Workflow Engine

Definition of Workflow Engine[1]

A workflow engine is a software application that manages business processes. It is a key component in workflow technology and typically makes use of a database server. A workflow engine manages and monitors the state of activities in a workflow, such as the processing and approval of a loan application form, and determines which new activity to transition to according to defined processes (workflows). The actions may be anything from saving an application form in a document management system to sending a reminder e-mail to users or escalating overdue items to management. A workflow engine facilitates the flow of information, tasks, and events. Workflow engines may also be referred to as Workflow Orchestration Engines. Workflow engines mainly have three functions:

  • Verification of the current process status: Check whether it is valid executing a task, given current status.
  • Determine the authority of users: Check if the current user is permitted to execute the task.
  • Executing condition script: After passing the previous two steps, the workflow engine executes the task, and if the execution successfully completes, it returns the success, if not, it reports the error to trigger and roll back the change.

A workflow engine is a core technique for task allocation software, such as business process management, in which the workflow engine allocates tasks to different executors while communicating data among participants. A workflow engine can execute any arbitrary sequence of steps, for example, a healthcare data analysis.

Components of Workflow Engine[2]

Workflow engine consists of 6 logical components.

  • Scheduler: It is the main part of workflow engine where all magic happen. It schedule the runs, knows about flow definition, monitor the results of the task execution. It could be triggered by some event like a timer, API or manually.
  • Metadata store: It is just a storage for data that needs scheduler to orchestrate the runs. Depends on implementation it could be in memory structures or a database.
  • Triggers: The way how your workflow could be triggered. In case of framework it is usually call of some function. If it is some solution then it could be some sort of API, time schedule. Basically you may have different implementations of triggers for the workflow.
  • Executors: Component that is responsible for running an atomic task and providing the results of the run. It could be just separate thread inside of your app, container or event VM.

Components of Workflow Engine
source: ITNext

  • Flow repository: The place where definitions are stored depends on implementation it could be different place and provide additional features not just storage for definitions. Flow is kind of description of the workflow.
  • Shared context: As soon as your workflow becomes a little bit complex you immediately need to pass some context from one task to another. This component is responsible for that.

How Workflow Engine Works[3]

Workflows are typically initiated or resolved based on pre-set times and deadlines, so that when one task is completed, another is initiated for human-lead tasks. In the case of internal network server tasks, workflow engines can automate these with set, timed cycles. Workflows route a series of tasks, pushing them from one step to the next. They not only automate tasks, but they also decrease decision-making processes by guiding the process to the most efficient step. They are designed to do so with set deadlines or with timed response. A workflow engine is designed as a group of microservices so that multiple processes can occur at once. There are two common types:

  • Developer-friendly software
  • Low-code software

Developer-friendly workflow management systems are typically open-source solutions that support Java. Low-code software is designed so that you can configure workflows with a visual user interface or visual designer. However, most workflow engines apply a business process modeling notation (BPMN) process model as the diagram structure that guides your workflows. From server and application workflow tasks to employee approval processes, data processing and onboarding, workflow technology helps you customize each of these use cases. Moreover, workflow engines typically use representational state transfer (or RESTful API) software. This technology lets applications interact in a network environment, which in turn enables your organization to integrate a workflow solution with your cloud service and other platforms you currently use.

Use Cases of Workflow Engine[4]

Workflow engines are capable of streamlining many business processes. The following are two examples of common use cases for a workflow engine.

  • Employee Onboarding: According to research by Glassdoor, a smooth employee onboarding process can improve new hire retention by 82% and productivity by more than 70%. Many organizations continue to rely on manual employee onboarding processes, resulting in a fragmented and frustrating employee experience. With a workflow engine, an organization can ensure that each onboarding task is carried out smoothly. For example, the first task in the onboarding process may be to prepare paperwork for a new hire. Once the responsible HR employee indicates that paperwork is completed, the workflow engine can automatically notify the IT department to grant computer access. This way, no steps are missed, and the employee has everything that he or she needs to get started.
  • Approval Processes: Manual approval processes result in significant direct, indirect, and hidden costs. For example, according to data from the Center for Advanced Procurement Strategy (CAPS), the average cost per purchase order ranges between $50 and $1,000 depending on the industry and vertical. With a workflow engine, organizations can automate approval processes saving both time and money. For instance, when an employee submits a purchase request, the request is automatically routed to a supervisor for approval. Once signed, the approval is routed back to the employee. The employee can easily track the status of the request rather than spending time tracking down the supervisor for a signature.

