What about BizTalk?

WWF is great, but what's the catch?

I said I wouldn’t but I did. I missed the first episode of Alias and now I’m hosed. Sydney’s pregnant and she’s pissed. The boyfriend is still around, but he’s someone else now? And this isn’t making her cranky?

One week missed and I’m already lost. Too many variables floating around with question marks attached to them.

And, yes, that’s how I’m going to drag you into BizTalk Server 2004: Many variables floating around with little cartoon “Huh?” balloons attached to them.

Talk to most nuts-and-bolts Microsoft network administrators about specific Microsoft server products, and BizTalk is by far the most likely to make their eyes glaze over. And that’s simply because it’s soft, even for software. Summarized briefly, BizTalk is glue, in all its sticky, gooey glory, based on XML and .Net and capable of sticking to anything that comes out of Redmond or has a Redmond partner stamp on it somewhere.

Dig through Microsoft’s BizTalk documentation -- or simply pummel a BizTalk developer until he or she talks sense -- and a series of words pops up repeatedly: workflow, processes, business rules, data exchange, data syncing. So at a high level, BizTalk is Microsoft’s first attempt to provide a middleware layer that allows customers to tie disparate applications together. It lets those apps share data; it lets them build pieces of electronic workflow using that same data flow; and it lets administrators present and monitor those flows using existing Microsoft client and management front ends.

“Sounds great. What’s the catch?” you might ask. And the answer isn’t rocket science. BizTalk is a proprietary platform -- that’s why it works as well as it does for the Microsoft platform. It’s based on XML and .Net, and its mission is customization. So now you’re paying for a custom software platform (BizTalk 2004), the tools needed to manipulate that platform (Visual Studio .Net), and you’ve still got to hire staff -- consultants, programmers, project managers -- who understand all that gluey, gooey goodness and can make it do something useful.

Now we’re talking about the two most expensive things in business: time and money. For the vast majority of its implementations, BizTalk will want plenty of both.

That's why Microsoft's announcements at PDC 2005 are scaring some present-day management-type BizTalk users: They may have backed the wrong horse. Read Microsoft’s existing documentation on WWF (Windows Workflow Foundation) -- or simply pummel PDC attendees until they talk sense -- and a series of words pops up repeatedly: workflow, processes, business rules, data exchange, data syncing. Getting the point?

WWF is being billed as a platform unto itself, with hooks into Visual Studio .Net, SharePoint, Dynamics, and Windows Services. So what happens to BizTalk? Take a guess: Microsoft’s interested in profit, not rebellion, and BizTalk was revved back in 2004 while the company was well in the midst of its WWF development effort. So don’t panic.

Anonymous birdies living in Redmond tell me that WWF will most likely be a free or very low-cost upgrade to BizTalk. You’ll still pay for it in terms of implementing it within existing BizTalk installations, but the WWF tools themselves won’t cost that much.

However, Windows Vista CALs (Client Access Licenses) will cost. Microsoft Office 12 CALs will cost. Visual Studio .Net CALs will cost -- and any third-party Microsoft applications required to support WWF will have upgrade costs as well.

So Microsoft & Co. will be making plenty of money at your expense, but it's not going to make you look the fool for having backed BizTalk. In fact, the synergy of WWF and BizTalk will probably make you look like a visionary -- albeit a poor one.