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Can BizTalk bring process to the masses?

by David Longworth
March 31st, 2003

Windows brought drop-and-drag computing to the masses. Now Microsoft wants to do the same for business process automation.

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Microsoft would have you believe its large installed base leaves BizTalk Server perfectly positioned to broaden the market for business process orchestration:
  • It incorporates a core component of BPEL4WS, the standard proposed by IBM, Microsoft and BEA
  • With 1800 live customers, BizTalk already claims broad market acceptance
  • Promoted as a low-cost alternative to EAI, its orchestration functions are underused
  • Microsoft nevertheless aims to establish it as the default plumbing for service orchestration

Glossary terms: business process, orchestration, BPEL4WS, W3C, WS-Choreography, lookup tool

In its zeal to drive market adoption, the company is losing patience with the tardy pace of efforts to reach an industry-wide consensus on standards. Earlier this month, the W3C's WS-Choreography working group had its first meeting to try to map a course that might bring together several different standards in business process orchestration (otherwise known as choreography). After first declining to attend, Microsoft finally sent two representatives, but then withdrew again days later.

In Microsoft's eyes, the W3C's efforts seem superfluous. Microsoft has already teamed up with fellow software giant IBM, supported by BEA, to publish their own joint specification for orchestration, called BPEL4WS. The trio have yet to decide which standards body they will submit it to, or what its status will be. But, if you believe the noises coming out of Microsoft's Redmond headquarters, BPEL4WS has already established itself as a standard — at least in the 'de facto' sense of winning market acceptance.

Broad adoption
"The standard that will bring real business benefit is a broadly adopted, interoperable standard for business process automation," says Dave Wascha, group product manager for e-business servers at Microsoft. His view is that backing from IBM and Microsoft ensures BPEL4WS is already well on the way to adoption.

"We've done a lot of work in the web services and XML space around [the core building block standards]. But BPEL4WS is the bringing together of decades of work around business processes," he says. "IBM and Microsoft have made a commitment that that's the standard we will support and that's a positive step for companies that are customers of IBM or Microsoft or both.

"If you think about it," he adds, "that is most companies — and this standard will be broadly adopted in the IT industry."

Wascha's perspective, of course, blithely assumes that those customers will indeed adopt IBM and Microsoft's solutions — in preference to products from other vendors, based on alternative specifications such as the W3C's WSCI, or BPSS from e-business standards body OASIS.

The problem standards bodies have with BPEL4WS is that it is closely tied in with the sponsoring vendors' own proprietary business process technologies, being basically a coming together of Microsoft's XLANG and IBM's WSFL. XLANG is the basis for Microsoft's BizTalk Server integration product, and the company has made the commitment that future versions of BizTalk will fully support BPEL4WS. But so far it has not followed up with a commitment that BPEL4WS will be "royalty free", which would allow others to use the specification without having to pay license fees. If Microsoft were to charge royalties, it would have a competitive advantage over competitors, something few standards bodies would be willing to endorse.

Market presence
Whether or not you believe this is a good thing, Microsoft certainly brings with it a weighty installed base of 1800 companies who are already BizTalk users. They range from massive conglomerates — a list that reads like a who's who of financial services, healthcare and hi-tech — to US government departments and states, to smaller companies like London Drugs, which used BizTalk to combine best-of-breed enterprise applications, and Coca Cola Beverages AG, for which it transforms documents in the drinks company's EDI ordering systems.

Its presence in so many live sites gives BizTalk, and hence BPEL4WS, a primacy over other as yet purely theoretical standards, such as those under discussion at the W3C meeting. This is the foundation on which Microsoft could establish BPEL4WS as a market-driven, 'de facto' standard. Just as Windows was the spark for the PC boom and led to the market dominance of Microsoft's all-pervasive Office desktop productivity software, so BizTalk could be the platform that brings process to the masses, providing the plumbing for loosely coupled process integration that conveniently plugs directly into other Microsoft products.

Microsoft itself is certainly not playing down its importance. "BizTalk Server is the implementation of a loosely coupled architecture, it is the business process automation technology for .NET and the place where Microsoft is investing in business process automation," says Wascha. "It will play a key role in e-business and IT infrastructure going forward and will be a significant point of focus because it can lower the point of entry for companies in business process automation."

Future vision
Microsoft's web services vision has companies assembling IT architectures from services which exist on the Web, and glueing them together using its own .NET architecture to best match their own business requirements. Microsoft has always promoted BizTalk Server as the glue in this scenario, touting a significantly lower upfront investment cost when compared to traditional EAI products. But BizTalk's business automation capabilities make it much more than a cheap alternative to EAI, bundling in orchestration functionality and an Orchestration Designer built around the popular flowchart design tool, Microsoft Visio.

This means it is very easy for information analysts to build and modify complex business processes separately from the application developers. The automated processes then become what Microsoft calls "schedules," which receive documents from a messaging port and then call software components, other BizTalk Server channels, or XML web services through the built-in adapter.

Despite this potential, companies have not yet widely adopted the orchestration capabilities in the product — case studies like London Drugs admitting that while they think this functionality is great, they do not have much use for it today. This is not due to any flaw in the product, stresses Wascha, but because Microsoft has been waiting until the time was right to talk up the orchestration capabilities.

"None of these organizations can be expected to have a greenfield opportunity," he says. "They will build on the hardware and software they have put in over two decades. So it will be a gradual shift, not a wholesale change." Nor does he recommend abandoning the hub-and-spoke model of EAI, but instead advises centralizing process orchestration around a large, "logical" hub that controls the entire distributed environment. BizTalk Server, of course, is the product he has in mind for that role.

Microsoft's line is that companies can only begin orchestrating services once the plumbing is in place internally, and that BizTalk is the vehicle that will make that opportunity available to the majority of companies. "We realize there is significant momentum behind business process automation now," says Wascha. "It's still hard to do today and it's a very nascent market. Business process management is only accessible to a couple of thousand companies on the planet. But there are millions who could benefit from it."

With so much opportunity to look forward to, no wonder Microsoft is impatient to move ahead. But until customers follow through on its orchestration rhetoric, its claims of market dominance for BizTalk — and hence BPEL4WS — remain open to challenge.

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Microsoft BizTalk Server
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Web Services Choreography Working Group
Official home page of WS-Choreography


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