The buzz about BizTalk

It’s been a little over a year since Microsoft Corp. released its BizTalk Server 2004 integration platform. And while the e-business tool didn’t create the IT splash Redmond hoped it would, it has made an impact in the enterprise, according to one industry analyst.

A year ago, Microsoft was pitching the improved .Net integration, revamped business rules engine and faster automated business processes of BizTalk Server 2004. In the grand scheme of things, BizTalk Server 2004 didn’t have the impact a new update of Exchange or SQL Server would, for example, said Chris Alliegro, lead analyst for business applications at Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft.

The tool, while important, focuses on enterprise application integration (EAI) issues that aren’t necessarily pervasive across the enterprise — such as optimization and saving developers from having to write custom code linking CRM and ERP systems, he added.

The BizTalk tool contends with similar integration packages from vendors including IBM Corp., BEA Systems Inc. and Tibco Software Inc.

Grant Weltman, chief financial officer for Brushstrokes, said the Toronto-based art reproduction firm is using BizTalk Server 2004 to implement an e-business infrastructure for ordering and tracking shipments.

The firm had secured partnerships with several large retailers and needed to ramp up its e-business efforts. It also had to comply with each retailer’s distinct version of EDI, Weltman said.

The solution integrates with Brushstrokes’ Syspro ERP application and its existing Microsoft applications, he said, adding that Brushstrokes can now integrate with a wide range of trading partners and accommodate different e-business formats such as Extensible Markup Language (XML) and EDI.

But a lot of users probably aren’t using the tool to its full potential, Directions on Microsoft’s Alliegro said.

Features such as the business rules engine and the workflow capabilities aren’t being fully employed within the enterprise, he explained. “The most common deployment scenario you’re going to see is basic message mapping among incompatible systems in an EAI scenario.”

That said, BizTalk does what it’s supposed to do, he added.

Steve Easterbrook, e-business manager for Grand & Toy in Toronto, said the retailer uses BizTalk to integrate its ERP data with front-end applications and automate its online ordering processes. “We don’t use all of (BizTalk’s) functionality and primarily focus on the capabilities to transform EDI and XML documents.”

According to Easterbrook, Grand & Toy was looking for a product that would allow it to process XML documents from customers and integrate them into its back-end (IBM’s iSeries) system. He said the firm decided on the BizTalk solution because most of its Web development is done in a Microsoft environment. “The developers were already familiar with this world,” he said.

While the offering has workflow capabilities “we really haven’t done more than touch the surface.” But in terms of being able to quickly integrate in real-time with customer ERP systems, BizTalk has proved capable, he added.

By mid-2006 Microsoft intends to launch BizTalk Server 2006.

The business integration software — code-named Pathfinder — will feature a new management console and offer support for SQL Server 2005, the Visual Studio 2005 development tool and Virtual Server 2005, according to Microsoft.

In addition, Microsoft said there will be a BizTalk Server 2006 for systems with x86 processors with 64-bit extensions, along with improved integration with SharePoint Services.

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