versions I'm not holding my breath. 
 
At any rate, it's all part of a big shift to client side code, and like many people in the SharePoint development world I have mixed feelings about that too - and I am not fully sure that I can say I trust MS to deliver a framework that will be a place where we can exceed our client's expectations - at least in the near term future, since they usually take their time and a few tries before they do anything right. ;-) 
 
I do look forward to seeing what you guys are cooking for next year. Perhaps I will revisit this topic then, or take a more detailed look into K2 at that point. 
 
By the way, I maintained your product link in the comment. Make sure to hit your bosses up for a Christmas bonus and have a great holiday. ;-)


Steven Bretti
12/12/2013, 8:58:04 PM
K2 is a serious BPM product that allows for a number of capabilities that cover business needs very well. Forms, Data, Workflow and Reporting. It empowers the business users with simple user interfaces and no-code solutions. 
I think this is its biggest advantage, the ability to provide no-code solutions not just for the workflow, but also for capturing data through K2 smartforms, and any CRUD based requirements through K2 smartobjects without having to write code. Purely point and click through the UI. 
Yet it still has the capability to scale this out at a later stage to do more advanced business automation. 
This is important. You want to buy one product to cover the enterprise needs, rather than have multiple tools that you're paying multiple licences for. 
K2 can live within your SharePoint solution as a seamless application, or it can live on its own. It is not limited by SharePoint. It also provides integration options to common enterprise systems such as CRM, Salesforce and other LoB systems. 
 
Definitely a product worth considering in any BPM based solution, whether you are looking at it for a SharePoint based solution, or for your enterprise needs. I think it covers both very well, and priced accordingly.


Thomas Carpe
12/13/2013, 5:52:12 PM
Thank you steven for your insights. 
 
I do think that what you're saying about is probably true for any enterprise class BPMS product include AgilePoint Enterprise Edition. K2 also has a light-weight version that runs in SharePoint alone as I understand it, so to be fair I think I'd compare *that* version to Genesis and Nintex. It just seems a bit unfair to me to judge different weapons manufacturers by comparing a tank to a rifle. ;-) 
 
I have to say, I've noticed that this blog has gotten a lot of attention from the folks at K2. Their marketing department must be really good about getting the word out. I certainly don't mind since it's great exposure and a love a vigorous debate. It would also be cool to see hear some more from some of those people from in the original survey who voted for Nintex and AgilePoint. ^_^


Thomas Carpe
12/13/2013, 6:06:16 PM
Decided to check in on the original survey and see if things were still holding neck and neck or if there might be some trends. I was surprised to see today that AO is pulling ahead at almost 40% and Nintex is not too far behind. 
 
You folks who love K2 may have a point, but the survey seems to be saying something slightly different. Well, it's a web-poll so I guess you can't take these things too seriously, right? ^_^
Gerhard
12/16/2013, 11:36:50 AM
Hi Thomas, 
 
Thanks for a very interesting article. I do not have any experience with Nintex or Agilepoint but your comparisons and descriptions of them has been interesting. I do however have more than 10 years’ experience with K2 and I’d like to add to your review of K2 – and in fact compare it more closely to what you have written about Nintex and Agilepoint, especially since as you said you did not have a lot to write about K2, maybe this will be helpful.  
 
K2 vs Nintex 
Building simple SharePoint only workflows in either tool I guess is going to be a matter of preference. However the fact that the Nintex workflows run on the WFE vs K2 having its own dedicated execution engine is quite a big drawback. I guess that could even out if K2 is installed on a very small single server footprint, but I really like the fact that K2 can easily scale and a process that starts out simple now can grow as your organization’s needs grows. I believe that Nintex workflow reporting data is only stored for something like 90 days - In K2 this is not an issue at all as all data is stored in K2’s own databases and can be stored indefinitely or archived after a period of time. The other drawback for Nintex is complicated workflows as you mention – should not be a problem with K2.  
 
