As much as it would like to dominate the enterprise server market, Microsoft’s Windows-centric approach is something of a shortcoming in what is still very much a mixed platform environment. Yet if there’s one product that belies this criticism, it’s BizTalk. Especially in its latest guise - BizTalk Server 2004, released at the beginning of March - which further extends the functionality of Microsoft’s popular application integration solution. A key component of Microsoft’s “Jupiter” e-business vision, BizTalk Server is a cross-platform, cross-vendor, integration tool designed to tackle two key issues of importance both to Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) and Business to Business (B2B) solutions. One is technological and relatively straightforward to resolve, the other business related and a deal more complicated. The technological issue is the provision of a mechanism for applications from different vendors, running on various platforms, to exchange information. This is tackled by BizTalk using message queuing technology. The Microsoft server acts as a central hub to accept documents, such as purchase orders, invoices and so on, from one application and pass them onto others, as directed by a set of business processing rules. Not that this makes it particularly unique, with Microsoft a relatively late entrant to the application integration marketplace. Despite this, BizTalk has won many converts since its introduction in 2000, leading to it being rated by Gartner (May 2003) in its 'magic quadrant' for application integration vendors alongside longer established players such as BEA, IBM and Tibco. Much of that success is due to the relatively low price of the product which can be supported on industry-standard Windows server hardware. Equally, however, it benefits from a modern architecture skewed towards the latest Web services technologies which everyone - well, almost everyone - is looking to embrace. BizTalk Server, for example, is entirely XML-based with, in the new release, full support for the XML Schema Definition (XSD) as ratified last year by the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C). This makes it particularly well positioned when it comes to XML-based Web services but that’s not all it does. The software can also talk to legacy applications via plug-in XML converters, known as adapters. Many of these are built in, including adapters for EDI, HTTP, SMTP, FTP, MSMQT and SOAP with others, such as SAP, Siebel and SWIFT adapters, available as add-ons, either from Microsoft or third party providers. Developer tools are also included as part of the BizTalk package with, in the 2004 release, a move away from custom utilities to plug-ins for Visual Studio .Net. Microsoft reasons that this is what most developers will be using already and that this will encourage more of them to develop for BizTalk. However, developers aren’t the only ones who need to be involved. Business managers and other non-technical staff have a major interest in the second, more complex, issue tackled by BizTalk, such as the management and monitoring of the business processes themselves. Indeed it’s here, in the area of business process management (BPM), that the more significant changes in this new release of BizTalk are to be found. Among a raft of updates and new features, BizTalk Server 2004 includes a set of new Visio templates to allow business processes to be defined using Microsoft's popular flow-charting tool. Such charts can be created by business analysts then imported into Visual Studio .Net to be used by developers to build BizTalk orchestrations, the new name for the coding that governs the way applications interact. Plus there’s a new business rules engine that can be used by non-technical managers to fine-tune an orchestration, such as changing sign-off levels or modifying supplier details, without the need for reprogramming. Elsewhere, a Health and Activity Tracking (HAT) facility has been added to enable administrators to monitor and manage the business processes being handled by BizTalk. Added to this, a separate Business Activity Monitoring (BAM) engine enables information workers to access the data being processed in real time from their desktops, using familiar tools such as Excel and SharePoint Portal Server. Plus there’s full integration with the Office InfoPath application to allow those information workers to further re-use and share that information. Support for single sign-on is another useful new option in BizTalk Server 2004, along with Human Workflow services for manual interaction where required. The performance of both messaging and orchestration engines has also been tuned and there’s support too for Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations (XSLT) and the Business Process Execution Language (BPEL). Yet more standards related to Web services which developers need to be able to exploit. On the downside, the software is still reliant on SQL Server and can’t be implemented on top of other database engines, which could deter companies standardising on other platforms. Upgrading can be an issue too. New adapters are required and, for more complex deployments, re-programming in order to migrate existing BizTalk systems to the new release. Indeed existing customers may find little benefit to be gained from such an upgrade, based on the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” maxim. Those likely to be most interested will be companies looking to integrate legacy applications into the new Web services paradigm and those wanting greater visibility onto their business processes and supporting applications. The low entry price is another lure, but bear in mind the cost and time required to deploy BizTalk Server. That’s likely to be many times more than the software itself, although a number of so-called “accelerators” are available with, for example, pre-defined XML schemas to match popular applications in a number of vertical markets. Added to which companies interested in evaluating the software can download a trial (from www.microsoft.com/biztalk) or buy the Partner Edition which, for £600 is a good way of finding out exactly what the Microsoft package has to offer.

OUR VERDICT

The latest release of BizTalk has a lot to commend it, not least because it empowers non-technical staff to monitor and manage business processes. However, as with other integration tools the supporting software is only one part of the solution. You need also to budget for the time, expertise and cost of programming to match your company and business processing needs.