BizTalk 2006 deftly connects enterprise apps

Boasting across-the-board improvements, BizTalk 2006 carries on product line's rich EAI heritage

Suppose you’re the new CIO at an enterprise-scale company that has “islands of automation” for accounts receivable, accounts payable, inventory control, sales, support, and HR, and your goal is to integrate all business processes.

Make the nightmare more realistic: Your 35 major suppliers use a variety of ordering and billing systems, hosted on every operating system and database that has been in use for the past 10 years. They don’t even all use the same data exchange standards. Cap that all off with a mini-rebellion by your independent customer representatives, who have started to use for customer relations.

[Screencast: biztalk]

What to do?

If you have your IT department build custom point-to-point connectors for every current pair of internal and external systems that needs to be integrated, it might be finished sometime in the next decade -- and by then most of the end points will have changed. What you need is some kind of hub-and-spoke or bus architecture to make the tangled problem manageable.

Welcome to the wonderful worlds of EAI and b-to-b e-commerce, two areas for which Microsoft BizTalk Server 2006 was designed.

BizTalk acts as a hub to connect many different systems through a central XML-based messaging and orchestration engine. Through the use of adapters, messages can be connected to the various systems, represented as different shapes below the Messaging box. BizTalk 2006 ships with about 23 (see “Highly Adaptable” infographic). Additional adapters -- for, for example -- can be purchased from Microsoft ISVs.

BizTalk has functionality for many different roles. Developers build BizTalk applications in Visual Studio 2005, consisting of a number of artifacts, including XML schemas, mappings, orchestrations, pipelines, and business rules. IT professionals deploy, configure, and monitor BizTalk applications using the BizTalk Server Administration Console, and possibly Microsoft Operations Manager. Business users can view business activity through a customizable Web dashboard or through an Excel add-in.

The bundling of BizTalk artifacts into deployable applications is one of the major improvements in BizTalk 2006 over BizTalk 2004. Others include significantly easier installations and upgrades, a management console for IT, the aforementioned business dashboard, and integration with SharePoint. BizTalk 2006 ships with a much enlarged suite of adapters, including adapters for many line-of-business applications. It also takes full advantage of 64-bit processors, and it leverages the improved performance of SQL Server 2005 and .NET Framework 2.0 over their predecessors.

Get down to bizness

Developers who struggled with installation of BizTalk 2004 will appreciate how far it’s come. In one afternoon, I was able to install BizTalk 2006 from a DVD onto my 3.2GHz Pentium 4 computer with 1GB of RAM, already running Windows XP SP2, Visual Studio 2005, Internet Information Server (IIS), and SQL Server 2005. During most of that time, the BizTalk installer ran automatically, while I worked on a different computer.

BizTalk’s graphical tools for developers make quick work of many of the routine tasks for connecting systems. The Mapper, for example, allows you to draw lines to connect related variables in the source and destination message schemas, and the Orchestration Designer allows you to drag shapes from the Orchestrations toolbox onto a design surface and then configure the properties of each shape. There are times you do have to write code, but it is often a simple relational expression.

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Many of the configuration decisions will be transparent to developers. You do need to know whether an end point is a database, flat file, Web service, or line-of-business application, but not the exact URL or location of the production end point; that can be configured at deployment time by an IT professional using the 2006 Administration Console and then modified when external conditions change.

Developers also don’t need to know whether a BizTalk application will run on a single computer along with its SQL Server message store or be deployed to a separate cluster. An IT professional can independently design and modify the deployment details later based on the application monitoring information.

In many organizations, business analysts determine much of the logic of an integration project. Analysts are often uncomfortable writing code in any programming language, or even running a development tool such as Visual Studio. BizTalk addresses this audience with a stand-alone Business Rule Composer and a downloadable Orchestration Designer for Business Analysts that acts as a Visio plug-in.