K2 vs AP 
 
You mention long running processes as a major feature and benefit, something that K2 is also good at, as mentioned above. K2 processes are versioned so by default process instances remain on the process version it started on (which is a good thing imo). Tools exist to manage cross process version migrations if that is really necessary. The ability to create K2 workflows inside Visio has existed since the late 2000’s but I guess it never really caught on with customers, since the K2 UI is already so user friendly and easy to use that the Visio UI components disappeared from the scene and frankly I do not miss them – so me personally… not to excited about building processes inside Visio in AgilePoint. It sounds almost like building forms inside MS Word.. the tool does not fit the job. I have not seen AP’s implementation of this, but that is just my opinion of it. Ease of use, non-developers making changes while still having flexibility to create amazing add-on components can all be done in K2, just like in AP. Your point about needing a consultant to “really make it sing”… I like the way you put it, and that’s also true for K2, but again it’s probably fair enough because in any such a complicated platform you will need a specialist to really bring it to its full potential.  
 
So from the information on your blog it seems to me that K2 is really not that different than Nintex or AgilePoint - and I guess you are right in that you will have to know your requirements for a workflow product very well and only with that in mind can you really decide amongst these contenders. Personally my vote will go for K2 because I am confident that I can really build any solution on it and scale it well into the future.  

Thomas Carpe
12/16/2013, 12:29:47 PM
Gerhard, 
 
All your points are well taken. This was the best read on K2 that I have seen yet, and yes I think you really are helping to create a complete picture which is great. I've gotten a lot of good information about a product I admittedly knew less about. 
 
I'd like to throw in a few Segway comments if I might, that were just sort of inspired by your remarks. 
 
The first is about Visio and its relationship to workflow. If I were diagramming a workflow or business process without any sort of BPA behind it, obviously I would diagram that in Visio using a flow chart. That's a no brainer. 
 
Over the years, I've used a variety of tools including BizTalk and yes sometimes even SharePoint Designer, and I've always been disappointed in their sad attempts to integrate with Visio. I never used the tools for Visio and K2 either, so I can't comment if they're better than the ones I've used. 
 
AgilePoint was the first product that I saw where I could basically map out my entire flow as a drawing and then publish it and refine the properties etc. In that aspect my biggest frustration is often that I get a flow chart in Visio from a business analyst and I have to re-draw the entire thing using AP shapes. The thing that I really like about it is that when it shows the status of my workflow in SharePoint it uses my actual Visio drawing to display it, including any custom shapes and comments I might add to it. There's an image up on this blog post as an example. Somehow people just really like seeing where their process it; and having the flexibility to display it in ways other than a cascading downward waterfall is great for me. If some other products can do that for me, yes I would really like to see that. So, maybe you don't go squeeeeee over Visio, and that's OK, but I see real value in using it. 
 
The other thing I thought of here is that it does generally depend on the developer's confidence in a product. And, confidence is generally a function of experience. We need those past products to help us understand the capabilities and also the limits of the products we are working with. This is true of SharePoint, and also I think that's true of any product including the workflow products we've been discussing here. In the end I think we will support those products where we have the most positive experiences and tend to drift away from products where we have negative experiences - or insufficient ones. And with that in mind, it's more than just a technical question but also a question of the marketplace. Though I worked with it before, my small firm couldn't find and win K2 projects at the time when we really started doing business, which was 2010. Thus, we never really developed that affection for the product. We got some lucky breaks working with AP and found that we were able to do some really impressive things with it, and at the same time there were a lot of clients asking for Nintex because their needs were less complex and they liked what the product could do. 
 
For this reason, I think you can't necessarily read what I've had to say all along as a recommendation per-se; rather it's a comparison based on my personal experience. If someone is looking for impartial analysis to choose a product, there's Forrester and Gartner etc. My hope is that we can help people to understand what we're able to work with as consultants and developers, and sort of which types of projects we've found that these products do a good job at meeting the requirements. To that end, I think there's no right or wrong answer to the question at the top of this article. 
 
That being said, if we can all manage to argue about it for just a little bit longer, I think everyone will benefit from the free publicity. ;-)


Mike Fitzmaurice
12/20/2013, 11:22:35 AM
Full disclosure: I am an employee of Nintex. 
 
