With the third edition of its online application server, released Tuesday, Microsoft has substantially strengthened the business-to-business, e-business and data integration features of BizTalk Server 2004. But the package still has a long way to go before it has the broad enterprise-scale features of its key competitors, IBMs WebSphere and BEA Systems WebLogic.
The key new features in BizTalk Server 2004 include business process management, which allows the server to orchestrate and execute complex instructions to monitor multiple data systems, gather data from multiple sources, and exchange data between trading partners. This includes support for Business Process Execution Language (BPEL), which is a proposed industry standard for programming business processes that can exchange data among trading partners, applications and business users.
The business process management capability is backed by an enhanced business rules engine designed to enable developers to create more flexible and sophisticated rules that guide the operation of e-business applications.
The new edition also improves support for an enterprise single sign-on capability, which provides a common sign-on routine for Windows and non-Windows users who are accessing business applications that link up multiple trading partners or sites.
Microsoft has even included a Health Activity Tracking feature that enables the applications to monitor and report on whether business processes are performing accurately and reliably. Furthermore, Business Activity Monitoring provides real-time reports of business process performance through Excel spreadsheets or through the Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003.
Another key goal of BizTalks designers was to make it easier for business managers and analysts to work with developers to define business processes and create applications that link desktops to back-end data stores. As a result, the server package is integrated with Microsoft Office Visio 2003, to give business analysts and managers diagramming and data visualization tools to help them work with developers to shape application design.
It is features like this that will make the package productive and attractive to business managers, said Ted Kummert, Microsofts recently appointed corporate vice president of the E-Business Servers Group. Tools like the diagramming and business process management features give customers “rapid time to value advantages that are a substantial differentiator” from competing servers, Kummert said.
The BizTalk Server announcement marks the first major launch event that Kummert has participated since he took the helm of the E-Business Servers Group in early January.
While Microsoft has clearly augmented the business-to-business and data integration features of BizTalk, it still looks very much like a tool for building narrow-based departmental or divisional applications rather than broad enterprise-scale applications.
What remains to be seen, now that it has introduced the new BizTalk Server, is whether Microsoft will see enough customer demand to consider reviving the e-business server suite that was supposed to include BizTalk, Content Management Server (CMS), Commerce Server and Host Integration Server.
The bundle was supposed to compete head-on with WebSphere, and it certainly sounded like a bold idea. But Microsoft disclosed two weeks ago that it was shelving the bundle, which was due in 2005, at least for the time being.
One thing that Microsoft hasnt changed is the price. Microsoft is charging $25,000 per CPU for the Enterprise Edition, $7,000 for the Standard Edition and $999 for the Partner Edition. This maintains the appeal of the Microsoft server as an economical if still less powerful Windows alternative to WebSphere or WebLogic deployments, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The server has been evaluated by 45 early support customers. One of those customers, Virgin Entertainment Group, went live in January with a real-time “loss prevention” application that watches point-of-sale transactions in the entertainment media retailers 23 North American stores to look for evidence of fraud or theft.
“We spend a lot of time and energy trying to keep products from walking out the door,” said Steven Winningham, Virgin Entertainments senior vice president of operation. Retailers in North America lose more than $30 billion a year in thefts and frauds, and nearly half are committed by employees, he said.
Virgin Entertainment worked with system integrator Xavor of Irvine, Calif., to develop the system based on BizTalk 2004, Microsoft SQL Server Analysis Services, SharePoint Services and the Microsoft Office System.
“The time it took to implement the solution for our architects and developers was relatively short” compared with other data integration systems in the market, said Ammara Masood, Xavor senior vice president. Virgin Entertainment received the BizTalk software in August and had a finished application up and running by mid-December, Masood said. The system went live in January after testing and evaluation.
The Virgin Entertainment IT development team also looked at IBM WebSphere but concluded that “BizTalk excelled in the area of XML and Web services development,” said Paul Duchouquette, director of IT with Virgin Entertainment.
The server watches for refunds that exceed a certain amount or for volume discounts that exceed company policies, which are among the most frequent scams executed by employees, explains Winningham.
The system notifies loss prevention managers that a suspicious transaction has popped up via cell phones or pagers, Winningham said, allowing them to immediately check the validity of the transaction. The system can flag a suspicious transaction within 10 minutes after it is entered. Its possible for store managers to track down a fraudulent transaction while the perpetrator “is still standing behind the point of sale terminal,” he said.
“We want employees to be aware that the system is there if they are thinking about ripping us off,” Winningham said.
eWEEK.com Enterprise Applications Center Editor John Pallatto is a veteran journalist in the field of enterprise software and Internet technology.