The Buzz on BizTalk
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June 14, 1999
I recently attended the Microsoft Tech·Ed conference in Dallas, Texas. For those of you not familiar with this event, it is a Windows Technical conference that Microsoft holds once a year to provide information on a wide range of development and application deployment topics. The range of attendees was quite broad, including: Network Managers, Web Server Administrators, Web Site Designers, Script/Macro Developers, Application Programmers, and far too many additional variations to list. Each day of the conference was comprised of hundreds of different technical sessions—so many topics that it was almost like letting a kid loose in a candy store.
I've been involved with several different developers conferences over the years—and for the past year or so, I've seen a fairly consistent pattern emerging in which sessions are the most popular. It appears that any session including "XML" somewhere in its title will result in an overflow crowd—no matter how big the room. Hard to say whether folks are cramming into these sessions simply because XML is the hot topic these days, and they don't want to feel left out, or whether they are already working on XML-based solutions.
XML, in and of itself, is a relatively straightforward topic. It is essentially like HTML, except it is a little more structured, and the "tags" available are totally up to the needs of the users and the developer. To put it another way, HTML (essentially) represents a usage of XML, and a Web browser is an application that knows how to use or render an XML document formatted in this manner.
Now I've mentioned enough about XML to get it in the title for this article, and thus guarantee that people will flock in droves to read it. If you want some additional background and tutorial information on XML, check out the following links:
- Elementary XML
- The XML tutorial
- MSDN Online's Extreme XML column
This month, I'd really like to spend time talking about BizTalk. BizTalk is an XML framework that is designed to assist in application integration in general, and in e-commerce "business to business" exchanges in specific.
You can get more information on this by visiting the BizTalk Web site. The organization is comprised of a wide range of industry leaders who are working on providing an open and central repository of XML schemas that address different data transmission/translation needs. BizTalk's main goal is to provide clearly defined schemas that will allow business-to-business information interchange using XML as the data format. BizTalk provides a way to achieve a rich level of interoperability—both between multiple applications and between multiple operating systems.
But what does this mean? Why is it important?
One way to illustrate the importance of BizTalk to the wheeling, dealing world of commerce is to compare it to the functionality you should already be familiar with: HTML and Web pages.
HTML provides a mechanism by which documents can be easily passed between different applications, as well as different operating systems. A wealth of tools can read, write, manipulate, organize, sort, and manage Web pages. Almost any tool you currently use to maintain "documents" can also work with HTML.
Read My Dialect
Now, remember that HTML was sort of the "precursor" to XML. While HTML was easier for different applications to use as a information interchange model, each application had to understand a lot—or too much—of the actual HTML dialect. By this, I mean that the application had to realize that an <A> (anchor) tag always needed a matching closing tag (</A>), but an <IMG> (image) tag didn't require a corresponding closing tag. Add to that the fact that a <P> (paragraph) tag previously didn't have to have a closing tag (</P>), but now it does. As the HTML dialect has evolved, the applications that use it have needed to be quickly revised to follow the new formatting—or, worse than just not understanding what is contained in a document, they could actually break the document.
As the above-listed links about XML indicate, XML isn't a dialect in the manner of HTML; it is a well-defined structure. This means that any document/information format that conforms to the XML specification can be easily passed through any XML tool. If the tool encounters an element it doesn't understand, it will at least know how to pass that element through unmodified, and unbroken.
BizTalk is based on the XML standard, and represents one of the first clear advancements in network integration that is possible through XML. This means that XML is providing the "structure" of the information, and BizTalk is providing the dialects, or dictionaries that are used for understanding the content of the information. More important, as a functional repository, BizTalk.org, is providing open access to these dialects, making it easy for one company to design and adopt a data schema that they use for publishing their business information. Then any cooperating business receiving information from that company will be able to access the data that they need using the same data schema. The key is that the consumer of this information is not intended to be a user reading a document on a computer screen; the "consumer" of BizTalk is intended to be the business logic within an application.
So, if you look back at my Vulcan Documents article, in which I describe how Web documents are an attempt to move information "from my mind, to your mind," XML and BizTalk represent this same sort of "telepathy," but instead of from person to person, it is from application to application.
With the Internet allowing a greater degree of connectivity between an extremely wide variety of computer systems, the need for this level of interoperability becomes increasingly important. The use of XML in general, and BizTalk in specific, is just one of the ways that application interoperability can be achieved. Yes, there are others -- but that's a topic for another article.
Robert Hess is an evangelist in Microsoft's Developer Relations Group. Fortunately for all of us, his opinions are his own.