SAN MATEO (05/01/2000) - Even though the XML language has been promoted as a panacea for EDI (electronic data interchange), most businesses have yet to fully exploit its power. True, business data produced and consumed within your company yields easily to XML, but business-to-business data interchange presents huge challenges. Although you can apply XML today in custom-written b-to-b applications, a simpler solution would be a package that provides structured, secure, reliable document handling with minimal programming.
Microsoft Corp.'s BizTalk Server 2000, now downloadable at www.microsoft.com/biztalkserver as a free technology preview, is an adaptable, capable, and open suite of EDI services and objects that simplifies the handling of b-to-b data interchange. With BizTalk Server, there's no need to convene in lengthy meetings with suppliers, clients, and other partners to hammer out business document conventions. In fact, your partners don't even need to use XML, because BizTalk Server can turn any document that meets your standards into XML.
BizTalk Server marks the evolution of Microsoft's BizTalk XML. That initiative, a public XML schema repository available at www.biztalk.org, was supposed to standardize data document formats within the corporation. But BizTalk XML didn't solve the problem of linking to your partners' non-XML and foreign XML documents. Moreover, BizTalk XML didn't directly address the problems of transferring data between organizations, routing data to applications, or automating data processing. With BizTalk Server, Microsoft offers to take over the entire middle tier of data interchange processing.
Getting the message
I tested the preview of BizTalk Server on a Windows 2000 Server system equipped with 384MB of RAM and a 1-GHz AMD Athlon CPU. At 37MB, even when compressed, this is the largest installation I've ever attempted with the new Windows installer. Microsoft, thankfully, seems to have figured out that enterprise software doesn't have to be difficult to install or administer.
The BizTalk Server installer verified compatibility with my operating system components, linked itself to my SQL Server 7.0 database, set up an administrative user group, and installed the BizTalk services. Overall, the entire procedure required very little human intervention and no manual follow-up.
In early testing, I was struck by the utter absence of raw XML in BizTalk Server's user interfaces and utilities. XML is a BizTalk Server constant; it's even used to represent documents that didn't start out as XML. But if you're expecting to invest a lot of time hacking XML documents, you're mistaken. Using the tools provided, you can create an impressive data interchange system without editing or even understanding XML. BizTalk Server makes no effort to prevent the modification of underlying XML files; you're free to modify them in the text editor of your choice.
Given XML's reputation for simplicity, you may wonder why you'd need GUI tools to manage it. True, core XML, the basic hierarchical document, is straightforward. But the dark side of XML emerges when you start working with the technologies that support it. In particular, DTDs (Document Type Definitions), schemas that help a parser judge the validity of an XML document, are infamous for their complexity. And although newer schema standards, such as XML-Data, make document-validity specifications easier to create, there are still plenty of rules to follow.
The BizTalk Editor takes care of all those hassles. You simply build a tree diagram representing the elements of your business document. After importing one of my dense DTDs into BizTalk Editor and working with it graphically, I came to appreciate this simple approach. Being insulated from the uglier inner workings of XML frees you to focus on your data.
Once you've installed BizTalk Server, you're ready to start a specific project.
Two agreements -- one for inbound data and one for outbound data -- are needed to provide the starting structure for a data pipeline. Agreements set the parameters of document formatting, security, and transport protocol.
A pipeline walks a business document through the stages of its processing.
Using the Pipeline Editor (one of several graphical interfaces that define BizTalk Server's document handling), you determine how each type of document is processed. For example, a simple pipeline might convert X12 data sent via FTP into XML documents handled by your application. More complex pipelines can include stages for document translation (mapping), filtering, and content-based routing.
Each pipeline stage is protected by transactions and asynchronous message queues. BizTalk Server maintains detailed tracking data, so any application can trace a document's path through the pipeline. This approach takes care of the finger-pointing that usually mars the early stages of a b-to-b data exchange.
BizTalk Server also presents simple interfaces and sensible defaults.
Agreements, pipelines, translation maps, and document specifications all have their own editors. These editors give your business and management staff power over processes and formats. By the time programmers get involved, they're using BizTalk Server APIs that serve your EDI strategy rather than define it. That's a smarter, safer approach than defining EDI strategy and business rules in custom code, as most companies now do.
What about standards?
BizTalk Server uses many of Windows 2000's enterprise facilities, including COM+ (Component Object Model) brokered objects, transactions, and message queuing. The server stores queue, tracking, and pipeline data in SQL Server tables. Because Windows 2000, BizTalk Server, and SQL Server 7.0 and 2000 all support clustering, solutions built on this foundation should meet demanding standards for scalability and availability (assuming, of course, that the total solution including hardware, clusters, and networking is sound).
Moreover, the server integrates extremely well with Internet Information Server (IIS). I created Active Server Pages (ASP) script code to submit EDI documents and track their progress through BizTalk Server pipelines. The broad protocol support -- HTTP, secure HTTP, SMTP, DCOM (Distributed Component Object Model), Microsoft Message Queue, FTP, and queue directories are provided for -- connects BizTalk Server with all internal or external data sources. Your partner doesn't even have to run BizTalk Server for you to take advantage of all its features. Plugging front-and back-end applications in to BizTalk Server is easy work that even mid-level programmers can handle. I was also impressed by the degree to which documents and business processes are protected from bad code. As a result, it's hard to mess up a BizTalk Server document or pipeline from an application.
Standards compliance is another common gripe with Microsoft solutions. But the company recognizes the need to stay current with evolving EDI and XML standards; so in this case, Microsoft tracks standards about as well as it can.
Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations (XSLT), the World Wide Web Consortium's extensible style sheet language for XML transformations, powers BizTalk Server's document translator. The document-specification editor imports XML formats from a variety of sources, including well-formed XML and DTD files.
Overall, I consider BizTalk Server's architecture to be highly adaptable to changes in technology. It certainly bodes well that, even in this preview, non-Microsoft data sources and destinations were supported.
BizTalk Server has many potential uses inside and outside your organization. I can see it doing everything from automated format translation to simple document routing and tracking. And, as you activate more of BizTalk Server's features, your b-to-b data interchange requires less and less custom code. With a little effort, most of it spent learning how BizTalk Server works, the server can lead you to the b-to-b promised land: application-transparent data interchange between you and your partners.
It'll be a while before we know how BizTalk Server compares with other solutions because no competitors have yet attempted such a sweeping approach.
But the Microsoft product already makes a compelling case for the use of XML as a means of exchanging data with business partners. You'd be wise to grab a copy while it's free and acquaint yourself with the likely future of EDI.
Tom Yager is an InfoWorld senior analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BETA
BizTalk Server 2000
Business Case: BizTalk Server 2000 lets you transfer, validate, encrypt, convert, and process business data. You and your partners no longer need to conform to data layout and protocols.
Technology Case: This ambitious solution addresses everything from document translation to business process automation. Cluster support is standard, and documents may be exchanged using a variety of standards, including HTTP, SMTP, and Microsoft Message Queue. COM interfaces simplify application links.
+ Broad set of services
+ Highly scalable
+ Broad transport and format support
+ Fast setup
- Complex solution requiring considerable planningCost: Not announced; prerelease is freePlatform(s): Windows 2000Shipping: Fall 2000Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Washington; (425) 882-8080; www.microsoft.com/biztalkserver