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How does BizTalk fit into the .NET picture?

How does BizTalk fit into the .NET picture?
BizTalk is a really interesting product from Microsoft and should play a larger role than it currently does in Microsoft's .Net plan. From a marketing perspective, BizTalk is a super-duper, XML-based, EAI tool that slices, dices and filets data for multi-partner. XML, secure B2B, workflow data processing and translation (tongue firmly in cheek). BizTalk is actually two products that were (apparently) slammed together to make what's now called the Microsoft BizTalk server.

The story goes something like this. Back in the heady Internet bubble days when B2B was touted as a multi-trillion dollar opportunity, every software company had some sort of stake in B2B game. It was in this environment that BizTalk was born. Originally, Microsoft spawned BizTalk as a simple protocol and web-site designed to let B2B partners define and publish the XML document formats that they were interested in processing. These were the days before XML Schema, so BizTalk defined a schema-like format for describing other XML documents. The idea was to promote a format and portal where B2B partners could get together, link up and put the old "Brick and Mortar" world right out of business. This of course, never materialized and the portal died a lonely and largely unnoticed death.

From it's ashes however another creature emerged. In the initial BizTalk effort, Microsoft implemented some code that would translate and move XML documents around. The code, the BizTalk Jumpstart Kit, was fairly rudimentary and mainly helped pickup XML documents do some simple XSL mapping on them then drop them somewhere. This code met up with code being developed by the zany crew at Microsoft research. Their creation was a new language based on "pi calculus" (whoa!) and implemented an XML workflow model and a simple execution environment for the model. On top of this, the guys used Visio to build their XML workflows. When you slam these technologies together, you get the Frankenstein that is BizTalk today.

Today, BizTalk is a general-purpose workflow modeling tool that handles XML data as the payload in the workflow. Since its first lurched to life about 18 months ago, Microsoft has continued to improve on this technology. Future releases promise to give traditional EAI a run for their money. The tool makes a good general-purpose, Swiss army knife for processing XML data. It can handle nitty-grit details of content encoding and validation, data transport and event based processing. The tool also has provisions to handle "long-lived transactions" that are commonplace in the real world (think order processing and fulfillment) allowing a single transaction to span hours, days and weeks. Despite its odd beginnings, BizTalk is a great tool in concept and if Microsoft continues to invest in the tool moving forward (word is that they are indeed going to pursue this) then it will provide a great environment for tying together XML and Web Service applications developed by Microsoft and third parties.

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