BizTalk Server: Getting Better All the Time

Users say Microsoft BizTalk Server 2004 -- and the 2006 version -- significantly ease enterprise application integration.

When it comes to enterprise application integration (EAI), Microsoft's BizTalk Server is tough to beat. For most Windows shops, its ease-of-use, resiliency and performance are giving even Web services a run for its integration money.

In some cases, BizTalk can also be easier and less expensive to implement than Web services. Erickson Retirement Communities in Baltimore, Md., used BizTalk Server 2004 to build a system that integrates 10 separate applications to create a resident demographic management system (DMS). David Clausen, systems architect at the company, and his colleagues ultimately determined that they wouldn't have been able to create a Web service for all their systems on time and within budget. BizTalk was equipped with the level of integration functionality they needed to get up and running quickly. For example, it could already communicate with flat files, FTP and HL7 (Health Level 7 -- a health care networking protocol).

Others still consider Web services the easier option for both development and management, but that's not always the case. Most users can build something relatively quickly, but they often haven't thought through the problems of maintaining a Web service to ensure its continued resiliency and performance.

That's frequently the case with Jonathan Summers' clients, who often express an initial preference for Web services. "For them, it's a speed to market issue," says Summers, enterprise architect at Software Architects, a consulting firm in Dallas. After thinking about building that level of core functionality into a Web service with limited management capabilities, they often opt for BizTalk. "After some consideration," he says, "the conversation will shift to BizTalk."

Microsoft BizTalk Server 2004

Microsoft Corp.

Enterprise Edition: $24,999 per processor

Standard Edition: $6,999 per processor

Vertically Challenged
Microsoft has a variety of BizTalk vertical accelerators ready to support numerous industries, like retail, financial services and healthcare. These accelerators are intended to ease integration with applications that adhere to industry-specific protocols.

BizTalk's HL7 support sold Clausen and his colleagues at Erickson Retirement Communities. "That was really the key for us," Clausen says, adding that his company spent $70,000 in software and hardware on its BizTalk implementation. He says it was money well spent.

Before deploying BizTalk, says Clausen, integrating with an HL7 application meant writing code from scratch and parsing out complex protocols. The HL7 accelerator treats the entire protocol as XML schemas, and lets Clausen use the BizTalk map to convert outgoing data to HL7. Then he configures the map and accelerators to convert incoming data to whichever format he requires for his internal structure and database. "It really streamlined the whole process," he says.

Using BizTalk and the vertical accelerators as integration points also helps tie in key business processes, Clausen says. For example, Erickson's DMS, based on BizTalk Server 2004, now includes an "eventing" system whereby any constituent system can post an "event" and make that information available in real time to any other integrated system.

When DMS receives a new resident, for example, it publishes an event. That becomes a message in the BizTalk Message Engine, explains Joe Schneebaum, senior software engineer at Erickson. There are about four other applications that subscribe to that event, he says, because new residents need immediate access to certain services when they move in. "The residents need to be able to get fed in our dining halls, request a shuttle to the mall and so on," he says.

Before Erickson started using BizTalk, it took a day or so for the IT staff to ensure that each system had access to the proper data when a resident arrived. The real-time "eventing" system helps them ensure that an incoming new resident's data is populated throughout its systems almost immediately. "Within one minute of becoming a resident," Schneebaum says, "you can eat your first meal here." Power at a Price

While BizTalk scores high on the application and process integration scale, that comes at a price. BizTalk's installation, configuration and deployment mechanisms can be cumbersome, time-consuming and unforgiving, say Clausen and other BizTalk users.

Software Architects' Summers points to the need to properly configure accounts and accurately establish database permissions -- and to get it right the first time. "If you get anything wrong, the whole thing gets rolled back," he says. "The product doesn't make many allowances for errors."

Others have had a similar experience during deployment. "BizTalk is a nightmare to deploy," says Yitzhak Khabinsky, software architect at Odimo Inc., an online retailer based in Sunrise, Fla. He uses BizTalk 2004 to integrate with applications from Odimo's trading partners, such as MSN, Amazon, Yahoo! and Google. He says BizTalk requires a multi-step manual deployment process.

Using BizTalk and the vertical accelerators as integration points also helps tie in key business processes.

Configuration and deployment does go faster with practice, others say. The BizTalk 2004 configuration and setup guide is a very specific three-page document. "You have to follow it exactly," says Erickson's Schneebaum. He eventually had to supplement the process with his own steps customized for his organization. In his three-tiered infrastructure that includes development, test and production environments, he claims he can wipe it out and rebuild it within an hour.

For a product with such a convoluted configuration and deployment process, users say, the documentation is fairly sparse. Fortunately, there are numerous online resources to fill that void.

Summers agrees with that assessment. He called the documentation "bare," and says the one book about BizTalk Server 2004 he knows of didn't come out until the summer of last year. He found what he needed online. "There was a grassroots effort put together by one of the BizTalk MVPs, who compiled help files from blog entries, called the Bloggers Guide to BizTalk," he says. "That was one of the key sources of information."

