One-Point Integration

BizTalk Server 2000 takes on the challenge of integrating your business’s complex enterprise application and B2B processes.

So many of the challenges that people face today are challenges of integration: I go to a store to return a toy I ordered through its e-commerce site and I’m told I can’t do that—that the bricks-and-mortar site and the Web site are two different systems and, as far as customers like me are concerned, two different companies.

As Microsoft Certified Professionals—whether you serve in a solution provider company or an in-house IT department—you typically see first-hand the challenges and failings of integration. Integration projects that should cost thousands of dollars and take several months end up costing millions and lasting years. Getting the right data to the right place at the right time is a fundamental business goal. But that goal seems farther away than ever to many businesses when they struggle first with enterprise application integration within their companies, then with business-to-business integration with suppliers and customers, only to find that they need yet a third level of integration to bring EAI and B2B together.

Microsoft BizTalk Server 2000, part of the .NET Enterprise Server platform, solves this third integration challenge using a process we call BizTalk Integration. This process manages the movement of data among enterprises regardless of the varying formats of the data’s source and destination. Distributors can manage order status on your system, keeping customers happy. Just-in-time inventory can flow more reliably, maximizing production and cost efficiencies. Sales personnel can act on customer leads promptly, boosting revenues and profits. None of the tools in BizTalk Server 2000 requires developers to write a line of code. All interfaces are visual, with WYSIWYG interfaces that both developers and business analysts without a development background can use. The UI can be used to assign personnel to the tasks of creating and maintaining the integration system.

The ability to implement integration visually, rather than through code, is also a key to BizTalk’s faster and less expensive integration. Boeing has about 100,000 suppliers; Ford Motor has about 40,000. Changing the integration code in the files of each supplier could take a year, which is time that neither manufacturer has if it wants to remain competitive. In contrast, BizTalk allows a change to be implemented by dragging-and-dropping a visual object into a group that can represent any or all of a manufacturer’s suppliers.

If you haven’t yet looked into BizTalk Server 2000, here’s a get-acquainted tour. BizTalk Server 2000 is organized around six primary tools: the Editor, the Mapper, the Messaging Manager, the Orchestration Designer, the Document Tracking Tool and the IT Administration Tool. Each tool maps to a part of the integration challenge that developers previously had to manage manually.

BizTalk Editor designs the schema that determines how your data will look. You can include schema for XML and any structured document, such as a flat file or EDI file. Once you’ve identified the data types with which you want to work, you’re ready to decide how those data types will work together.

BizTalk Mapper uses the data types you’ve just identified to design the process of data transformation. The Mapper is a straightforward drag-and-drop tool (see Figure 1). Dragging and dropping data types where you want them is all that’s needed to establish conversions of, say, EDI data from your supplier into XML data that your own EAI solution can understand. A Mapper component, called functoids, provides additional functionality, allowing you to perform a pre-defined process on your data as it moves from source to destination. A functoid can handle a currency conversion of data from an overseas vendor or customer or it can do a database lookup to see if a part number exists before going ahead with the transformation.

Figure 1. To design the data transformation process, you use the BizTalk Mapper interface to drag and drop data types. Source schema—those you’ve chosen via the Editor—are on the left; targets or destinations are on the right.

BizTalk Messaging Manager is a Wizard-based tool that automates the preliminary work to design and implement comprehensive business processes. Before you can specify how your complex business processes will function, you specify all of the components. For a given supplier, you might indicate the source and destination data types you need, the transformations to perform, the protocols to carry the data, and whether the data should be publicly encrypted, digitally signed and so on. When done, the Messaging Manager wraps this information into a component called a “channel.”

BizTalk Orchestration Designer (see Figure 2) embodies the BizTalk Orchestration technology that enables the integration of EAI and B2B solutions via a single, integrated environment. The Orchestration Designer is a visual tool, resembling Microsoft Visio, that lets you design complex business processes using COM components, MSMQ queues, script components, adapters and the channels created with the Messaging Manager. The left side of the Orchestration Designer screen shows abstract business processes (e.g., send an order, pass to ERP, check data validity, pass to warehouse). The right side of the screen shows the specific functions needed to accomplish the processes based on the channels you’ve just created. You create the business processes by dragging and dropping components. When you want to enable the system to send an order to a specific supplier, you drag the “send an order” component, which contains all the information needed to carry out the abstract instruction, onto the channel for that supplier.

Figure 2. In much the same way that Microsoft Visio can be used to visually map network processes, BizTalk Orchestration Designer can visually map business processes from disparate sources.

The last two tools are the Document Tracking tool and the IT tool. The Document Tracking tool is used for monitoring and analyzing data and metadata from the integration solution. The IT Tool manages the various BizTalk tools and Wizards.

Beyond simplifying complex integration processes, BizTalk’s two-step process of tying abstract processes to specific implementations has advantages. For the first time, it creates a high-level view of business processes separate from the granular details of implementation. Further, it enables a new type of developer, business process analysts whose expertise lie in the business implications of process integration and not in the underlying technology, to support their high-level contributions to the integration solution. These analysts may understand schema but not how to program in C++. They may know what HTTP is used for, but not how to use it and so on.

Another advantage of separating abstract processes from the specifics of their implementation is that it simplifies the modifications to these processes later on when, for example, a company using one financial package is acquired by a company that uses a different package. In the past, to get all of a company’s suppliers to integrate with the new software, you’d modify a process separately for each—and write code, to boot. Now, you simply drag and drop once to replace the old package with the new one using the Orchestration Designer. You’ve made no changes to your abstract process, merely a change to a specification about implementing a process. You can implement this change without breaking the solution you already have or writing any code.

This also suggests a new business model that may provide new opportunities to MCPs and solution providers. You can now create “processes-in-a-box,” off-the-shelf or highly standardized business process solutions for any number of applications, such as healthcare claims processing and reimbursement for a doctor’s office. A small medical practice might not have been able to afford a custom integration solution; but now a solution provider can offer a standard process, schema and transport to which it need add only customized implementation information. The solution provider’s capital investment in creating the process is preserved and leveraged with greater profitability and a revenue stream from a new customer base.

Learn more about BizTalk Server 2000 and how to put this new integration model to work for your customers at www.microsoft.com/biztalk. Who knows? You might be the one who makes it possible for me to go to that toy store to return my purchase.

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