I love blog posts that spark discussion — especially when Nintex is part of that discussion. Looking amid the fray, what’s quite apparent is that the wonderful world of SharePoint workflow solutions is alive, well, and worthy of plenty of enthusiasm. And that’s a Good Thing.


Thomas Carpe
12/20/2013, 12:10:45 PM
Mike, 
 
Good to hear from you. I completely agree! More information is always a good thing, and I enjoyed hearing from everyone on this. 
 
As a Nintex person, I do have a question for you. Did the changes to SharePoint workflow architecture in SP2013 cause any significant changes in the way that Nintex Workflow runs or is licensed on SP2013 as opposed to 2010? For example, I understand that now in 2013 all the workflow is supposed to run on its own service and not on the WFE anymore, so do you guys still sell it by the number of servers in the farm and did you find that this change has improved performance or scalability over the older version of SharePoint?


Rob
2/12/2014, 1:03:16 PM
Biggest downsides of Nintex: 
1. Workflow data and history are stored in mulitple locations. If you run into any issues with a workflow or the databases, it's extremely difficult to manage and control the workflow data. Their best practices are extremely cumbersome and not database friendly. 
2. Rollbacks are next to impossible. If you need to roll back a deployment, you will be SOL. You will need to copy the entire web app and nintex DB onto another environment. 
3. Documentation seems to have been written by a crossword puzzle designer. Info and steps are broken up between God knows how many docs. Best of luck.
Luis
3/25/2014, 6:56:56 PM
I think you need to investigate more of Sharepoint 2013 workflow manager and service bus as this is a highly scalable product, even more than Nintex, NIntex runs on wfe servers, but with workflow manager you can have a separate farm for workflows, which makes it an amazing product. 
 
This comparisson without comparing the ootb product makes no sense to me.


Thomas Carpe
3/27/2014, 1:18:53 PM
Hi Luis, 
 
While we haven't done a great number of solutions based on SPD workflow lately, I can say that I've done a lot of these over the years. I understand there were a lot of improvements in the architecture of workflow on SP2013. However, my issues with it are more a question of what features existed in 2010 workflows that were not carried over to the new version. You should check out Ira Fuchs' presentations on SharePoint workflow; I agree with a lot of his points. Beyond that, it is just a matter of the fact that we're now several major versions into SharePoint and yet the workflow portion of the product has had major shifts with each one. From a business perspective it is a real challenge to get someone to invest in technology that will have a shelf life of just a few years. 
 
That being said, I do have some customers who are asking what they can do with OoTB workflow and if something comes along that changes my opinion I will be sure to share it on the blog.


MikeL
3/28/2014, 4:55:43 AM
Nintex is good, but only for simple workflows. Also it's forms application is terrible from what I've heard. 
 
K2 - much better when it comes to more complex workflows. Altough with high barrier to entry. Additionaly my customers say forms application has lots of bugs and performance issues. 
 
AgilePoint is the closer to BPM than simple workflow here. Although visio and their graphic designer have their limitations. 
 
You may want to check out WEBCON BPS. Forms and workflows (and business processes) in one application. Graphical designer, changes in processes can be done on the fly (no need to publish new version) and you also get plenty of DMS capabilities along with OCR, barcodes etc. On the downsize: it doesn't support cloud.


Alex
3/30/2014, 11:06:56 AM
Great review !!! 
nowadays I actually need to decide between nintex and agile point for our company . 
 
I still a bit confused regarding the strength of nintex compared to agile point . since agile point uses an external and separate server ,hence processing resources ,from share point itself (it's agnostic to SharePoint) and it cost about the same as nintex what's the question here ? would you say that nintex is not up to complexed and long processes managing ? 
 
from the review it seems like agile point is perfect if you have the time and human resources to invest in learning it's foundations and from the moment you get it it's one league above nintex for the same $ so what's the dilemma? or am I missing something here..... 
  Alex


Thomas Carpe
3/31/2014, 10:13:57 AM
First I want to thank everyone who has made this a very active thread since it was posted back in December. You guys rock. 
 
