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BizTalk Server Talks Business

BizTalk Server can help your customers get layers of disparate systems talking to each other.

One of your best customers calls you. His voice is frantic -- he just left a two-hour meeting with his boss who tasked him with integrating 14 disparate systems. Those systems are all key elements of his company's manufacturing and supply chain management processes, by the way. Unfortunately, none them can communicate with each another. He needs a translator -- where's C-3PO when you need him?

Microsoft has stepped in to help your customers resolve these types of communication and integration issues. BizTalk Server -- currently in the 2004 edition with a 2006 edition released last month -- is a collection of services, utilities, tools and technologies intended to help your customers integrate separate systems. BizTalk uses XML-formatted documents as its primary communication vehicle. It can also convert documents to any format a recipient requires.

The new BizTalk Server 2006 will follow the 2004 version in the product's two-year upgrade cycle. BizTalk Server 2006 will feature installation wizards and one-click configuration for easier setup; new management and deployment features to improve efficiency; Business Activity Monitoring for real-time process views and alerts; faster application integration with new adapters; and support for other Microsoft server software like SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005.

Follow the Message
Messaging and orchestration are the two core components of BizTalk 2006. The messaging component moves the data it receives from an external source, such as a file or a Web application, through a receiving pipeline where it converts it to XML. From there, it flows on to the message database, which is called the MessageBox. BizTalk then routes the message to the orchestration component to carry out whatever action the business process demands.

After that, BizTalk returns the data to the messaging database. From there, it goes to the send pipeline. If needed, BizTalk will convert it from XML back to its required format before it's delivered to an external destination like a folder or FTP site. If the message requires no orchestration, BizTalk simply moves the data directly from the MessageBox to the send pipeline.

BizTalk Server 2006
Microsoft Corp.
Release Date: April 2006
Price: $29,999 Enterprise Edition , $8,499 Standard
Edition, $499 Developer Edition (free with MSDN Universal)
www.microsoft.com/biztalk

There are many security options built into the data flow. When a message first comes into the receiving pipeline, BizTalk can authorize, authenticate and decrypt it using standard protocols. Similarly, it can also sign, encrypt and tag outbound messages with user credentials before sending them out. These security functions are critical, because they enable BizTalk to process secure communications internally and externally.

Frequently, a BizTalk message will be routed for an application that uses a different credential or authorization paradigm. This may be internal, like a legacy application fronted by an RACF identification and password, or external using a different business partner authentication. Either way, the Enterprise Single Sign-On service permits secure, transparent Windows account mapping to the required target name and password. The credentials are stored in a credential database and retrieved by a Single Sign-On Server whenever your customer needs to access an application.

Adapter Updates
BizTalk uses built-in "adapters" that provide the protocol and logic that let it send and receive messages between external locations. The adapters that currently come with BizTalk Server 2004 support FTP, HTTP, SQL Server, SOAP, FILE, EDI and SMTP protocols. These let BizTalk automatically retrieve messages from FTP sites, Web applications, SQL Server databases and so on.

There's a POP3 adapter new to BizTalk Server 2006 that will let it automatically process messages received via e-mail and the Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) adapter. The WSS adapter lets a SharePoint (or SharePoint Portal) library serve as a point of origin or destination for messages.

Microsoft is also enhancing some of the existing adapters for BizTalk Server 2006. The HTTP adapter will support configurable failure options, so your customer will be able to specify what action will be taken should a problem occur during the receive pipeline or routing function. This is important for development, debugging and production support. The updated SMTP adapter will accept HTML mail content along with the XML (message) payload.

There are many more software-specific adapters targeted for the BizTalk Server 2006 release, including MSMQ, SAP, WebSphere MQ, Amdocs Clarify CRM, JD Edwards Enterprise1, JD Edwards Oneworld XE, Oracle Application Suite, Oracle Database Connector, PeopleSoft, Soevel, TIBCO EMS and TIBCO Rendezvous.

Besides the specific adapters, BizTalk's reliance on standards helps it communicate with a broad spectrum of technologies. BizTalk is all about XML. BizTalk is an XML engine, all messages are stored as XML documents, and it uses standard XMLT (XML Schema Translation) to map one message type to another. BizTalk Server 2006 is also based heavily on standard development tools and business analyst tools -- Visual Studio.NET, Visio, Excel and so on. That should help make the learning curve for programmers and analysts fairly short.