Workflow in a Business Environment[5]

The best workflow engine solution will depend on your needs and existing software stack. For instance, let’s say you need to have specific documents reviewed by specific individuals before approval. You would want a workflow solution that ensured each document draft made its way to everyone required to provide a sign-off. After getting the signatures, the workflow should send the completed document back to relevant stakeholders. Many organizations rely on workflow engines to help them manage financial processes. For example, a finance team could set up an expense approval workflow process to review submitted expense claims. Functions within the engine could include:

  • Make sure employees fill out form fields correctly and send them back for corrections automatically
  • Ensure there are receipts attached for all expenses
  • Automatically approve claims that meet the outlined parameters or reject them for more clarification or a manual review

Depending on your choice of platform, it’s possible to adapt a business process engine to the needs of multiple business areas. For that reason, the software you choose to bring into your organization offers you the flexibility you need to optimize your most essential company workflows. What Features Should You Look for in a Workflow Management Solution?

  • No-Code Design Interface: A no-code workflow design makes it possible for non-technical users to quickly set up and execute automated workflows.
  • Drag-and-Drop Form Creator: Your workflow solution should let you design forms that mimic the look of documents commonly used within workflows, including purchase orders and invoice approvals.
  • Notifications: Users should receive notifications when the workflow moves to a different stage in the process. That keeps workflows from backing up because of incomplete tasks.
  • Easy Integration: Your solution should integrate with your existing software and business solutions. That way, you can easily pull in data essential to each workflow.

Workflow Engines Vs Business Rule Engines[6]

A workflow engine and a business rule engine both allow non-techy end-users to change a process behavior at runtime without the need to change the code.

But they have more differences than similarities. As mentioned above, they are fundamentally different in their working and purpose. Listed below are a few more differences between a workflow engine and a business rule engine:

Workflow Engine Business Engine
A program designed to run workflow instances based on the process model A program designed to help with complex decision-making
A component specific to a workflow technology A component of an enterprise application
Inherent driving force in an automated workflow Works as a pluggable element that could be separated from the application code
Help with carrying out a business process Help with creating business knowledge
Is based on process design Is rules-driven

As easy as it is to mix up workflow engine with business rule engines, they are wildly different concepts with different purposes – which is important to keep in mind when you’re looking for workflow or BPM software.

Benefits of Using a Workflow Engine[7]

  • Time-Saving – Time is money, at least in the business world where you have very less time to complete every task. A powerful workflow engine integrated on a reliable software as Cflow will save everyone’s time, be it the manager or a new employee allowing them to work on more important tasks.
  • Avoids Errors – Human errors are extremely high when they are under pressure and working on multiple tasks at the same time. An automated task manager will ensure errors are completely avoided because it retrieves data from a pre-defined template and if any decision goes beyond the defined rules or policies, the workflow will not go through.
  • Easy Accessibility – Unlike manual paper management which is extremely difficult to manage, workflow software stores everything in the cloud and provides you access to every document on a wide range of devices including computers, smartphones, and tablets. It ensures your documents are safe, easy to audit and easily accessible anytime.

See Also


  1. What is Workflow Engine Wikipedia
  2. Components of Workflow Engine ITNext
  3. How a workflow engine works IBM
  4. Typical Use Cases of Workflow Engine ProcessMaker
  5. How Would You Use a Workflow in a Business Environment? Integrify
  6. Workflow Engines Vs Business Rule Engines Kissflow
  7. 3 Major Benefits of Using a Workflow Engine Cflow