As far back as 2001 Samad Wahedi began to notice the gradual migration of work to the Web. He saw that people were doing more activities online, from banking to social networking, and people needed tools for performing certain tasks. Wahedi and his business partner Gopinath Dhanakodi knew that the traditional way for users to get software tools was through their company’s IT department, which usually involved a long wait.
Wahedi and Dhanakodi decided that there was a business opportunity in creating software tools that the average business user could use to create workflows, which are the key building blocks of most business processes. They reasoned that users should have an easy way to design and automate process workflows “themselves” rather than waiting for the IT department to build a specialized applications. In 2007, Wahedi launched SnapFlow, a Portland, Oregon-based based startup chartered with bringing workflow to the masses. Today, Wahedi is Chief Executive Officer of SnapFlow, and Dhanakodi is Vice President of Engineering. SnapFlow enables important elements Microsoft’s vision around Software-plus-Services (S+S), and they are an important actor in the broader cloud ecosystem.
SnapFlow uses the Windows Workflow Foundation (WF) (tutorials) and the Microsoft Silverlight™ browser plug-in to create a Web-based workflow design tool called SnapFlow (see video tour). Business people use SnapFlow (the tool) to build simple or complex workflows online using simple point-and-click and drag-and-drop actions. Users visit the SnapFlow Web site and simply click the “Start a Flow” button to begin building a workflow for any business process, such as hiring a new person or purchasing supplies. Users can transfer completed SnapFlow workflows to a Microsoft Office SharePoint® Server 2007 site. They can also integrate forms created with the Microsoft Office InfoPath® 2007 information-gathering program.
Traditional methods of creating workflows using business process management solutions can take three to six months; creating workflows with SnapFlow takes minutes or hours. Also, enterprise business process management software costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, making it “nearly impossible to realize a return on your investment [ROI],” Wahedi says. “Building workflows in SnapFlow provides an almost immediate ROI. Plus, nontechnical people can describe processes themselves, in a very visual way, so nothing gets lost in translation in working with technical folks.” Another savings comes from companies not having to pay expensive software engineers to create and modify workflows.
Broader Market Reach using Software-Plus-Services
Perhaps just as compelling as the capabilities of SnapFlow is the firm’s implementation method—over the Web. Users simply download a free copy of Microsoft Silverlight on their desktop or portable computer. All workflow data and the execution engine are stored in SnapFlow’s hosting infrastructure. Deploying its solution using a software-plus-services approach enables SnapFlow to minimize up-front investment for customers and maximize customer access. Traditionally, when customers want to try out a software program, they have to download and configure the program. It’s a huge time and resource commitment, especially if they need to configure servers first. With software-plus-services, customers can try our software in minutes rather than waiting a couple of weeks. Software-plus-services gives us the ability to reach a broad audience very inexpensively.”
The software-plus-services approach also gives independent software vendors like SnapFlow new possibilities for enriching their applications and broadening delivery models. “The combination of powerful client software, in this case, Silverlight, and a cloud-based service provides a powerful new software development and distribution model,” Wahedi says. “We can develop capabilities without concern for the back-end infrastructure required to run it, because there is infinite processing power in the cloud. But having powerful locally-installed software makes the user experience even better. We are now free to create solutions that take advantage of rich desktop software.” With software-plus-services, SnapFlow gets the richness of the desktop with the reach of the Web.
Silverlight over Flash for Faster Development
When it was time to design the interface that users would employ to design workflows, SnapFlow narrowed its development choices to Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight, which Microsoft has just released in 2007. “Adobe Flash is widely used in many business applications, has a big user community, and has a fairly sophisticated feature set,” Dhanakodi says. “Silverlight was very new, and we were concerned that we wouldn’t find sufficient help in the development community.” So SnapFlow committed to Adobe Flash to support the development of the SnapFlow user-interface.
A few weeks into prototype development, Dhanakodi and his team were disappointed with the progress that they had made. The user interface looked clunky, and even simple changes took a long time to implement. Around the same time, SnapFlow consulted SoftSource Consulting, a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner in Portland, to validate its technology and design decisions. SoftSource was an avid proponent of Silverlight and offered to demonstrate the capabilities of that software by replicating SnapFlow’s Flash prototype. A few days later, SoftSource demonstrated how SnapFlow could build its workflow in Silverlight, and the SnapFlow team was impressed.
“We decided that Silverlight was worth investigating in more detail,” Dhanakodi says. “Within a month, our team had made huge progress using Silverlight. Our team was able to learn the new tools and build a fairly sophisticated prototype without any support.”
Shaun McAravey, Co-Founder and Chief Architect for SoftSource says, “Windows Workflow Foundation and Silverlight are sufficiently approachable technologies that a competent technical team can get up to speed and produce a remarkable product in very little time. SnapFlow really sped up its development using these tools.”
SnapFlow has a more detailed blog post discussing why they chose Silverlight over Flash.
I would like to thank Tim Heuer for his recent blog post on SnapFlow.