By Scott F. Wilson

The process of designing scalable software has changed. Products such as the recently released Microsoft BizTalk 2002 and Microsoft’s new model for the Active Data Objects (ADO.NET) greatly simplify making this fundamental design change to disconnected, XML message-based systems.

What’s the new deal?
BizTalk 2002 improves on the previous version’s (2000) application integration tools, rapid development/deployment tools, and management operations support. Although a few helpful enhancements are still needed (such as complete support for XML schemas [XSD] and intrinsic support for Microsoft’s new .NET Base Class Libraries and .NET assemblies), BizTalk 2002 significantly decreases the time and effort required to build solid and scalable applications.

Application programming with pictures
BizTalk 2002’s programming environment provides programmatic control using picture-driven development via the Orchestration Designer (see Figure 1). Its XLANG (an XML-based language) schedules greatly reduce the development time required to tie together individual work items into coherent business process-based applications. This is all done through the use of Microsoft’s Visio 2002, and it greatly simplifies the development effort required to create applications that mimic your changing business processes. Orchestration schedules can also perform very complex programming concepts such as concurrent multithreaded processing, application-level transactions, and long-running transactions (over days or weeks).

Figure 1
Orchestration Designer and concurrent processing.

Orchestration Designer enhancements
The 2002 release of the Orchestration Designer provides all the same features as the previous release. Most of the new features are not related to usability but primarily provide greater control and scalability of the XLANG schedules. A few of these features are:

  • The ability to mark a transaction for exception handling to minimize database access.
  • XLANG schedule pooling to limit the number of schedules being concurrently processed.
  • XLANG correlation, providing greater access control and accessibility to multiple instances of a running schedule.

.NET assemblies cannot yet be directly called from the Orchestration Designer’s XLANG schedules, (FNR); however .NET assembly integration is available through a .NET interoperability wrapper.

BizTalk and Web services
Although Microsoft is highly touting BizTalk’s new integration with Web services, this integration is actually available only through standard COM interfaces that have been part of the product for several releases. BizTalk 2002 and its development tools provide no inherent support for Web services; however, developers creating Web services can easily use BizTalk 2002 through its COM-based API. Look for tighter integration with .NET and Web services in the next release of BizTalk.

Enterprise application integration
Over the last several years, Microsoft and its BizTalk ISV partners have created a number of new BizTalk integration tools.

Microsoft’s HIPPA Accelerator delivers a HIPPA-compliant EDI X.12 messaging infrastructure. And the Microsoft .Net Education Server is a complete XML-based messaging infrastructure based on the SIF standards (which also is perfect for jump-starting commercial application integration using XML).

With BizTalk 2002, Microsoft has introduced three new tools for decreasing the time and effort required to enable messaging with trading partners. The new Super Efficient and Effective Delivery (SEED—I’m not making this up) tools notably improve BizTalk’s messaging configuration with other trading partners. The addition of an HTTP/S receive function now allows BizTalk to receive messages over standard HTTP protocols and the new SMTP receive function using the standard SMTP protocol. These new additions—combined with BizTalk’s previous receive functions for Microsoft Message Queues, any file location, and COM calls from an application—provide numerous standard ways to provide data input to the business applications created with BizTalk.

ISV partners such as SAP AG, Siebel Systems, J.D. Edwards, and IBM MQSeries group have also created add-on products for rapid integration with their enterprise products using BizTalk. In the commerce/marketplace area, Ariba Inc., Clarus Corporation, and Commerce One Inc. also provide BizTalk integration add-ons. Installation and configuration of these BizTalk add-ons open the integration of these applications to any messaging structure that BizTalk supports, with little or no additional application development required.

Standards-based message structures
BizTalk 2002 does not add any new message structure; however, its automatic support for EDI, X.12, and XML SOAP provides the messaging structures that will be needed for most enterprise applications. As always, you can quickly create custom messaging structures created, if required, for integration into proprietary or legacy systems.

No big change in developer tools
There have not been any big changes in the BizTalk development toolset. Each of the tools has added a feature or two that long-time BizTalk developers will find handy. A helpful addition in the BizTalk Mapper tool provides better support for schema and document validations. Old hands with these tools will not find anything particularly new or interesting; however, anyone new to these tools should be impressed with how easily and quickly you can create complete applications.

Digital signatures and encryption
BizTalk 2002 continues the product’s ludicrously simple inclusion of digital signatures and message encryption using S/MIME 1.0, 2.0, or 3.0 as well as Public Key Infrastructure (PKI). You can implement or add this digital signature/encryption/decryption capability of BizTalk in any application for any messaging structure in 60 seconds or less. Try that with your new or existing applications to see what a time-saver this feature can be. In fact, these kinds of features are left out of many typical applications simply because the programming and/or processor overhead is too great—not so with BizTalk 2002 applications.

For example, you can easily use a digital signature from Verisign or  Entrust to guarantee that a message (possibly an order or credit request) really originated with a trading partner, and not with some script kiddie hacking against the system. Digital certificate authentication should be a requirement for all applications that are accessible externally from an organization.

Now for something completely different
The biggest additions to BizTalk 2002 are in the operations-support and management areas. BizTalk 2002 adds support for the Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM), integration with Application Center, and some additional database management scripts. Finally, BizTalk is ready for enterprise deployments. If you are using BizTalk 2000, these tools alone may be enough to justify the upgrade. If you also already have Microsoft’s Application Center, write your check—you must upgrade to BizTalk 2002.

MOM is real-time monitoring
One of the greatest deficiencies in previous releases of BizTalk has been the inability to understand what BizTalk is actually doing. This secret agent status is gone with BizTalk 2002; data-center managers can adequately monitor their infrastructure’s messaging center. The BizTalk 2002 integration with MOM provides over 900 predefined alerts and rules, including customizable alerts, which let managers take action in response to particular messaging events. The incorporation of the MOM rules engine also allows automated management of the BizTalk server and its applications, because specific actions can be activated in response to particular alerts.

Deploying BizTalk applications just got easier
You can now deploy BizTalk-based enterprise applications two ways. The old BizTalk 2000 standbys of copying files and/or creating customized installation scripts for receive functions, channels, and ports are still the standard deployment method for BizTalk applications. Most BizTalk applications are deployed by copying a few key files, such as schemas and compiled XLANG schedules, as well as adding message queues, Web pages, receive functions, channels, and ports by hand or through custom-created MSI packages.

New to BizTalk 2002’s deployment model, within medium and large enterprises, is integration with Microsoft’s Application Center (APP Center). Although APP Center is a little pricey (thus its typical appeal to larger datacenters), it brings significant deployment control and management to the BizTalk 2002 systems. APP Center integration with BizTalk 2002 allows organizations to easily move messaging applications from predefined development and testing environments to production-level environments; it includes support for clustered and load-balanced BizTalk applications. The application is “bundled” into a deployment package and moved throughout the production channel as operation managers provide approval. This integration with APP Center is one of the best ways to ensure that applications are properly installed and configured as they are moved from development to production. Managers can rest comfortably knowing that all of the application’s settings and files have been appropriately configured without the occasional typo getting in the way.

What to do with BizTalk 2002
If your organization is still building synchronous COM-based applications, it is now time to make a change and evaluate how BizTalk 2002 can save you time developing modern applications. If you’re currently using BizTalk 2000, the bug fixes and addition of management tools make the upgrade worthwhile, especially if APP Center is already part of your datacenter environment.