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Microsoft BizTalk Server 2006

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Introduction
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How we tested
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BizTalk Server 2006
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Verdict

Information exchange has been a key part of doing business since the middle ages -- with the introduction of computers into businesses, this exchange was made easier but could still be difficult when exchanging heterogeneous information between different computer systems.

There have been a number of standards over the years for EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) but in the fast-paced world of application development, it was hard to keep a standard up to date and even harder to adapt applications to fit those standards.

A better approach is EAI or Enterprise Application Integration, where data and messages from different systems can be interchanged and used to drive business processes. There are a number of software tools that can be used for EAI and at the forefront is Microsoft's BizTalk Server.

BizTalk Server 2006 provides a framework and toolset that can be used to exchange information and messages from a number of different systems, regardless of their make or manufacturer.

In this review, we take a look at BizTalk Server 2006 and how well it fits as an EAI and workflow tool for the enterprise.

Introduction
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How we tested
|
BizTalk Server 2006
|
Verdict

How we tested
Microsoft provided a copy of BizTalk Server 2006 which we installed and configured on our own Windows Server 2003 test server. We configured BizTalk server and used both the server and test-drives to run through a number of scenarios around information exchange, messaging, business process automation and business activity monitoring.

For our review, we looked at how BizTalk could be used to exchange information between disparate systems, in addition to how well the automation features worked to automate common business tasks. We also looked at how the tool was suited to running processes, and the flow of data and messages between systems.

And finally, we looked at the steps to install, configure and administer the software, including, but not limited to, setting up the server and portal components, developer tools and other related components.

Introduction
|
How we tested
|
BizTalk Server 2006
|
Verdict

BizTalk Server 2006
The majority of development for BizTalk Server 2006 occurs in Visual Studio.NET 2005. From within Visual Studio you can create BizTalk projects and there are a number of tools and add-ins specific to BizTalk. If you are already familiar with Visual Studio, you will have a definite advantage here.

BizTalk Server 2006 leverages the Visual Studio.NET 2005 IDE
[Click to enlarge] BizTalk Server 2006
leverages the Visual Studio.NET 2005
IDE for development.

Installing both the BizTalk server and developer tools was much easier than in previous versions, with the installation and configuration time cut drastically. The documentation that ships with BizTalk Server 2006 is also much improved, with most common development and administration tasks now clearly outlined. There are also a number of tutorials for common development projects that will help developers get up to speed with the new tools and features.

In our testing, we built an InfoPath form to be used to collect expense report information and save the form and data to SharePoint. We then created what BizTalk server calls an "orchestration" that outlines what should happen with the information from the InfoPath form, including approval and workflow. We also went through a number of the tutorials for EAI requests and purchase order processing flows to get a feel for how the product could be used for day-to-day operations.

In our development, we found setting up the orchestrations and required components to be relatively quick, but there will definitely be some training required for BizTalk developers. Given the complex nature of workflow applications and information exchange between systems, you will need to get someone skilled up on the product before starting any major projects.

BizTalk Server 2006 leverages the Visual Studio.NET 2005 IDE
[Click to enlarge] BizTalk Server 2006
also features tight Web-service integration

The workflow capabilities within BizTalk are top-rate, but there is a heavy reliance on and integration with the Microsoft technology stack. But with that said, it also leverages the supporting technologies in Office, SharePoint, SQL Server, etc. to bind them all together with a powerful workflow engine.

On the administration side of things, there is a BizTalk Server Administration Console, but this version also introduces a command line interface that can be used to perform common administration tasks. The Administration Console is easy to navigate and a minimum of training would be required to bring IT administrators up to speed on the toolset.

Since BizTalk is used to facilitate communication and data interchange between disparate systems, it is important to note that BizTalk Server 2006 ships with a number of adaptors that can be used to integrate BizTalk with other enterprise applications, including PeopleSoft Enterprise, JD Edwards, SAP, and Siebel, and there are a number of integration partners that provide adaptors to access other systems as well.

Over the past few years, XML has helped with this standardisation as it has become a "universal" file format that can be used to exchange information between databases, applications, systems and other vendor's hardware. But there are still a number of data interchanges that still occur via ordinary flat files and in this release, BizTalk Server broadens its support for flat files with a new -Flat File" wizard.

The wizard guides you through the process of creating a schema for the flat file by identifying delimiters and looking at the content of the file itself. And the wizard also suits flat files that may have originally been produced as reports (out of older systems in COBOL or RPG for example) and different areas of the text file can be marked as repeating or fixed. In addition, the wizard also caters for data that is ordered by relative position (as opposed to being delimited in some way) and can handle complex flat file formats easily.

For monitoring business activities, BizTalk Server 2006 now includes a Business Activity Management portal that is integrated with SharePoint Portal Server, allowing developers and business users to view the status of business processes through a Web-based interface. Through SQL Server Notification Services, you can also now send e-mails to notify users of the status of a particular business process and provide real-time information about BizTalk processes running behind the scenes. Another enhancement for this release is the introduction of a POP adaptor which can be used to send e-mails directly to BizTalk server to trigger business processes.

Introduction
|
How we tested
|
BizTalk Server 2006
|
Verdict

Verdict
For organisations that are looking to streamline integration between systems or automate workflow tasks, it is hard to go past BizTalk Server 2006. Improvements over previous versions see BizTalk rise to the challenge of exchange information between systems, including smart logic and workflow and even mid-size organisations will benefit from automating manual processes. The adaptors that ship with the product make exchanging data between applications a relatively simple process and there is a growing marketplace of vendors offering BizTalk adaptors to integrate with enterprise and mid-range applications. If you are considering application integration or workflow for your organisation, BizTalk is definitely worth a look.

Product Microsoft BizTalk Server 2006
Price Microsoft BizTalk Server Standard 2006 English through the open business volume licensing program, RRP is AU$15,125 for 1 processor licence. This price does not include Software Assurance
Vendor Microsoft Australia
Contact 13 20 58
Interoperability
5 out of 5
Adaptors available for most major ERP platforms ship in the box, third-party adaptors also available for purchase
Futureproofing
4.5 out of 5
Built on the Microsoft technology stack, current support for ERP applications and third-party components available are strong indicator for the future
ROI
5 out of 5
Can drastically decrease the amount of manual processing required for common workflow and data integration issues
Service
4.5 out of 5
E-mail, Web and telephone
Rating
4.5 out of 5

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