Framed by BizTalk

It's not my fault. Sure, you might think you remember a recent article of mine -- the one about the importance of XML documents and their verifying templates: Document Type Definitions (DTDs). You might think you remember me saying, "By having an industry standard for business-to-business communication, we will open up whole new worlds for software development." And now, due to some recent announcements from Microsoft, you’re probably thinking that I was a hired straight man, setting up the pins so Microsoft could knock them down. But I was framed! And the framework in question is Microsoft’s BizTalk.

Word about the BizTalk framework crept out of Redmond a few months ago. Like some past Microsoft initiatives, notably DNA, BizTalk seemed to be yet another high-concept marketing plan. My attempt to squeeze a description of BizTalk from a team of Visual Studio representatives visiting me in Pleasanton, Calif., was a dead-end, despite BizTalk server being depicted prominently on their architectural slides. Even after PeopleSoft’s integration manager met with Microsoft specifically about BizTalk, Redmond provided neither a white paper nor a set of PowerPoint slides. The only thing sure about BizTalk was that it was concerned with using XML for business-to-business communication.

With the launch of www.BizTalk.org, Microsoft has gone public with some of its business-to-business concepts. The official word on BizTalk is that it is a framework for application integration and electronic commerce. One of its key goals is to have participating companies use consistent XML schema. BizTalk will also provide a clearinghouse, via its Web site, for public and private XML schemas. Public schemas will be available to anyone visiting the site, while private schemas can be made available to specific trading partners. The site will also provide an automated validation process to ensure your schema is BizTalk compatible. A steering committee made up of the major ERP vendors, e-commerce enablers and standards organizations will attempt to keep BizTalk on track.

Less is More

BizTalk’s approach is less grandiose than that of the Open Applications Group Inc. (OAGI), which I described in my previous discourse on business-to-business communication. OAGI and other organizations such as Acord, HL7 and OMG are working to define a standard set of schemas for adoption in their respective industries. These organizations face the unenviable challenge of convincing competitors to adopt the same semantics.

BizTalk, however, is concerned that vendors adopt the same method for describing their semantics: using BizTalk tags and design parameters. The approach is similar to convincing vendors to use the same programming language -- a possibility -- rather than convincing them to use the exact same object model -- an unlikely end. Once a vendor describes its semantics as BizTalk schemas, the schemas can be easily queried and mapped into another vendor’s format. Microsoft believes individual industries will eventually consolidate their schemas, but the success of BizTalk is not predicated on such a consolidation.

No DTDs

You might remember that standard XML uses a DTD to describe the valid tags and structure of a document. Microsoft, however, has ignored DTDs in favor of XML-Data, a specification currently under review by the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C). Unlike DTDs, XML-Data schemas are written in standard XML, meaning developers don’t have to learn another technology. XML-Data also supports XML namespaces, offers stronger typing than DTDs and is extensible. XML-Data schemas are not as well supported as DTDs, but it seems like a natural step towards unifying under XML for all data interchange on the Web.

While Microsoft will undoubtedly provide its own suite of tools to leverage BizTalk schemas, the current proposal seems refreshingly free of Windows platform entanglements. Microsoft specifically grants permission for anyone to leverage any technology in the BizTalk 0.8 specification perpetually, without license. It seems Microsoft feels driving the specification will give them a comfortable advantage in developing BizTalk solutions.

If your company is considering embracing XML, I recommend an immediate visit to the BizTalk Web site. The material on document design and XML tags can save you weeks of discovery and can keep you from encoding your data in a brittle format. If you chose to create BizTalk-compliant schemas, you may find yourself framed -- as the employee of the month. --Eric Binary Anderson is a development manager at PeopleSoft's PeopleTools division (Pleasanton, Calif.) and has his own consulting business, Binary Solutions. Contact him at ebinary@yahoo.com.