Alex, to answer your question, there are differences between the two products that might affect your choice. 
 
AgilePoint has a forms engine also, but until recently they were using InfoPath as their main forms engine for Genesis. The Nintex forms engine has been a part of the product for a long time. If you are looking for an escape from InfoPath, this might be your option although AgilePoint is catching up fast. 
 
Nintex has been ahead on Office 365 development for quite a while. We are still waiting eagerly for an offering from AgilePoint but unfortunately it is still vaporware at this point. 
 
Nintex has pretty good support but they are a huge company. If your needs are complex they will probably connect you with a random partner. AgilePoint is a smaller shop and you would get to know the development team personally. 
 
AgilePoint server is a separate install. It can be configured to run on one of the SharePoint servers if necessary. There are different options if you are running SP2010 or SP2013 because of the .NET framework 3.5/4.0 difference. IMHO, the 4.0 version is much better. The installer varies a bit among the different builds and sometimes there are issues setting up advanced features such as data export. Nintex installer is pretty tight, but the options are fairly standard - NW 2010 or NW 2013. 
 
There are designer differences. Nintex designer is a web based tool built into SharePoint. If you have Visio aleady, then using it for AgilePoint will not bother you. If you don't have it, then the extra licensing cost for it will be another obstacle. Nintex charges by the number of WFE in your farm, and to the best of my knowledge there's no extra cost per user. 
 
Because as you mentioned, it is more system agnostic, AgilePoint will integrate well with more third-party systems. Both will do just about anything you want via calls to web services if you have that option. 
 
And off the top of my head that's about all I could think of today, but I hope it will help you.


pravesh kumar sharma
4/15/2014, 2:40:37 AM
i agree with most of the point which you have mentioned in blog .. i have worked on SharePoint and Skelta BPM tool for 8 years.. Technical and functional point of view.. 
i would like to add some points.. 
 
1. most of the enterprise tools having workflow capabilities (ERP,CRM, CCM, SCM etc. even MOSS) but that is very limited to its own suit. 
2. SP workflow does not have capability of process life cycle(designing, deploying, monitoring etc.) 
 
3. BPM engagement starts from Business point of view keeping in mind many factors (SOA, agility etc..), but workflow initiatives most of the time comes from IT initiatives and just customization of some small process 
 
4. workflow required customization most of the time whereas BPM suits having its own OTB modal like designing process, reports, UI and readymade LOBs connectors. 
 
5. SP workflow is very limited to SharePoint artifacts like DL, List, InfoPath, outlook etc.. whereas BPM starts from automating process via connecting machines to machine(SAP, oracle, SQL etc.) and people to people(Fin to HR to Procurement to Admin etc.) 
 
6. BPM provides BAM components and monitoring tool for KPI, MIS, graphical reports for Process and data in order to Optimize the process 
 
7. in last but not the least.. BPM is superset of workflow  

Thomas Carpe
4/15/2014, 8:25:39 AM
Thank you Pravesh for your comments. I agree with basically everything you have said here. If there were a line representing a maturity model, SP workflow would be on the lower-left end of that line, and BPM would be at the upper-right. Products like Nintex sit somewhere in the middle. It is important to understand that BPM goes well beyond what SharePoint does - or tries to do - and that these different tools serve different needs.


Walter
4/17/2014, 1:44:43 PM
Excellent overview and comments. We are using SP2010 OOB and a big issue we have is that it's so hard to troubleshoot a misbehaving WF. I'd be interested in hearing from Nintex and K2 "light" users on how well or poorly those products might address this.


Ahmed Mostafa
5/14/2014, 3:30:27 AM
I like this article. I have used K2 on a number of engagements for my clients. What I really want to investigate is ECM dimension. I believe the way SP stores fields and attachments together in SQL is a big drawback that affects the total performance. Have any of these vendors addressed this issue? how do they store their attachments and meta data?


Michael Mangan
11/10/2014, 9:24:11 AM
One of our specific requirements is to embed the workflow approval as a digital stamp on the document, do any of the solutions support this?  
 
