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
Standard Edition, $4,999 per processor; Enterprise Edition, $24,999 per processor

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.

BizTalk Mapper
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 plans.

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.

BizTalk 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 uses BizTalk.
  • Partial support for XSD schemas as well as XDR schemas.
  • XLANG schedule instance pooling for better performance and scalability.

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.
—Mike Gunderloy

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!

About the Author

Robert J. Shimonski, MCSE, MCP+I, CCDP, CCNP, NNCSS, Master CNE, is a lead network and security engineer for a major manufacturing firm and part-time technical instructor. Robert's specialties include network infrastructure design with multiple technologies and developing a host of Web-based solutions for companies securing their markets on the Web. Robert has also contributed hundreds of articles and study guides to Web sites and organizations worldwide, including He just finished co-authoring titles on Windows XP Pro and BizTalk Server 2000.


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