BizTalk automates b-to-b

Today's conventional wisdom holds that XML is the key to helping businesses work together, at least from the standpoint of merging information from disparate systems. But by itself, XML can't do anything to help. Someone has to define the extensions to the XML schema, the structure that the two partners are going to use when exchanging data. Needless to say, a lot of money rides on how well you make this work, and where there's money, there's Microsoft.

BizTalk Server 2000 is in some ways Microsoft's most ambitious product yet in terms of its effect on back-end operations. Most businesses that have streamlined their processes over time have done so internally with great success, but things often break down at the front door. Even the most successful EAI (enterprise application integration) or EDI (electronic data interchange) projects will have some sort of disconnect. BizTalk Server 2000 is constructed to remedy that situation by using SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) and XML to glue systems together electronically. It is a unique product that any business using EAI/EDI should consider.

BizTalk Server is aimed at processing business documents, such as bills of lading, invoices, and purchase orders, as secured e-mail-like messages. These functions require sophisticated features such as document tracking and once-only delivery to provide the reliability needed for business-to-business transactions.

This is where the BizTalk Framework 2.0 architecture comes to the fore, enabling the movement of BizTalk documents and messages between trading partners based on BizTags, the XML tags that define document handling. As an extension of SOAP 1.1, the BizTalk Framework 2.0 provides the mechanisms for data exchange without defining the contents -- that's what the schemas are for.

The BizTalk Framework, although agnostic regarding message transport protocols, allows BizTags to carry transport-specific information. After it receives application-generated business documents, the BizTalk Server creates BizTalk messages that contain one or more BizTalk documents, which are generated either by the BizTalk Server or by the application used to create the original business document. The BizTalk Message is then sent to the partner's BizTalk Framework-compliant server which unwraps the message and passes it on to the partner's application.

Unlike most Microsoft products, BizTalk Server 2000 is licensed per CPU, not according to the number of users. The two flavors of BizTalk Server 2000 differ only in scalability. The Enterprise Edition, which we tested, offers support for unlimited internal applications and trading partners, whereas the Standard Edition handles as many as five applications and partners.

The machine running BizTalk Server 2000 should run Windows 2000 Server or Advanced Server. BizTalk Server 2000 requires access to a Windows server with SQL Server 7.0 or SQL Server 2000. Although you can run the BizTalk and SQL Servers on the same box, Microsoft doesn't recommend such a configuration for intensive use. Analysts and developers will require Visio 2000 SR-1 and a suitable Windows 95/98/2000 or Windows NT desktop.

Three client-side tools that analysts and developers use to configure the data flow are included: BizTalk Editor, BizTalk Mapper, and BizTalk Orchestration Manager. Editor is used to create and edit XML schemas, whereas Mapper handles the XSLT (Extensible Style sheet Language Transformations) style sheets that convert data between XML schemas. Orchestration Manager, which uses Visio 2000, allows analysts to design a data flow and developers to translate that design into action.

We found the BizTalk components easy to set up and use, and we were particularly impressed with BizTalk Orchestration Manager. We've used Visio before and have found it a great design tool, so we had little difficulty using it as the front end for Orchestration Manager.

The GUI uses a Visio diagram split down the middle: Analysts create flowcharts on the left side, and developers, working on the right side, link the various functions from the flowchart to COM (Component Object Model) objects and message queues, also using the modified XML schemas as needed. BizTalk, with a little help from Visio's Visual Basic for Applications component, automatically applies the changes.

Overall BizTalk Server 2000 provides an intuitive and powerful set of tools for managing b-to-b partnerships. If you're going to be serious about making EAI/EDI work for your business, you have to consider BizTalk Server 2000. There's really nothing else like it available.

THE BOTTOM LINE: CONSIDER

BizTalk Server 2000 Enterprise Edition

Business Case: This EAI/EDI tool allows businesses to reap the benefits of enterprise integration and electronic data exchange without reinventing the wheel.

Technology Case: BizTalk Server 2000 has powerful business document tracking features and superior message handling for exchange-strength operations.

Pros:

+ Superior set of tools for manipulating data between EAI/EDI applications.

+ Two-sizes-fit-all pricing.

+ Powerful yet easy to use.

Cons:

- Use of Visual Basic for Applications represents possible security risk- Cost: Standard Edition: $4,999 per processor; Enterprise Edition: $24,999 per CPU.

Platform(s): Windows 2000 SP1; SQL Server 7.0 SP2 or SQL Server 2000; Visio 2000 SR-1.

Company: Microsoft www.microsoft.com.

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