The Internet won't mature as an e-business environment until the industry converges on middleware infrastructures that bind billions of heterogeneous components into a unified computing web. Everyone agrees that new standards for e-business middleware must address several key business-to-business requirements that traditional approaches don't support. Business-to-business middleware must use HTTP as the principal transport protocol. It must specify XML as the primary content-encoding syntax. It must work across diverse operating environments, object models and programming interfaces. It must rely on asynchronous message-passing communications. And it must be able to traverse enterprise firewalls without compromising end-to-end network security.
XML-based remote procedure call (RPC) technology is a promising middleware approach that appears to satisfy many of these criteria. XML-based RPC technology enjoys significant backing from Microsoft, which has banded with other companies to develop and proselytise the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP). SOAP is a solid specification that addresses the core requirements for XML-based RPCs. But even SOAP's most fervent advocates admit that it - or any other XML-based RPC - would be inadequate for tightly coupled applications that have relied on traditional synchronous RPCs or object-oriented frameworks, such as the Common Object Request Broker Architecture (Corba) and Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM). And SOAP lacks features necessary for a full-blown distributed-computing environment, such as mechanisms for creating, instantiating, naming, locating and managing distributed components.
Of course, the notion that there needs to be a single business-to-business middleware protocol or framework is beginning to seem quaint and outmoded. What we're seeing these days is the development of a new type of business-to-business infrastructure, the interchange server, that bridges dissimilar middleware environments, transport protocols and document formats for the purpose of connecting trading partners and enterprise applications. Interchange servers are essentially e-business workflow engines. They validate, map, translate, manipulate and route electronic data interchange (EDI) documents, enterprise resource planning system outputs and other objects between dissimilar applications and systems.
Interchange servers, also called integration brokers, will become the backbone of most business-to-business and enterprise application integration deployments. Interchange server vendors include large companies such as IBM, Oracle and Hewlett-Packard, as well as smaller middleware vendors such as Bluestone Software, Excelon, Mercator Software and Neon Systems.
It's no surprise that Microsoft has pinned its e-business software architecture on an interchange server of its own - the upcoming BizTalk Server 2000 product. Microsoft is clearly hedging its middleware bets with this product. BizTalk Server 2000 will support interfaces to SOAP as well as to the vendor's established middleware technologies (DCOM, Microsoft Message Queue Server and Microsoft Transaction Server) and Internet-standard transport protocols.