Focus on the Biz
If your customers are more focused on tracking day-to-day business processes and less on development, they will be most interested in two of BizTalk Server 2006's components -- Business Activity Monitoring and Business Activity Services. Business Activity Monitoring (BAM) gives your management customers insight into actual business processes. It interrogates the databases that track messages and the orchestration components as they flow through the system to provide that higher-level view.

The BAM portal is new in BizTalk 2006. This gives business users more control in identifying what information they want to see. For example, a manager may need to determine exactly how and when an order was processed, the current inventory levels or a daily purchase order total. He could choose specific BAM views for these and other activities. He could also view data based on specific criteria, like the number of orders cancelled in the last hour.

Your management-level customers can also configure BizTalk Server to send an alert when a specific business condition is detected, such as when an order is received from a particular customer or when an order exceeds a certain amount. BizTalk does this through SQL Server Notification Services.

Alt text here
BizTalk Server's Business Activity Monitor lets your customers track and record business activity. (Click image to view larger version.)

Business Activity Services let your customers manage trading partner data and relationships through Windows SharePoint Services, Internet Explorer, Excel and InfoPath. BizTalk stores the information about trading relationships in a Trading Partner Management (TPM) database. Business partners that also use BizTalk Server 2006 will be able to view this database.

There are several other improvements in the BizTalk Server 2006 engine that will help your customers specify and subscribe to specific error conditions. Should a particular error occur, BizTalk can form and send a message through a different logic path to a targeted destination for review and corrective action. Previously, that type of error could potentially suspend the entire process. Your customers would have to manually intervene to fix the problem and restart the process.

BizTalk 2006 introduces the concept of an application as a management entity. BizTalk considers an application as a logical grouping of all the BizTalk design-time artifacts (schemas, maps, pipelines and orchestrations), messaging components (receive ports, receive locations and send ports) and other related items (like policies) that make up an integrated business process. Therefore, as the number of complex applications increase, your customers can still manage them individually in a simple and intuitive manner.

The Flat File Wizard gives your customers a painless way to create an XML schema definition from a flat file. While this utility has always been available as a free download, it will be bundled with BizTalk Server 2006. Because all messages within BizTalk are in XML format, and many inputs to a BizTalk application are originally in Flat File or comma-delimited formats, the Flat File Wizard is a welcome addition to the developer's tool chest.

You or your customers will still have to manually install and configure some components, such as SQL Server, SQL Analysis Server, Visual Studio.NET and SharePoint Services. For a typical developer installation, the default setup places all components on a single system under the authority of a single user account. Custom options will let your customers target component placement and use multiple accounts for production security, fault tolerance and scalability.

Those planning to migrate from BizTalk Server 2004 to BizTalk Server 2006 will appreciate the fact that all applications and application components will function without modification. The upgrade process from BizTalk Server 2004 to BizTalk Server 2006 is essentially automatic.

Competitive Landscape
BizTalk 2006 competes with several products at different levels, including IBM's WebSphere Application Server, Tibco's Staffware Process Suite, WebMethods' Business Process Management and Vitria's BusinessWare Business Process Integration platform.

The closest competitor is IBM's WebSphere Application Server. Currently in version 6.0, WebSphere is a Java-based application integration platform. It provides a complete deployment environment with a focus on transaction management, security, high availability, connectivity and scalability.

All editions of WebSphere Application Server support J2EE 1.4 and Web services, from the basic Express edition to the full-featured enterprise version. That gives potential customers numerous deployment options from single server to clustered, highly available, high-volume configurations. The rapid development features help reduce cycle time and maximize use of available resources.

The Tibco Staffware Process Suite is another close competitor to BizTalk Server. This suite is a group of application modules built on an open architecture that is designed to form a complete process management solution. It helps companies create an IT infrastructure and workflow based on their unique business processes.

The Tibco suite includes the following components:

  • Modeling: The modeling component helps business unit managers develop a process map that serves as a guide to integrating people, processes and applications.
  • Execution: The execution module is based on a process management engine designed to handle high-volume, mission-critical transactions across multiple servers.
  • Rules: The rules module provides spreadsheet-like tools with which business analysts can model, analyze, test and manage business rules.
  • Analysis: The analysis module helps measure the effectiveness and efficiency of business processes, using key performance indicators to track ongoing improvement.
  • Frameworks: Tibco has developed Process Frameworks that provide tailored solutions for certain market sectors, including a Claims Management Framework and a Fulfillment Framework.

