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BizTalk Making Headway in EAI Market

While the combination of Microsoft Corp.’s BizTalk Server and XML Web services is showing promise as an enterprise application integration tool, it’s still too early to tell whether Redmond will stake a claim to turf along side traditional EAI heavyweights.

According to a June 2002 report by IT analyst firm Gartner Inc., Microsoft is a leader in the application integration broker space, rated above such notable players as BEA, SeeBeyond, Sterling Commerce, Tibco, Vitria and webMethods. In fact – in terms of market revenue, market share, and market reach – Gartner rates Microsoft behind only IBM.

However, when it comes to enterprise application integration specifically, most industry experts aren’t putting Microsoft on the map, yet.

Wintergreen Research, an IT analyst firm that focuses heavily on the EAI market, recently ranked the top-10 EAI vendors for 2001. Microsoft didn’t even make the list. But, BizTalk Server has been getting favorable reviews from users.

Analyst Tyler McDaniel, formerly of the research firm Hurwitz Group, says, “I just keep running into satisfied customers, and it seems to be going well [for BizTalk].”

So, it would appear Microsoft is on the cusp of making a breakthrough in the EAI segment. But, there are still some barriers to overcome.

When BizTalk Server was first released in late 2000, it was predicted to be a marginal player in the EAI space, a low-end solution at best. With its low price point -- Gartner estimates, for the average implementation, BizTalk is priced at about one-tenth the cost of competing integration brokers -- it was believed to lack the heavy-duty functionality of some of the more popular big-name offerings.

BizTalk injected itself into the market faster than most believed it would, though.

As economic difficulties forced many IT shops to cut their budgets, BizTalk suddenly became a very attractive piece of software. It offered enterprises the opportunity to pursue EAI without making the sort of heavy financial commitment that had come to characterize the integration effort.

“[The low cost of BizTalk] has offset a lot of the hesitancy in the [EAI] market,” says McDaniel. And, he says, Microsoft has done an admirable job recruiting third-party partners to “build out the connectivity to make [BizTalk] a more robust EAI solution.”

McDaniel cites Microsoft’s recent agreements with Actional Corporation and Taviz Technology Inc. as solid partnerships for BizTalk.

But BizTalk’s inherent support for Web services is likely the biggest reason for its rapid rise to prominence in the EAI market. With the release of BizTalk Server 2002 in February of this year, Microsoft added native connectivity to its messaging platform MQSeries, which together with XML (Extensible Markup Language) and SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) gives BizTalk more capability to reach out to applications in non-Microsoft environments.

David Wascha, lead product manager for .NET servers at Microsoft, says the latest data shows “BizTalk is the fastest growing piece of software in the EAI space.” And while McDaniel says he hasn’t seen any hard numbers to support that assertion, he believes it to be true.

But McDaniel says there are issues with business process modeling that need to be worked out before BizTalk truly becomes a big-time player in EAI. Mapping business processes is key to the EAI concept, says McDaniel, and Web services doesn’t yet offer inherent features for defining workflow.

Microsoft appears to be working to solve that problem, though.

In August, Microsoft along with IBM and BEA released a new specification for defining how business processes interact in a Web services environment. Called Business Process Execution Language for Web Services (BPEL4WS), the new spec is based on IBM’s Web Services Flow Language (WSFL) and Microsoft’s XLANG technology.

McDaniel says, BPEL4WS could help remedy BizTalk’s workflow deficiencies. However, he says, that will depend on how the spec is developed. “That’s going to be the real key to adoption and the real key to long-term value,” says McDaniel.

BPEL4WS is expected to be submitted to an independent standards body in the coming months.

Another critical obstacle for BizTalk, is business-to-business integration. Most EAI solutions also offer functionality for extending the integration effort out beyond the firewall to the b-to-b environment. But concerns about the security of Web services have hampered Microsoft’s attempts to position BizTalk for b-to-b integration.

Microsoft’s Wascha estimates 70 percent of BizTalk deployments are for EAI, while just 30 percent are for b-to-b.

Although, Wascha says, “The wall between EAI and b-to-b is kind of disappearing.” Which, he says, should help BizTalk gain more share in the b-to-b market.

Right now, McDaniel says users have to build their own security into Web services for b-to-b integration. But the emergence of specs for Web services security, such as the joint effort by Microsoft and IBM around WS-Security, may soon make it easier to facilitate b-to-b integration through Web services.

Wascha describes WS-Security as a first step toward providing native protocols for security in Web services. And, he says, once a standards body approves the spec, customers will need to see implementation before it gets the credibility it needs. Until then, Wascha says existing technologies, like the SSL protocol, can be used to deploy secure Web services.

Despite issues with business process modeling, and a lack of inherent features for securing Web services, McDaniel says the future looks bright for BizTalk in both EAI and b-to-b integration scenarios. He says, “The problem with current vendors in EAI, is that their solutions are difficult to implement and take a long time to roll out.” BizTalk, on the other hand, is relatively easy to configure and can be put into a live setting in short order, says McDaniel.

Still, there are instances where BizTalk just isn’t a viable option for EAI or b-to-b. According to a February 2002 report by Gartner, the enterprise should consider alternatives to BizTalk if it: “Is building an enterprise nervous system that requires a high-volume backbone that uses publish-and-subscribe message-oriented middleware and that runs on multiple operating systems; Hosts most applications on non-Microsoft operating environments; Develops most application developments using Java; Requires significant processing to convert inbound messages to outbound messages.”

That said, McDaniel feels the popularity of Microsoft’s Visual Studio .NET developer tool will make BizTalk an attractive solution for many enterprises. He says, BizTalk is tightly integrated with VS.NET, and makes application integration very easy for IT shops using that tool.

In fact, McDaniel says it is possible that BizTalk will force many EAI vendors into peripheral roles. He sees Vitria, for example, becoming almost exclusively focused on the telecommunication and financial services markets.

Says McDaniel, “Microsoft will continue to put pressure on [EAI vendors] and drive them into focused vertical markets.”

Ultimately, McDaniel believes much of the new investment in EAI will go to BEA, IBM, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems.

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