Up Next

Here are some key features users are looking forward to in the forthcoming BizTalk Server 2006:

  • Better documentation. A better effort has been made to provide real-world help in the documentation for 2006.
  • Easier installation, configuration and deployment. BizTalk 2006 will offer a raft of changes, including a more modular approach that lets users install and configure only the features they need, when they need them. Configuration mistakes will no longer affect the entire package.
  • Administrative capabilities. The new version will include server health monitoring and a new “applications” concept that significantly eases admin-level deployments.
  • Business Activity Monitoring (BAM). BAM now lets users access a Web portal to identify and track key performance indicators from within BizTalk-integrated applications.
  • Flat file wizard. A new wizard eases the building of flat file schemas to the point where they can be offloaded to business analysts, without further burdening developers.
  • Data interchange processing. BizTalk 2006 offers a new recoverable interchange processing capability.
  • Encryption. Users would like to see stronger encryption than the S-MIME support in BizTalk 2004. Early testers of 2006 say this issue may not be addressed until future versions. -- J.C.

Still Under Construction
BizTalk 2004 is missing some key features, such as a strong administrative toolset and robust encryption capabilities. For example, Erickson needed to build its own encryption into its BizTalk implementation for communicating with two of its external trading partners. "BizTalk only supports S-MIME, which really didn't suit our purposes," Clausen says. "It would be nice if they offered better encryption."

While BizTalk 2004 is well integrated with Microsoft SQL Server, the overall level of integration could be tighter, says Clausen. Fortunately for him, his SQL Server administrator at Erickson was able to take on BizTalk administrative duties as well. Clausen also feels the administrative tools could be improved, especially for server health monitoring.

One reason users appreciate a tool like BizTalk is that enterprise application integration can be one of the more boring tasks facing an IT professional, says Erickson's Schneebaum. "One thing Microsoft did really well with BizTalk was make the rote, mundane tasks of data interchange more appealing to a developer by giving them rich tools for development and good, fast schema editors. You might still not want to do it at seven in the morning, but it's less painful."

More Information

A Different Story in 2006
For instance, the installation, configuration and deployment have all been eased a great deal. "In 2006, things have been modularized to the point where you don't have to configure everything up front anymore," Summers says. "And if you get something wrong in a configuration, only that piece will fail and everything else will go through."

In addition, if users choose to implement only a few BizTalk features at first, and then wish to go and implement more, they no longer have to completely wipe out the previous version. They can simply install the new features to what they have in place already -- a big change from 2004, Summers says.

Another key feature is BizTalk 2006 is the concept of applications. "A BizTalk 'application' includes all the artifacts, orchestrations, the ports, the pipeline, whatever you need to get an integration running," explains Chris Han, systems architect at Satyam Computer Services Ltd. in New Jersey. Han is using BizTalk 2006 to build an integration solution for a financial services client that needs to link up a legacy HP-UX application with newer client-facing .NET apps. "2006 lets you actually create a deployment package with just a few clicks of the mouse, and then you can install it on any another computer. Before you had to manually do the deployment, one by one."

Documentation has also been improved. "I think with 2006, they're really going out of their way to correct the documentation problem," Summers says. "The beta documentation I've seen so far is very thoughtful. They've targeted things so they have specific help documentation set up for operations people and they have specific help set up for developers. And it's written more real-world like."

BizTalk 2006 has also shored up the admin capabilities, with a more powerful administration console and the ability to do server health monitoring.

And not only does 2006 fix problems but it also has a raft of new, compelling features, users say. For example, Summers says a few of his clients are already testing 2006 and are impressed with its Business Activity Monitoring (BAM) capabilities.

"With BAM, you can have business users log onto a Web site and essentially set up things like alerts on key performance indicators," Summers says. "They can tap into the data that BizTalk is processing through this ASP.NET web application. So if a certain number of transactions happen within a day, they can get an e-mail or something along those lines. It's nice -- very dashboard like."

Han says two new features in 2006 led to his client choosing BizTalk for the integration project -- the new recoverable interchange processing capability and the new flat file wizard. For example, in 2004, when BizTalk received a batch message from a constituent application, and one message in the batch was in error, BizTalk would fail the whole batch. In 2006, users now have the option to enable it to process only the non-errored messages.

"That really impressed our customer," Han says. "Without that, I don't think we would have used BizTalk."

Similarly, 2006's new flat file wizard eases development. "Flat file is a very popular format in the old legacy world, but when it's time to move on to the XML world, it's always a big job to design a schema against a flat file," Han says. "It used to be very trivial work for the developers to do the manual design of the XML schema against those flat files. But this new wizard in 2006 lets you do it in just a few clicks, and in many cases, the business expert can do it -- without the need for the developer to do any coding. It really reduces a lot of the burden on the developer."

Following is a list of BizTalk vertical accelerators that are ready to support different industries and are intended to ease integration with applications that adhere to industry-specific protocols:

  • BizTalk Accelerator for RosettaNet: A trading partner integration standard
  • BizTalk Accelerator for SWIFT: Aimed at financial services
  • BizTalk Server Accelerator for Global Data Synchronization: Aimed at manufacturing and retail
  • BizTalk Server Accelerator for HIPAA: For U.S. healthcare
  • BizTalk Accelerator for HL7: To integrate with applications using the HL7 global healthcare standard
  • BizTalk Adapter for MySAP Business Suite
  • BizTalk Adapter for Web Services Enhancements 2.0 (WSE)
  • BizTalk Adapter for MQSeries

About the Author

Joanne Cummings is principal writer and editor for Cummings Ltd., a freelance editorial firm based in North Andover, Mass.


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