BizTalk Server Progresses to Pre-Beta Release
Microsoft Corp.'s much-delayed beta release of BizTalk Server, originally planned for last summer, will soon see the light of day -- gradually. The software giant announced plans to release in early April a pre-beta preview edition of BizTalk Server and a new toolkit for the XML server.
The preview comes at a time when XML is red-hot as a data exchange format and a number of online business-to-business exchange sites are deploying Microsoft (www.microsoft.com ) technology to power their sites. The final version of BizTalk Server is expected to ship by the end of this year, according to Microsoft sources. Sometime before this, Microsoft will ship a true beta version that will include new business process automation tools, an XML routing engine, document routing, and security features. Some of these features may be included in the preview edition, as well. As of press time, the preview edition had not been released.
Microsoft officials say the beta release date was pushed back from last summer to allow Microsoft to include the business process automation tools.
Some Microsoft partners are using alpha releases of BizTalk to build vertical market e-commerce portals for the finance, process manufacturing, and parts manufacturing industries. "Time to market is everything. We want the mapping and routing of BizTalk Server so we can add value to our site," says Jeff Dirks, vice president of e-commerce at CapitalStream Inc. (www.capitalstream.com). CapitalStream's site, which went live in early December, is designed to bring together sources of capital -- such as banks, insurance firms and finance companies -- with brokers and vendors looking for capital. "Given Microsoft's commitment to BizTalk, we believe it's the right direction," Dirks says. "It's a gamble, but we believe it's a good gamble."
Using the BizTalk toolkit, CapitalStream is working hand-in-hand with third-party credit services to create an XML-based automated credit-scoring application that will run smoothly across disparate computing systems. The systems use different document formats and different transports, such as HTTP and FTP. "Microsoft has taken the role of facilitating the mapping between protocols," says Leo Brodie, group program manager at CapitalStream. As a result, CapitalStream and the credit services "don't have to get in the business of squabbling," he adds.
CapitalStream has worked with at least two alpha editions of BizTalk Server, Brodie says. At the alpha stage, the server provided mapping between protocols, but not XML routing.
A toolkit released in mid-February, however, adds XML routing to the mix. "It also includes a new GUI that makes it easier to work with COM and DCOM," Brodie says. Datastream Systems Inc.'s iProcure.com (www.iprocure.com), a maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) business-to-business exchange, also plans to move to the BizTalk platform. XML will be deployed to integrate parts catalogs from MRO suppliers such as WESCO Distribution, Fastenal, Applied Industrial, and Ferguson Enterprises. These catalogues currently use different formats. IProcure's revenue has doubled quarter-over-quarter since Datastream launched the site in early 1999, says Javier Buzzalino, iProcure's vice president of electronic commerce. "But we've decided that doing our own proprietary messages will not get us very far," he says.
The company wants to increase the number of manufacturing suppliers using the portal, and one major supplier in the industry is also moving to BizTalk. Unlike CapitalStream, iProcure plans to support competing approaches to XML, such as those from RosettaNet (www.rosettanet.org) and CommerceOne Inc. (www.commerceone.com). Also, iProcure didn't use BizTalk Framework 1.0 to create its XML schema or metadata. But iProcure does plan to contribute its XML schema to biztalk.org, a Microsoft-sponsored library of XML schema.
Another Microsoft-based e-market-maker, Sequencia Corp. (www.sequencia.com), is using BizTalk to build ProcessPoint.com. The XML-enabled portal targets process manufacturing industries such as consumer packaged goods, foods, and pharmaceutical and chemical products. The ProcessPoint.com portal for process manufacturing will exchange and monitor request for proposals, says Dennis Brandl, director of enterprise initiatives at Sequencia's.
"We'll match a company that says, 'I want someone to make this new toothpaste' to someone else who says, 'I can manufacture that. I have the capability,'" Brandl explains. Sequencia's customers include manufacturing giants such as Procter & Gamble, Kraft, DuPont, Bayer, and Unilever.
Sequencia has spent a decade producing software for process manufacturing, such as recipe processing and workflow. To allow its software to interoperate with that of other vendors, Sequencia began collaborating with companies such as Honeywell, Rockwell, Siemens, and ABB before the advent of XML. The companies' traditional method of document interchange is based on SQL tables. Sequencia plans to convert the SQL tables to XML for new software products that will ship in August.
"Conversion of SQL to XML is fairly straightforward," Brandl notes. XML will be used in Sequencia's portal as well. Sequencia is working with prerelease versions of BizTalk Server and the toolkit in test mode.
With BizTalk, Microsoft is trying to facilitate seamless integration through XML, rather than to drive a standard, says CapitalStream's Dirks. But not everyone in the industry is adopting Microsoft's approach to XML. IBM Corp. (www.ibm.com), for instance, has its own XML schema, says Jeff Jones, senior program manager at IBM Data Management Solutions. The recently announced IBM Content Manager will use XML in two ways, Jones adds. Content Manager brings together IBM Digital Library and the scanned image part of electronic document management. IBM is also offering optional components for computer-generated output, high-bandwidth video streaming, and unstructured SAP and Lotus Domino data.
All of this data can be managed within the same environment, and most of the text, graphics, and multimedia content can be searched. The initial edition of Content Manager supports DB2 Text Extender, a product that has been enhanced to be aware of documents stored in the DB2 database in XML data type. "Much of the text search and much of the federated search in Content Manager can handle XML information," Jones says.
A future version of the product will provide greater support for XML, along with support for content linkages and hierarchical level management. "You'll hear a lot more about that when IBM starts to provide complete Web site content management," Jones adds.