If you haven't heard about BizTalk yet, be prepared: It's turning up everywhere. I've run across BizTalk many times on popular Web sites, but only when a few programmers recently introduced themselves to me as BizTalk programmers did I feel the need to catch up on what they were doing.
BizTalk is a framework, or set of guidelines, for using XML to create schemas, which define commonly used business forms (i.e., common business transactions). Currently, software makers are rushing to create schemas for industries such as hotel and food services, construction, real estate, education, and finance. Within each industry, software developers and database administrators are free to create schemas that define commonly used documents and data structures.
Transactions between businesses require the sender and receiver to understand each other completely. Within most industries, the software packages provide a freedom of choice on which individual businesses depend. As a predictable result of this freedom, no common thread or data connection links businesses, and businesses have no simple way to share data with suppliers and customers. The beautiful part of the BizTalk framework is that senders and receivers can continue to use their favorite applications in their individual businesses so long as senders can send XML-based business forms, and receivers can successfully receive the forms and understand the appropriate data fields.
You might be telling yourself that you've heard about similar efforts in the past. Frankly, you're right; but the effort put into standard document exchange has never been greater than now because of the major shift in the way the industry thinks about e-commerce and the Internet. No longer do you have a private network or community (as there was for EDI): These transactions are designed to be routable over the Internet just as easily as HTML requests. (Special note to those thinking about a career change: Information security isn't going out of style anytime soon!)
BizTalk faces some challenges. Business to Business (B2B) requires companies from different industries to communicate, although those companies often use dramatically different packages. If BizTalk is to be successful, we must have standards for everyday business documents, such as purchase orders and invoices, that cut through every industry. An XML-based purchase order in one industry, for example, must be acceptable to a company in another. BizTalk is still young and has a long way to go, but it provides an exciting opportunity to bring some order to the B2B and e-commerce industries.
Note that even as the industry is making progress toward settling on standards in business documents, the technical side is still playing catch up. Microsoft is in the alpha stages of developing a BizTalk server that they were supposed to have released in 1999. According to recent reports, Microsoft will go to beta this summer and release by this fall. That release will do quite a bit to propel both the BizTalk and XML-based e-commerce industries. In the meantime, you can get a head start on BizTalk from the BizTalk site or from Microsoft.
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