Redmond Review

Whither BizTalk

BizTalk Server is a blockbuster product, but it's also a sleeper. Its value is immense, yet its following is limited. Every so often it comes into the Microsoft spotlight, and typically it exits shortly thereafter. Now, because of Windows Azure and Windows Azure AppFabric (both in the cloud and on-premises), the BizTalk profile is rising again. Before it recedes from the foreground, let's consider its history and its future.

As BizTalk has progressed through its numerous versions, it has become more comprehensive, more stable and more results-oriented.

BizTalk Server 2000 and 2002 were COM-based, somewhat buggy and misunderstood by both the market and Microsoft itself. Redmond presented these early releases as Web service developer toolkits, when they were in fact much more. But BizTalk Server 2004, the first Microsoft .NET Framework-based version of the product, brought a stable and full-fledged business-to-business (B2B) data mapping and publish/subscribe integration server.

BizTalk Server 2006 added fit and finish as well as a host of valuable adapters acquired from iWay Software; the 2006 R2 release brought enhanced electronic data interchange (EDI) capabilities, radio-frequency identification (RFID) support and a native adapter for Windows Communication Foundation (WCF). BizTalk 2009 added further EDI enhancements and Hyper-V virtualization support. The recent 2010 release brings integration with Windows Workflow Foundation and the Windows Azure AppFabric Service Bus. If all that were not enough, support for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), as well as the BizTalk Accelerator for HL7 and BizTalk Accelerator for SWIFT make the product extremely valuable in the health-care and financial services industries. The BizTalk story is now extremely cohesive.

But Microsoft has muddied the waters. The introduction of the service-management component of Windows Server AppFabric, code-named "Dublin," provides an app server that parallels much of the BizTalk architecture, but lacks the latter's vast feature set and manageability. On the cloud side, the Microsoft .NET Service Bus bears some resemblance to the BizTalk message box. Branding-wise, the .NET Service Bus is a component of Windows Azure AppFabric that in its early beta form was actually called BizTalk Services.

BizTalk is Microsoft's integration server. Ironically, it needs some integration of its own. A future version of BizTalk built atop Windows Server AppFabric would make sense for on-premises work. A cloud version of BizTalk, based on a version of Windows Azure AppFabric more conformed to its on-premises counterpart, would make sense too. In fact, a lineup of Windows Server AppFabric, a new BizTalk Server based on it, and a Windows Azure version of BizTalk would parallel nicely the triad of SharePoint Foundation, SharePoint Server and SharePoint Online.

At this year's Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC), the BizTalk "futures" that were discussed came pretty close to this reorganized stack. The notion of a multitenant, cloud-based "Integration as a Service" offering with an on-premises counterpart was introduced, as was the intention to architect both products with Windows Azure AppFabric as the underlying platform. That direction is logical and intuitive, and the ease of provisioning that the cloud provides could bring integration functionality to a wider audience.

Why Does It Matter?
That wider reach is important, both for Microsoft customers and Microsoft itself. Integration is infrastructural and it's hard to get people excited about it. It's hard to get Microsoft excited about it, too. BizTalk revenue, though strong, is peanuts compared to Windows and Office, and is even small compared to SQL Server and SharePoint.

But, high revenue or not, a good integration server is important to the credibility of the Microsoft stack. You can't have data, business intelligence and applications without plumbing, tooling and management features for moving that data between applications -- and that goes double in the cloud. The on- and off-premises versions of Windows Azure AppFabric provide a good skeleton, but for enterprises, Microsoft has to put flesh on those bones. If Microsoft provided only the Windows Azure AppFabric fundamentals, it would be hard to argue a value proposition over open source products like Jitterbit and FuseSource.

Layering on a product like BizTalk Server, with compelling value provided by its adapters, and the BizTalk EDI and RFID features, means Redmond can make the argument and win. Microsoft should be providing more business value than open source, with more compelling economics than other commercial offerings. With the cloud, maybe BizTalk will morph from the little integration engine that could to the big one that does.

About the Author

Andrew Brust is Research Director for Big Data and Analytics at Gigaom Research. Andrew is co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press); an advisor to NYTECH, the New York Technology Council; co-moderator of Big On Data - New York's Data Intelligence Meetup; serves as Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; and is conference co-chair of Visual Studio Live!

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