What Exactly Is BizTalk?
I now work as a Technology Architect at the Microsoft Technology Center in Austin which is part of the Microsoft Sales org. In this role I help customers understand how to architect solutions to their business problems/needs using Microsoft technologies. As a result I'm learning a lot of technologies that, as a member of the WCF product team, I just wasn't focused on in the past few years. When I learn a new technology I like to start by coming up with (or learning) a short and accurate description of that technology's focus, i.e. what is it for?
One of the technologies I'm (re)learning is BizTalk Server. So I looked around for a short and accurate description of what BizTalk is. I knew what it was, but I wanted a 2 - 3 sentence description. I found some interesting documents like the BizTalk Overview and David Chappell's excellent Understanding BizTalk Server 2006 (a must read). While those docs offered valuable information, I couldn't find the sentences I was looking for. This is probably due in part to my coming from a development background and wanting to relate things back to the developer world. So I came up with this short and, in my opinion, accurate description:
BizTalk is to business process automation what Visual Studio and the .NET Framework are to application development. It is a runtime and tools that enable you to automate and manage business processes more productively.
That's basically it. If I only get 10 seconds to explain what BizTalk is to a customer, the above description is what I'm most comfortable with. If I have more time, I would elaborate on that description as follows.
The term "application development" is worth further exploration. Looking at the kinds of applications that people build with Visual Studio and the .NET Framework today, the vast majority are focused on specific tasks rather than end to end processes. Not to say that such applications are isolated, they're actually often connected to other apps or data sources via Web services or other means. But the focus of the app is to automate a particular task or set of related tasks and the connectivity serves that purpose. However the business reality is that businesses run on processes which span multiple tasks and of course people. So to automate a business process end-to-end you wind up wanting to connect some of the applications that were written to automate the tasks that make up that business process. As an example, consider the task of updating contact information in the company's address book for a newly hired employee. That employee may launch a .NET desktop app or go to an intranet Web site and enter they home address, cell phone number, emergency contact etc. Now zoom out and look at the big picture and what you see is an end-to-end on-boarding process that includes things like provisioning credentials, certificates, smart card, automatic deposit setup, hardware procurement, office furniture procurement, 401K account setup, setting up a mentor, and the variety of other things a new employee needs to get/set up. The address book update app automates one task in the end to end process but there's no app that automates the entire process. BizTalk Server allows you to connect existing apps that automate the various tasks of this process and automate the tasks or parts that don't yet have automation to form a complete end-to-end process automation solution. It also gives you an operational or runtime view of that automation allowing you to see all the moving parts from one vantage point and start/stop/change/maintain them.
While it's certainly possible to build VS and .NET apps that automate end-to-end business processes, it's not the most productive use of the customer's/developer's time because they'd have to reinvent (or re-implement) several wheels in the process. It's a bit like building an document management Web site using nothing but ASP.NET: You can do it, but you can do it a lot better and faster if you used Windows SharePoint Services (WSS). The operations folks would also love you for it because of the management features they get out of the box with WSS.