• United States

Microsoft aims to master middleware

Jun 09, 20035 mins
Collaboration SoftwareEnterprise ApplicationsMicrosoft

Microsoft is busy constructing a common integration platform and workflow engine for its .Net platform that corporations will use to support the rollout of Web services and collaborative applications.

DALLAS – Microsoft is busy constructing a common integration platform and workflow engine for its .Net platform that corporations will use to support the rollout of Web services and collaborative applications.

The engine is the latest example of Microsoft aligning products and technologies to provide platform services as part of its Web services initiative. This includes Active Directory and Passport for identity management, XML and the Simple Object Access Protocol for data and message formatting, and BizTalk Server for supporting integration and business process workflow across networks.

“We need to start explaining how all this technology fits together,” says Paul Flessner, senior vice president of the Windows division. “We’re rounding the corner. I think you will see this rapid succession of products over the next few years – 2003 and 2004 – and a lot more about Windows Server System and integration points that we are trying to drive.”

At the company’s TechEd conference last week, evidence of that effort was seen in the introduction of the first beta of BizTalk Server 2004, which is expected in final form early next year.

The company is crafting the server to become its middleware integration platform to rival IBM’s WebSphere, BEA Systems’ WebLogic and other similar products. It also is a workflow engine to string together business processes that link Web services applications and collaborative application users.

BizTalk Server will let companies integrate multiple Web services that execute as part of a structured business process. For example, the workflow ensures the credit check Web service is completed before the shipping Web service is initiated.

Today, BizTalk supports that kind of workflow between applications: The 2004 version will add what Microsoft calls “human workflow,” the ability to construct workflow between people such as an employee and manager involved in submitting and approving a purchase order. It also includes support for the Web Services Business Process Execution Language (WSBPEL), an emerging standard for business process workflow that allows for the integration of workflow processes between companies.

Vendors such as FileNet, Documentum, and Teamplate already offer human workflow products.

“I think what has been missing from Microsoft is the ability to easily process complicated workflows that support long-running transactions,” says Robert Preston, project lead at VHA, a nonprofit organization in Irving, Texas, that helps nonprofit hospitals acquire supplies. He says those transactions not only involve applications, but also employees who must make decisions along the way. “If a user of a CRM application sees a mistake in a user record, they can send a correction to a message queue that will get picked up by an approval workflow that will check the correction and eventually post it back to the database,” he says.

In 2005, BizTalk Server 2004 will become the common workflow engine for Jupiter, the code name for a platform that combines BizTalk with Microsoft’s Content Management Server and Commerce Server.

BizTalk’s workflow engine will replace the workflow technologies built into the other two servers and eventually become the workflow engine for other products including SharePoint Portal Server 3.0, which also is slated to ship in 2005. Company officials said future versions of Exchange might use the same engine.

It all boils down to cost-cutting fostered by a component architecture so companies can deploy common services as part of the .Net platform and reuse them with applications that run on the platform.

“Microsoft needs this BizTalk layer to tie everything together,” says James Kobielus, an analyst with Burton Group. “It’s middleware that can drive the end-to-end integration of Web services and also monitor and track transactions in real time. It also allows you to leverage other common layers such as security and authentication. In some ways it is like the role Active Directory plays as the common directory for the platform.”

But it means customers need to upgrade, and that might be the hardest workflow of all.

“Microsoft is kicking off an upgrade cycle that will allow it to put into enterprises its platform for Web services,” says Dana Gardner, an analyst with The Yankee Group. “But they are facing a time when enterprises are not that aggressive about upgrading. 

BizTalk’s evolution

BizTalk Server 2004 includes some key features as the product evolves into a platform service for .Net to support application integration and business process workflow.


Human workflowPerson-to-person workflow for document routing.
Single sign-onBizTalk can map user authentication credentials to other applications, both Windows and non-Windows.
Business rules Customized rules and rules engine dictate execution of multifaceted workflows.
Orchestration built on .Net frameworkKey integration point for exposing functionality as Web service.
Support for Web Services Business Process Execution LanguageEmerging standard supports cross-platform business processes.
Visual Studio.Net integrationCreates common development environment by exposing BizTalk interface within Visual Studio.
Office integrationInfoPath is used for XML input and as client interface to workflow process.