Product Review: BizTalk Server 2004

A look at the development capability and management tool improvements made to Microsoft's business process management server.
When Microsoft announced it would launch BizTalk Server 2004, the company promised to add more development capabilities and enhanced management tools to its business process management server. CRN Test Center engineers reviewed the latest BizTalk upgrade and found numerous advantages over its predecessor, BizTalk Server 2002.

Technical Editor
With its new BPEL (Business Process Execution Language) superset and the shift of development capability from Visio to Visual Studio .Net, BizTalk Server 2004 eases integration with other enterprise systems and makes it easier to design business processes. Key Visio features such as its schema editor, mapping editor and orchestration editor were also ported to Visual Studio.

As a business process management server, one of BizTalk's primary functions is to allow users to design and implement business processes. In previous versions of BizTalk, these complex tasks were usually left to business analysts working in Visio. These analysts then handed their data over to developers working with Visual Studio. In BizTalk Server 2004, these tasks are now handled directly by Visual Studio .Net developers, significantly simplifying the development process.

BizTalk Server 2004's service oriented architecture (SOA) allows it to interact directly with other enterprise systems by using Web services or by communicating at the application component level. The SOA design model allows Visual Studio projects to exchange information and code artifacts seamlessly with projects developed in other programs. This tight integration also makes it easier for a developer fluent in Visual Basic or C# to quickly master BizTalk's development capabilities.

With an SOA, business processes are connected by mapping data fields using schemas, which define data by type. This means that data from many different file types can be used in a single business process. Data from legacy EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) and input from Java, AS/400 or Unix systems can be integrated with this architecture, extending the functionality of a BizTalk business process without having to recompile applications.

Mapping data fields does not always result in perfect compatibility between documents in different formats. To overcome this problem, Visual Studio developers can use what are called functoids to manipulate formatting codes and convert data into a compatible format. By using functoids, excessive coding can be avoided as long as the data conversion requirements are simple. Functoids are useful in large enterprises where hundreds of documents are mapped on a regular basis.

BizTalk Server 2004 also lets developers add their own functions when mapping data, and allows them to add XSLT (eXtensible Stylesheet Language Transformation) compatibility. After developers are finished designing business processes, the processes are deployed over the .Net framework.

Within larger business processes, developers often need to create business rules to govern how the process should work. However, when business rules are contained within a process, any change to a particular rule would require a recompilation of the entire business process. BizTalk Server 2004's Business Rules Designer allows business analysts to create, manage and maintain business rules outside of larger business processes to make them more manageable and to allow rule changes without altering executable code. For instance, when an item's price changes, business analysts no longer need to recompile the entire process but now only need to modify a rule that immediately ports the item change into the process. Rules created inside the designer process can also be separated to further simplify the process.

BizTalk Server 2004's architecture offers complete integration with Microsoft Office applications and Microsoft Sharepoint Server. For example, Microsoft InfoPath forms can pass data to a BizTalk orchestration process using a Sharepoint Web service component. This is a huge benefit for Office developers looking to integrate their applications with enterprise business systems.

BizTalk Server 2004 starts at $999 per server CPU for the Partner Edition. The Standard Edition is $6,999 per CPU, and the Enterprise Edition is $24,999 per CPU.

Microsoft is planning a separate competency within its larger channel program that will focus exclusively on business processes and integration. Until that program takes shape, Microsoft's Service Provider Partner Program offers support to solution providers implementing EAI solutions that include BizTalk Server 2004.

Microsoft offers hands-on training, road shows, seminars and online courses. These offerings are available to all interested partners at minimal cost. The vendor also provides a broad range of technical support and general assistance for solution providers. Microsoft did not disclose the average solution provider margin.

COMPANY: Microsoft
Redmond, Wash.
(425) 706-7329
DISTRIBUTORS: Accenture, Avanade, Cap Gemini, Ernst & Young, Hewlett-Packard, Sapient

Note: Vendors can earn up to five stars for technical merit and five for their channel program. If the average of these two scores is four stars or greater, the product earns CRN Test Center Recommended status.

Editor's Choice
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
Astrid Gobardhan, Data Privacy Officer, VFS Global
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing