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Microsoft: The SOA road less traveled

Microsoft is doing SOA but in its own way, analysts say, often eschewing the terminology, product categories and even some standards embraced by other major vendors including IBM and BEA. For example, Microsoft sees the ESB not as a product but as a design pattern.

When talking to analysts who cover service-oriented architecture and are studying Microsoft's approach to SOA, a one word description emerges: "different."

Microsoft is operating in a different SOA world from other major software vendors, such as IBM, BEA Systems Inc. and the newly conglomerated webMethods/Software AG, analysts say.

If there's one thing about them that I feel they get, it's that processes are human based. They all start and end with people. I think that's reflected in their overall approach to SOA.
Bradley F. Shimmin 
Principal Analyst of Application InfrastructureCurrent Analysis

"They've always been kind of a different company, and they're staying true to that," said Bradley F. Shimmin, principal analyst of application infrastructure for Current Analysis, who recently met with Microsoft to discuss their approach to SOA.

"Microsoft tends to market things very differently," said Ron Schmelzer, senior analyst with ZapThink LLC., who is researching Microsoft's approach to SOA. "They never have things that are in the same product categories as everybody else. They've been very resistant to any sort of Gartner three-letter acronym. You should give them a hand for doing that."

As an example, Shimmin said, "They are enabling SOA but they don't have an SOA suite." But while avoiding some standard SOA product categories, analysts find Microsoft moving forward in the SOA space, although pretty much within their own .NET world with BizTalk server sometimes serving as a hub of sorts.

The analysts point out that Microsoft doesn't have an ESB but offers ESB guidelines and capabilities. Microsoft doesn't support the Service Component Architecture (SCA) and Service Data Objects (SDO) specifications, which offer similar functionality to .NET. Microsoft is not offering Business Process Management (BPM), which is this year's hot topic in SOA, although it is aggressively pursuing workflow technology. , Shimmin said Microsoft has 10 partners that focus on BPM. He is also bemused that Microsoft recently announced .NET support for Business Process Execution Language (BPEL) 1.1 while most SOA vendors are already supporting the newly adopted BPEL 2.0. He said he was told BPEL 2.0 is on the roadmap for later in the year.

"It's another example of how they work within their own universe," he said.

Schmelzer doesn't like portraying Microsoft as if it were in an alternative matrix with .NET as compared with the players in the Java world such as IBM. He said criticism that everything Microsoft does related to SOA is .NET centric, misses the point, or just reflects a Java-bias.

"If you went to IBM and said you want WebSphere but they have to deploy it on the .NET platform," Schmelzer said. "The answer is no. WebSphere is a Java thing. IBM is just as much Java centric in their approach as Microsoft is .NET centric in their approach."

What Microsoft is doing within their .NET world makes sense for their customers and developers, the two analysts agreed.

For example, even though BizTalk is not being marketed as an enterprise service bus, the analysts found mature functionality for supporting SOA in the venerable product.

"They're selling boatloads of BizTalk," noted Jason Bloomberg, senior analyst with ZapThink, "and many of those customers are leveraging it in SOA initiatives, for example." Anne Thomas Manes, research director at the Burton Group Inc., cited BizTalk as the number one offering in Microsoft's SOA efforts.

In what may be a matter of having an ESB by another name, Shimmin said, "BizTalk is going to remain their integration server. That's really what it's good at. But, as you know, an integration server that handles brokering and messaging and transformation, which is what BizTalk does, is a key facet of an ESB. It's kind of splitting hairs. It's just another example of how Microsoft operates in its own continuum."

BizTalk pre-dates the SOA marketing hype, but has matured to fit into the service-oriented approach, Schmelzer said. "BizTalk was originally a business-to-business document exchange platform when it first came out," he explained. "It's evolved quite a bit. You could think of it as integration middleware or as a composite service delivery platform. It basically serves the role that you would use a WebSphere Business Integrator for, or maybe the functionality that webMethods and Software AG are providing."

Schmelzer said Windows Communication Foundation (WCF) is the other key to providing functionality also known as ESB.

"Microsoft would certainly position BizTalk as providing some of the capabilities that people may be looking for in ESBs," he said, "although they'd also include the rest of the WCF framework. Microsoft sees the ESB not as a product but as a pattern. You can achieve all the things you want to achieve in an ESB from the Microsoft family of solutions."

Beyond BizTalk and WCF, Schmelzer noted that Microsoft's Connected Services Framework and the Well-Enabled Service are two other pieces of its SOA puzzle. "The Connected Services Framework is really a collection of service products and technologies, and the Well-Enabled Service is basically their positioning on what a SOA platform should provide for services. It covers security, reliability, management, governance and other technologies. The Connected Services Framework, the Well-Enabled Service, and the products provided with BizTalk and Windows Communications Foundation as well as Windows Workflow Foundation, and Windows Presentation Foundation, that's the basis of their enterprise SOA assets."

Shimmin said workflow is one of the strengths of the Microsoft approach to SOA.

"If there's one thing about them that I feel they get," he said, "it's that processes are human based. They all start and end with people. I think that's reflected in their overall approach to SOA."

Microsoft's desktop dominance in the small-to-medium business (SMB) market makes it's approach to SOA appealing to companies outside the Fortune 1000 that may not be able to afford a major vendor's suite, and lack the IT skills to assemble free open source software into an SOA, Shimmin said.

"Microsoft's not ever going to be like BEA, Tibco, or webMethods/Software AG, trying to create an entire suite, everything from the tooling up to BAM/BPM with governance on top of that, and be everything for building a SOA-based infrastructure," he said. "What they realize is they have a really strong presence on the desktop and through the desktop presence they're intimately tied into a lot of business processes that go on inside companies they do business with – the SMB market in particular. With that realization, they actually are on to something with that in terms of 'people-ready,' process friendly SOA."

For more information
Does Vista matter to SOA?

SOA with J2EE and .NET: Possible, but not easy

Schmelzer also sees Microsoft's SOA play being mainly for the companies that already rely on Microsoft for their business software.

He said, "Microsoft's counterweight to companies that would be looking at an IBM or BEA solution is obviously centered around the BizTalk product line and the Windows Communications Foundation (WCF) and all the products and technologies enabled by that, plus all the assets they bring to the development table around Visual Studio and all the things that would facilitate the creation of enterprise services."

"Microsoft has an ecosystem and they have a value proposition that's very solid for that ecosystem," Schmelzer said. "What Microsoft has for what it's doing is very good. It is what it is."

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