Something for everyone

The BizTalk 2006 Administration Console makes life relatively easy for IT pros responsible for BizTalk monitoring and deployment. By right-clicking on an application, you can start it; stop it; delete it; configure it; import another application or set of bindings; export this application, its policies, or its bindings; and add assemblies, scripts, resources, policies, or references. I was impressed with its ability to import and export whole applications packaged as unified MSI files. The Group Hub view gives you a high-level overview of all your applications and allows you to drill down to any items of interest.

Many business processes require human intervention; the classic example is purchase-order approval. BizTalk’s Human Workflow Services (HWS) is implemented using Web services that can be used by many clients, including ASP.Net Web sites, Microsoft Word, Outlook, Excel, and InfoPath. It essentially offers a way to create BizTalk workflows for approvals and rejections by authorized parties. Developers can include HWS workflows by connecting the human actions to send and receive ports in their orchestrations.

The BizTalk 2006 component for business users is called BAM (Business Activity Monitoring). From the business user’s point of view, this is most often a customizable Web portal or Excel dashboard. These are just the two out-of-the-box presentation layers for what is a quite complicated and capable component.

BizTalk 2006 offers amazing scalability, which will make enterprise IT departments very happy. You can scale out by adding more systems to run BizTalk components and/or SQL Server components, or you can scale up by running components on multi-way servers. BizTalk 2006 can take advantage of 64-bit processors, offering a major speed improvement over BizTalk 2004. The components can also be clustered and the network load balanced.

Security is a major issue for b-to-b e-commerce. BizTalk 2006 supports message sender authentication by certificate or Windows security, as well as message receiver authorization. BizTalk can encrypt messages using encoding components such as S/MIME and a certificate store.

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Several of the WS* standards support security. BizTalk Server 2006 natively supports only the WS-I Basic profile stack, but the WSE (Web Services Enhancements) 2.0 adapter adds WS-Security, WS-Trust, WS-SecureConversation, WS-SecurityPolicy, and WS-Policy support. This allows a developer to connect secure Web services to BizTalk with moderate effort. When Windows Communication Foundation is released next year, along with the BizTalk adapter to support it, the effort required to create secure Web service connections will drop significantly.

The core BizTalk 2006 product supports the EDI standard for b-to-b connections. BizTalk “accelerators” available at additional cost support GDS (Global Data Systems), HIPAA, RosettaNet, HL7 (Health Level 7), and SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), which apply to manufacturing, health care, supply chain, patient information, and financial information, respectively.

Choose wisely

Competitors to BizTalk include Bostech ChainBuilder, Contivo VMS, IBM WebSphere MQ, Iona Artix ESB, Magic Software iBolt Business Integration Suite, SeeBeyond eGate Integrator, Tibco BusinessWorks, webMethods Fabric, various products from iWay Software, and CastIron Systems integration appliances.

It would be difficult to compare the BizTalk Enterprise and Standard Editions to all of these products; as a first step, however, an evaluator might want to make a list of the company’s internal and external end-point applications for integration and see whether all of the applications can be connected to each integration product under consideration.

If the integration product passed that step, the second step might be to price out the configuration, including all the necessary adapters and the cost of the needed server infrastructure.

A third step would be to evaluate the capabilities of the remaining candidates in depth from the viewpoints of the developers, analysts, administrators, and business users of the system.

BizTalk Server 2006 is a huge product, and I have only hit the high points of describing its capabilities. It appears to be much improved from BizTalk 2004. The updated product has more capability, better tools, better scalability, better security, better value, and cleaner deployment. Enterprises that support Windows Server 2003 and SQL Server 2000/2005 in their server infrastructure and have developers familiar with Visual Studio 2005 would do well to consider BizTalk as the centerpiece of their EAI and b-to-b e-commerce solutions.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Value (10.0%)
Management (15.0%)
Scalability (15.0%)
Setup (10.0%)
Features (20.0%)
Interoperability (30.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Microsoft BizTalk 2006 9.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 8.9