I really appreciate this blog. Thanks


Kamal
2/20/2015, 2:56:44 PM
Excellent article, Thanks all, hang around everyone will learn from each
Shalin
3/6/2015, 4:53:31 AM
flowchart likes diagrams can be drawn from many visio alternatives as well. Its ok to use a visio alternative if it is online as platform indepedent


Cierra Luke
4/24/2015, 2:51:32 AM
Hi Thomas, 
Thanks for this helpful post. I a professional software solution provider in a web designing and development company. We have been using MetaStrom from last 3 years, but now our CEO wants a new BPM software to manage our workflow and processes. Can you suggest any good one? 
Thanks in advance


Thomas Carpe
4/24/2015, 10:57:26 AM
Thanks to everyone for the comments and questions. Haven't gotten the chance to come back here and reply very often, which I regret. Business has been getting quite active - perhaps the economy has finally really turned a corner? Will post some replies now to try and catch up. 
 
In the question of lite versions of Nintex and K2, I can't really make the comparison since I have seen the Workgroup and cloud versions of Nintex but have not played around much with K2. An old friend of mine, Mark McGovern recently went over to a new job at K2, and perhaps he can connect somebody with a person there who can speak to their product line. 
 
From what I know of the products we work with often, I would say that the workflow engine that drives the process will be the same in the lite version as in the enterprise edition. That's just good software development, because who wants to maintain two build sets. right? That being said where I think you'll see differences is in things like number of allowed users, what activities/actions you can perform in a workflow, etc. 
 
=== 
 
Moving on the SharePoint Foundation 2013 and the workflow product that Microsoft has produced. We've done some projects lately where this was required, because the customer did not have a budget to purchase another product. If you must go this way, I think you'll survive. But, I still feel like the MS workflow manager is not as robust as any of the products I talked about in this blog, and probably even Bamboo and Datapolis have something to offer that it does not. The new version has the disadvantage of needing to be installed on a seperate server from the SharePoint farm. Otherwise, you're stuck with SP 2010 workflows. Yes, I realize maybe I am talking out of both sides of my mouth here, because I will say the same thing is a feature of products such as AgilePoint which can be installed on their own server - however, it is possible to install AgilePoint on the SharePoint server if necessary and they cohabit quite nicely. I've never had anyone recommend to me that this is possible with MSWM. So there's the distinction in my mind. I also know that many of the activities that were possible in SP2010 workflow are no longer available in WM/2013. Haven't looked into it lately, so maybe that's changed. However the laundry list of takebacks was quite lengthy last I heard and MS would have serious catching up to do to make it comparable to what it was in the previous version. Anyone who wants to know the current status should seek out Ira Fuchs, as he's the guy that I have learned so much from in the past and can tell you what Microsoft is doing now at a level of detail that would just go beyond my own knowledge. 
 
If you find yourself in the unenviable position of working with SharePoint OOTB workflow, I believe you will find that it gets the job done well enough for simple processes. We use it all the time in Office 365 where it is a built in part of the feature set and I don't have to worry over things like who installed the extra server on the farm. I like it quite a lot when I need a short workflow to produce the same kind of behavior on SharePoint Online that in past years I might have been able to do with a List Item Event Receiver or Timer Job instead. But, like anything you get what you pay for, and I think with SP workflow what you gain by not buying a product is offset because it is back to IT people having to implement the workflow and there's a lot that business users will not be able to figure out for themselves. Since all the big players now have cloud capable versions of their workflow products, there's no reason to be stuck in this situation. 
 
Speaking of the lightweight and OOTB workflow in SharePoint, one product that came up on my radar recently was KissFlow. This product uses Zapier to integrate with other cloud products and says it has a connector connector to Office 365. While they don't offer one yet for SharePoint, look for them to become a major force in the market if that ever changes. The current lack of a proper connection to SharePoint is a major shortcoming IMHO and an opportunity for somebody. 
 
