BizTalk Server: Putting B2B to Work
BizTalk Server 2000 gets closer to B2B application integration.
Rising from the ashes of the now defunct Windows DNA platform, BizTalk
Server 2000 is now the centerpiece of Microsoft's .NET platform. BizTalk
Server has a purpose that Microsoft's product line has rarely stepped
into: interoperability. This functionality enables BizTalk Server 2000
to perform seamless and transparent integration of heterogeneous applications
over the Internet via XML, and can be scaled to fit medium- to large-sized
enterprise networks with multiple business partners running B2B communications.
Suppose you want your SAP /R3 ERP system to communicate with a PeopleSoft
system over the Internet. Problem is, you may have to speak two separate
specifications (like EDIFACT or X12). Worse still, have this translation
take place over the Internet. Then, add the costs for the fleet of developers
who must write code to translate one purchase order to another. BizTalk
Server 2000 promises to solve these types of problems.
BizTalk Server 2000 has two features that make it incredibly useful.
First, Microsoft isn't known for conforming to standards, but keep standards
in mind when you use this product. BizTalk is engineered around XML and
XSLT and adheres to them closely.
Second, BizTalk comes with a suite of outstanding tools. The BizTalk
Mapper (see Figure 1), for example, lets someone like me of an infrastructure
bent connect disparate specifications (like two purchase orders). The
Mapper lets you to map fields together with pre-written functions called
"functoids," which help you build a not-so-simple XSLT Stylesheet
with minimal effort. The functoids come from a functoid palette, but those
who are technically savvy might want to use the scripting functoid to
roll your own.
|Figure 1. BizTalk Mapper, with the functoid palette.
(Click image to view larger version.)
The BizTalk Mapper isn't the only gem. Other tools: the BizTalk Editor,
which you can use for creating XDR schema creation and defining data structures;
the BizTalk Orchestration designer, a graphical tool based on Visio 2000
that can be used to define business processes and create a workflow model
from those processes. There are many other tools, but these are the coolest
ones. BizTalk Server 2000 also supports secure document delivery using
public-key encryption and digital signatures, for safely routing B2B documents
over the Internet.
BizTalk also has a few drawbacks, such as the showstopper bugs and issues
related to running this system in a production environment. Know your
systems and tools well, and test your systems thoroughly before you go
live. Remember that your BizTalk implementation will connect not only
to your network, but to business partners—if you run into a problem
with BizTalk Server, it may affect them too.
Another big drawback: price. An enterprise implementation can run close
to $25,000 per CPU. Add SQL Server and the cost goes up. But there are
also some hidden costs. Staff and training is necessary and costly, as
are connectors and accelerators. Let's say you want to configure BizTalk
Server 2000 with your SAP /R3 platform. Add $15,000 per CPU for those
SAP adapters. These costs should be figured into your preliminary rollout
I have one more complaint: How do you roll it out? The amount of information
about this product is slim to none. There are lots of books, articles,
and tutorials for using its tools, but not much out there explains how
to actually implement and roll it out. A BizTalk rollout is just not that
easy. Anytime you want to roll out an n-tier platform that needs to be
routed, secured and built into a DMZ, you will need to map out your plans.
The Microsoft Press books are a good source of information, but even better
are the BizTalk Server help files. After that, I used good ol' trial and
error. One other source of info is the tutorial, which you can find on
the Microsoft Download Web site.
Server 2002: What's Next?
According to Microsoft's Web site, BizTalk Server 2002
doesn't even exist yet. Despite this, details have leaked
in a couple of recent BizTalk books. From these resources
it's possible to put together a picture of the new BizTalk
Server 2002 Enterprise Edition, which presumably will
ship some time this year. Although I haven't managed
to get my hands on a copy yet, here's a list of the
features to expect:
- Integration with Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM)
and Microsoft Application Center.
- Direct HTTP receive of documents, replacing the
need to go through ASP pages with COM libraries.
- The BizTalk SEED Wizard, which helps you quickly
set up communication with a trading partner who also
- Partial support for XSD schemas as well as XDR schemas.
- XLANG schedule instance pooling for better performance
BizTalk Server 2002 appears to be more of an incremental
release, tidying up the current morass of Service Pack
1 and hotfixes, rather than a full-blown release. The
integration with other server products will be particularly
welcome at large BizTalk installations, and the SEED
Wizard will ease the task of getting up and running
(at least with trading partners who also use BizTalk).
But watch for a major update—with a more compelling
feature set and enhanced .NET support—to follow
closely on the heels of this one.
BizTalk Server 2000 is a great addition to your business, but a bit costly
and you need to really make sure you have a business need for it, trained
personnel to run and develop with it, and a solid infrastructure to place
it within. Without this preplanning, the cost of your BizTalk implementation
may far outweigh its benefits. You also need to make sure that the disparate
systems that you're connecting with BizTalk are also added to the equation,
not only with support but hidden costs. Training can only help you with
a successful implementation, and setting up a BizTalk test lab is practically
necessary. Remember, a dollar spent in forethought may be the best investment.
Changing specifications after your system goes live could prove to be
a devastating nightmare.
Lastly, visit the knowledge base frequently. There are many issues related
to running this product as well as many hotfixes and service packs that
are needed to help BizTalk function properly and to keep it secure. Microsoft
products are generally in need of much love and attention from their administrators—BizTalk
Server 2000 is no exception. Good luck!