The WebMethods Business Process Management suite includes tools for process and workflow modeling. Business analysts can use it to develop and model processes. It's built around a configurable, distributed run-time architecture that can support thousands of simultaneous users. It can also manage multiple processes in different physical locations.

Business Process Management is a comprehensive process solution with built-in integration capabilities. It also integrates with WebMethods Access to accelerate application development and provide a single interface based on user roles and privileges.

Vitria Technology's BusinessWare Business Process Integration is an application integration platform that gives business managers visibility and control over their business processes. It helps automate cross-functional processes with component-based solutions that simplify and accelerate design, testing and deployment.

There are tools in BusinessWare for modeling and executing business processes. The Solution-Level Modeling and Solution Lifecycle Management tools help customers speed deployment, reduce maintenance costs, and maintain real-time visibility and control of all aspects of their integration projects.

As BusinessWare supports standard environments like Web services, J2EE, and service-based and message-based architectures, customers can integrate systems and processes across platforms. This helps them lower integration maintenance costs by creating re-usable, business-service components that directly control process interactions.

One of the more compelling reasons many of your customers may ultimately choose the Microsoft solutions over competitors are the special-purpose accelerators, including the BizTalk Accelerator for HIPAA, the BizTalk Accelerator for Suppliers and the BizTalk Accelerator for RosettaNet. These reduce the time, effort and costs associated with application integration for healthcare, manufacturing and business-to-business networks, respectively.

There are also many third-party adapters written to support integration with Siebel, PeopleSoft and Oracle. Finally, you can't discount BizTalk's inherent integration with other Microsoft products, including Office, Exchange, SQL Server, the Visual Studio .NET development environment, Visio and MOM. These are competitive advantages for BizTalk Server that you should consider when making your sales presentations.

Marketing and Sales
Probably the biggest push from Microsoft for BizTalk is the recently introduced BizTalk Server 2006 JumpStart program. This program is open to worldwide partners who want to implement BizTalk 2006 as early as possible, while maintaining access to support resources. You can present this early deployment option to your current BizTalk Server 2004 customers interested in upgrading to BizTalk 2006, as well as any new BizTalk Server customers who are also pursuing deployment of SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005.

The primary goals of the BizTalk Server 2006 JumpStart program are to:

  • Help the partner channel accelerate its BizTalk Server 2006 business
  • Build a strong pipeline of partner case studies
  • Develop a process for partners to engage with Microsoft on early adopter deployments
  • Enhance the benefits of the Microsoft Partner Program with additional technical, sales and business development resources

There are plenty of white papers directly related to the improvements and updates coming to BizTalk Server 2006 on Microsoft's Web site. The white papers cover the following topics:

  • Understanding BizTalk Server 2006
  • Adapter Enhancements
  • Application Deployment and Management
  • Business Activity Monitoring
  • Developer Tools Improvements
  • Runtime Improvements
  • Setup and Migration
  • Understanding the Hub and Spoke Deployment Model
  • The Business Value of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)

Finally, it will help to tap into some of the blogs run by BizTalk experts that are part of the larger BizTalk user community. You can learn more about BizTalk Server 2004 and 2006, post questions, read blog postings, find consultants, find special-purpose accelerators and download tools.

Recent postings cover how to set up an untyped Web service in BizTalk 2006 and submitting XML documents to BizTalk 2006 via SOAP. Some of the new downloads include a Biztalk rules engine deployment tool for BizTalk 2004 and a BizTalk development helper tool for BizTalk 2004.

The Final Word
For anyone left with scars from a BizTalk 2004 installation, the improvements to BizTalk 2006 will be a welcome relief. For new installations of BizTalk Server 2006, Microsoft will have all the necessary software for a one-stop installation available for download, including a .CAB file with the required hotfixes, Microsoft Data Access Components (MDAC), MSXML and other necessities.

BizTalk Server may be a bit of an enigma, but with proper marketing and educating your customers on how it can tie into their business processes, you'll be able to convince your most skeptical customers of its potentially powerful impact. BizTalk can smooth and simplify the way a business runs and how it manages its disparate, but inherently intertwined systems.