ServiceNow jumps into RPA with imminent 'San Diego' release

Will bring bots to workflow users, perhaps not with the same precision RPA specialists muster

Workflow specialist ServiceNow has announced a heavy emphasis on robotic process automation (RPA) in the next release of its platform, to get aging applications working with each other in a more user-friendly fashion.

One analyst said users already invested in workflow would welcome the release, but RPA specialists may have a technical edge.

ServiceNow has promised the "San Diego" release of its Now Platform will include more modern visual design as well as the RPA capabilities. The latter sits within the Automation Engine, which combines Integration Hub with a new RPA Hub that provides centralized command and a control center to monitor, manage, and deploy digital robots that automate repetitive manual tasks.

The RPA Hub features 1300+ pre-built components and an RPA Desktop Design Studio – allowing users to design, test and publish bots. Users can also build bots from within ServiceNow's low-code Flow Designer tool on the RPA Hub Spoke.

If you have bought into ServiceNow's proposition, RPA is a piece that plugs into the backend

Nerys Mutlow, chief innovation officer at ServiceNow, said that because the low-code features put bot design in the hands of process owners, organizations need an overarching governance process.

"You're not just kind of giving it out to anyone, but equally when people then do start to build out these new processes, like everything on the platform, it can go through governance, change-and-release process. That means you can kind of disseminate the ability to drive these processes, but you can still have that overarching governance and control," she said.

One of the weakness of RPA built by screen-scraping application user interfaces is that when the UI changes, bots can break. Monitoring such changes requires IT governance and was not automated within the platform, she said.

A more durable approach to integration comes from APIs, and an approach to API integration can also be managed from the Automation Engine. But the system does not inform RPA builders what API integrations have already been built for particular problems. "We do try and make it simple from the naming convention in that kind of Integration Hub," ServiceNow's Mutlow told The Register.

Neil Ward-Dutton, analyst firm IDC's veep for AI and automation practices, said that ServiceNow is one of a group of vendors moving into RPA from workflow and application integration. Others include Pegasystems, Appian, IBM and Microsoft.

Pure-play RPA specialists include UiPath, Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism, and Ward-Dutton explained those companies may not compete directly with ServiceNow.

"When you look at those fairly well-capitalized specialists, they place RPA at the heart of what they do. They say that using bots is a great way to do automation and their bots are really smart and we can use it to all kinds of things – not just kind of screen scraping type of stuff that most people think of, but also AI and some simple workflow," he said. While ServiceNow might not cover all user needs in terms of RPA, "that's OK," according to Ward-Dutton.

"If you have already bought into ServiceNow's proposition, then actually having RPA is just essentially one piece that plugs into the backend. It makes complete sense.

"It's not really just about the leading-edge user companies doing it now. It's much more about mainstream organizations that are a bit more conservative. Those people don't want to work with ten specialists, they want to work with one or two companies that can help them with a whole load of problems," he said.

ServiceNow's San Diego release is due to launch any day now – the company has promised "late Q1 2022" availability. Unlike other SaaS operators, ServiceNow gives each customer a dedicated instance and upgrades are optional … until they're not, once older versions exit support. ®

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