Microsoft Orchestrates Visual View of BizTalk

At Microsoft Corp.'s recent TechEd developers' conference in Orlando, Fla., Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft (www.microsoft.com), took the wraps off a new component to its impending BizTalk Server. The feature enables the rapid creation and updating of complex business processes. Called BizTalk Orchestration, the new technology supports business processes that span multiple applications, platforms, services and organizations behind the firewall and over the Internet. The tool also includes a runtime environment and a visual design tool.

The beta version of BizTalk Server -- Microsoft's XML application server -- is scheduled to ship later this summer, according to company officials. Building business-to-business e-commerce sites "is more than just building applications; it's about orchestrating applications and Web services that may be running on multiple platforms, maybe running in multiple organizations, and maybe spanning something like a supply chain or a CRM [customer relationship management] application," says Dave Wascha, product manager for BizTalk at Microsoft. "We need to make this exceptionally easy to do -- as easy as drawing a diagram -- with BizTalk Orchestration." The visual design component of Orchestration is built on top of Visio, Microsoft's design tool.

Analysts view the announcement as the beginning of Microsoft's inevitable and forceful march into the XML space. Zona Research Inc. (www.zonaresearch.com), for one, says in a report that "designing business processes in XML using the Visio graphical model is very cool and very quick. We expect that this will enhance the splash that we expect the BizTalk Server to make." The research firm also notes that while leading vendors such as IBM Corp. (www.ibm.com), WebMethods Inc. (www.webmethods.com), Bluestone Software Inc. (www.bluestone.com), and eXcelon Corp. (www.exceloncorp.com) already have XML servers on the market, Microsoft has the potential to rapidly dominate this market.

Weaknesses in some competitors' offerings will help Microsoft advance in the XML server space. For example, IBM's Trading Partner Agreement Markup Language (tpaML), "holds the potential for embedding business processes, but does not, of itself, embed the sequencing. Additional software is needed to create processes," Zona documents state. In addition, "Bluestone's Visual XML tools also enable visual business process design, but we expect Microsoft's reach to extend to places that have never heard of Bluestone, eXcelon, or even WebMethods."

In a demonstration at TechEd, Microsoft's Wascha connected Microsoft Message Queue and COM components to an online ordering process, compiled the process into XML code, and then executed at run time with the BizTalk Orchestration engine.

Microsoft expects the tool to support online corporate procurement, supply-chain integration, and business-to-business marketplaces. BizTalk Orchestration software includes a runtime environment, a binding architecture for integrating applications, and visual design tools. The Visio-based visual design tools generate a drag-and-drop design environment that enables business analysts and developers to graphically define and modify interactions between applications and organizations at the business-process level -- rather than through low-level software interfaces.

Initially, Microsoft's BizTalk servers may be limited to all-Microsoft shops, Zona Research warns. "Microsoft is claiming that this is not an attempt at the proprietization of XML. While it is true that mixed XML-server trading environments could adopt and interpret the business process tags generated by Microsoft's Orchestration module, we believe this technology will put other servers in the catch-up position to be able to interpret the business process tags so generated."

Dell Computer Corp. (www.dell.com), a close Microsoft partner, announced the first part of its supply chain, built entirely on top of BizTalk servers and the Orchestration technology, went into live production. The PC hardware giant is automating the pricing and availability portion of its supply chain, which is characterized by multiple partners and high transaction volumes. Using BizTalk Orchestration, Dell is able to rapidly define its business processes and integrate them with supplier applications, says Ralph Hilliard, director of IT for Dell's DellWare division. "BizTalk Server 2000 provides the technologies and flexibility we need to more simply manage and change our supply chain," he notes.

As if its legendary marketing machine wasn't enough, Microsoft intends to pour vast amounts of training dollars into the developer community to stir up interest in BizTalk. The company is earmarking about $2 billion over the next three years to provide BizTalk training to developers. "We've been talking a lot about how do we get the developer community to really move forward most aggressively in building these new applications," Gates told TechEd attendees. The goal is to get BizTalk "bootstrapped in the fastest way we know how," he said.