.Net Gets XML Right

Microsoft BizTalk Server 2000 sets usability standard

Perhaps creating a product in a new field where there are no established leaders to catch up to (or copy) is a good thing for Microsoft Corp. The companys BizTalk Server 2000 is an excellent platform for managing XML data processing among businesses and is one of the best first-version offerings eWeek Labs has seen from Microsoft.

Although BizTalk Server 2000 includes a server element for handling data transfers, its real strength lies in its suite of tools, which provide powerful, intuitive interfaces for creating and transforming Extensible Markup Language files and for collaborative creation of business processes. The product is one of the most important in Microsofts .Net initiative because XML is at the core of .Net.

Despite its still less-than-perfect support for standards, we believe BizTalk Server 2000 sets an impressive standard for functionality and usability in XML processing. For these reasons, it is an eWeek Labs Analysts Choice.

BizTalk Server 2000, which shipped last month, comes in a $4,999-per-CPU standard edition that supports up to five applications and five external trading partners, and in a $24,999 enterprise edition with unlimited support for applications and trading partners.

Like most .Net servers, the product runs only on Windows 2000 Advanced Server and requires SQL Server 7.0 or later. BizTalk Server also requires Microsofts Visio 2000 charting application and its Internet Explorer 5.0 Web browser or later.

Simple schema creation

One core tool in the product is BizTalk Editor, which makes it very simple for users to create schemas specific to their business needs using an intuitive, tree-based builder interface. Another useful tool in tests was BizTalk Mapper, which let us transform XML and other data documents such as electronic data interchange and text files, using a straightforward interface to map the documents into proper formats. BizTalk Mapper then generates an Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations file to manage the document transformations.

By default, BizTalk Server 2000 is still based on Microsofts XML-Data Reduced schema. However, the product includes a command-line conversion utility to convert data to the World Wide Web Consortiums XSD (XML Schema Definition) standard. Although this works, we would like to have XSD support built into the tools to make the server easier to integrate with other XML data systems. The server also supports Simple Object Access Protocol, an XML-based protocol for issuing remote calls.

The feature that specifically requires Visio is Orchestration Designer, a visual tool that makes it possible for business analysts and developers to collaborate when creating complex business processes. Orchestration Designer works by first letting an analyst define a chart for a business process and then letting a developer build components using the chart. The resulting output of Orchestration Designer is an XML-based language schedule that can be tied to application services.

Server administration is done through a standard Microsoft Management Console interface, on which we could schedule actions, track usage and define settings. A nice feature for tracking the progress of data through the system is included. Using this feature, which is accessible through a Web browser, we could create detailed queries to find information such as source and destination of an XML document.

BizTalk Server 2000 uses the messaging features in Windows 2000 to handle how XML data is exchanged and distributed throughout an organization and between business partners. This feature provided well-designed queues and interfaces for managing documents through their entire delivery cycles.