=== 
 
On the question of whether it is OK to develop workflow using online tools instead of Visio, I think this is just a question of personal preference. To be honest with you, I have tried many cloud platforms over the years - not just workflow - and for something really complex, I want to have the file on my desktop and not have to rely on a web browser to properly render it. I find cloud based development to be well over that magic 400ms threshold where my mind will wander and eventually I find myself checking email and standing up to get a cup of coffee. That being said, this is my criteria and for you the pros and cons may be different. Web based platforms have the advantage of being workable from anywhere regardless of what software you have. One thing I really like about AgilePoint by the way is that you can now choose either method to develop a workflow, so if you like Visio use Visio and if you like the browser use the browser. :-) 
 
=== 
 
On the most recent question about Metastorm. That's a tough one. I did a thorough analysis of Metastorm for a client a couple years ago, and I have to say that while it was a powerful product, it was definitely showing its age and there were lots of things that made it a poor fit for our project. 
 
That being said, without detailed criteria, it is impossible to say which product you should switch to if you're moving away from Metastorm. For example, you need to consider what processes you already have in that platform and whether you are using it like a BPMS or are the workflows you already have actually quite simple. Obviously, if you have a lot built on the Metastorm platform, you are going to need something equally robust which is going to take you toward the K2 and AgilePoint end of the spectrum. If your lack of satisfaction comes from feeling that you never fully utilized the product feature set, then maybe going with a simpler solution like Nintex or SP workflow would be the way to go. 
 
Hopefully this helps you realize that the problem is a really complex one and can't be easily solved with a one size fits all answer. "It depends." Classic consultant response, am I right? :-) So, go back and start asking the detailed questions and I think the answer will present itself. Best of luck!


Thomas Carpe
4/24/2015, 11:02:09 AM
I was reading my own old posts and wanted to chime in to remind everyone that you can now subscribe to MS Visio in Office 365, so that's another barrier to entry that's come down. If you need a quote for anything Office 365 related, follow the links to contact us and we'll do that for you. :-)


Brian Garnica
4/27/2015, 1:49:46 PM
It was really good to read this article!! Excellent job about comparing different products. We had been making some research to offer the right option to our customer. 
 
Thanks.
Thomas Carpe
4/27/2015, 3:36:33 PM
Brain, thanks for the whuffie. Feedback about the blog posts is always appreciated, as they're a labor of love. Hope your customer makes a good choice; it is always a complex decision figuring out which horse to hitch your wagon to. ;-)
ali
7/8/2015, 3:16:23 AM
just to make it clear i dont work for any of these companies but I am a sharepoint developer from 2003 to 2013 so far. I have used k2 2003, black pearl and now nintex. nintex by far is seriously bad for complex worflows and time consuming. K2 is far better in complex workflows that span over time. plus i dont care what people think of what they like but care more about what business use.... in my experience in the uk the majority of banks and consultant companies use K2. the place i work for at the moment are using nintex and they already regret it.
Thomas Carpe
7/8/2015, 12:08:11 PM
Ali, 
 
Good to hear from you. 
 
I am so surprised this post still attracts comments so long after I wrote it! It seems everyone has strong feelings about this stuff. 
 
I was more familliar with Black Pearl and Black Point back in the 2003-2007 days and really started drifting away from it in 2010. With AppIt from K2 released now as well as AgilePoint NX One cloud offering and new pricing models for Nintex on Office 365 too, I feel like maybe this topic is due for a revisit. There are so many more exciting possibilities to choose from this year than there've ever been before, especially if you don't have the luxury of managing your own SharePoint farm. 
 
I imagine that market share for the big workflow software products varies by country and type of company. It's my understanding that Nintex has the most market share overall when it comes to SharePoint - I wouldn't be shocked if Microsoft buys them outright - but there will be local differences in different places around the world and various sizes and types of companies. That being said, my feeling is that who's on top shouldn't be the way that companies decide what product to choose. You have to go with your experiences and those of others in the community, and I am grateful for everyone who shared here because it gives me a good sense of what people are seeing outside of my own little world. 
 
You're definitely not the first person I've heard express some negatives about a particular product. I think that each case is different and you have to consider the pluses and minuses individually, and that the market and the best choice is a moving target. I still have to say that whatever the down sides may be, almost any product would be better than the OOTB experience in SharePoint.