Companies are shifting their attention away from internal applications such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and toward application architectures that can utilize the Internet to integrate their internal systems with those of their customers and external partners, creating the driving force behind Microsoft's BizTalk initiative.
BizTalk, a single structure that brings together business process automation (BPA), business-to-business (B2B) applications and enterprise application integration (EAI) services, also contains tools for developers and administrators, which have hooks into Microsoft operating systems, server platforms and networking infrastructures.
"BizTalk is at the center of what we believe will become the next major app server trend--the combination of XML business process automation, business-to-business XML document exchanges and enterprise application integration," says Peter O'Kelley, who watches XML, application servers and wireless Internet applications for the Patricia Seybold Group in Boston.
Operating as a network-aware e-commerce server, BizTalk, the first product release in Microsoft's .Net initiative, allows applications to be distributed across internal and external servers.
Companies that need to manage distributed business processes are finding that while they require each of these pieces to integrate their internal systems with those of their customers, partners, vendors and suppliers, it is difficult to buy all these products from a single vendor, and custom programming and consulting costs can be prohibitively high.
Although companies such as IBM, Sun Microsystems, Tibco Software and WebMethods offer similar integration products, BizTalk is likely to have an edge among enterprises that have already standardized on Microsoft developer tools and platforms.
The .Net platform reflects Microsoft's move away from its proprietary code base to open standards such as eXtended Markup Language (XML). By leveling the playing field for technology suppliers, this approach could present a risk for Microsoft by promoting commoditization of this market segment, according to O'Kelley. Because more choices will be available to users, Microsoft will have to work harder to differentiate its product.
Microsoft's BizTalk Orchestrator technology allows an enterprise to map complex business processes on top of a set of integrated applications. Other EAI services supply the middleware necessary to integrate application programs, databases and legacy systems, but they lack a critical feature found in BizTalk--the ability to direct the flow of information among different systems.
BizTalk can also empower a nontechnical business manager to integrate disparate systems. Using its visual interface, users can drag and drop objects from a palette and draw connecting lines to map the relationship between those objects.
But BizTalk goes beyond the diagrams, generating the code needed to perform transactions, validate entries and pass data between systems. "We write the code underneath the covers for you," says Dave Wascha, product manager for BizTalk Server at Microsoft.
With BizTalk, the business process drives the technology implementation rather than the other way around, says Lisa Miller, director of IT for Washington Publishing Co. in Rockville, Md., a beta site for BizTalk. "These business rules are so complex that most of our programmers wouldn't understand them," she says.
For example, in a simple business process, the system has to pull up a purchase order (Get PO) and submit it to a supplier (Send PO to Supplier). The user drags an object onto the screen and gives it a name, then drags arrows to connect each step to other objects that represent the components, applications and trading partners that actually do the work. Get PO is defined visually as getting a purchase order off the Microsoft Message Queue (MSMQ) Server. Once the pathway to the queue is established, dragging another arrow to an adapter prompts the software to ask what should happen next.
For very simple applications, Orchestrator may be enough, but Wascha acknowledges that most applications will require additional tools and developer resources. Therefore, BizTalk includes an editor used to define a document schema (the format in which a company's data is represented), a universal translator for mapping data from one format to another (from EDI to XML, for example) and a messaging manager that allows the business unit employee to define the protocol for sending data from one system to another, as well as additional tools for security, compression and IT administration.
Washington Publishing is using BizTalk to build a system to help healthcare payers, providers and third-party administrators comply with the healthcare insurance portability and accountability act (HIPA). The law, which took effect last August, mandates standards for insurance transactions. "The intent of the law is to reduce the cost of healthcare by 40 percent once it is implemented," Miller explains. "But until we get there, we've got a big problem. This will cost hundreds of billions of dollars to implement. With Y2K we were only dealing with date fields. Now we are dealing with fields that have semantic meaning and complex business logic. This impacts your business process."
Healthcare organizations typically run on a mix of legacy systems and decades-old computer languages such as Fortran and Cobol that weren't designed to communicate with each other or to accept real-time requests for information. BizTalk has allowed Washington Publishing to create a single environment where it can analyze the content of the existing systems, compare data types, identify any issues and bring them into compliance. The system can act as a portal so companies can integrate these legacy systems rather than replace them.
BizTalk Server 2000 illustrates one of Microsoft's strengths, namely being able to bring ease of use to developer tools. But the jury remains out on whether BizTalk will achieve the kind of widespread use the company envisions. "Microsoft is not the only player attempting to lower the bar for analysts and developers," says Seybold Group's O'Kelley. "WebMethods, Tibco and others also have high-level GUI tools for this, and we're too early in the game to know if any of them have hit the ball out of the park."