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As rivals lurk, Microsoft retools BizTalk Server

A key piece of Microsoft's e-commerce software strategy is being retooled as the giant software maker sorts out its plan for tackling that market in the face of growing competition.

A key piece of Microsoft's e-commerce software strategy is being retooled as the giant software maker sorts out its plan for tackling that market in the face of growing competition.

One vital element is Microsoft's BizTalk Server--an Extensible Markup Language (XML)-based software application for linking business systems such as purchasing and procurement systems across the Internet. That product was slated to debut in mid-1999 in beta form, but the company missed that deadline and rescheduled beta testing until the end of last year. Microsoft, however, has only delivered pieces of the new server to beta testers and is busy building a new component of the server needed to keep the company up to speed with competitors, sources said.

A Microsoft spokesman declined to comment on the server's new component, but he said the entire BizTalk Server product is now slated to debut by the second half of 2000. Microsoft had originally planned to ship the product in the first half of this year.

BizTalk Server is one of two Microsoft initiatives under the BizTalk heading. The other, the BizTalk framework, is a Web site and XML schema exchange service already in operation intended to promote the use of vendor-specific XML formats. BizTalk Server makes use of those schemas for data exchange.

XML is a Web standard touted as having the potential to revolutionize the way businesses exchange data. It not only allows companies to easily and cheaply conduct online transactions with their customers and partners, but also delivers sound, video and other data across the Web.

Businesses that use cutting-edge technologies, such as General Motors, have even begun incorporating XML into their corporate systems.

According to sources, Microsoft reworked BizTalk Server's architecture when the company discovered that competing products from Vitria and Hewlett-Packard included a feature for easily defining and updating the business logic that dictates how an e-commerce Web site functions. The software that defines those functions is typically called business process automation.

Business process automation makes it far simpler, and much faster, for software developers to build e-commerce sites. For example, to code software for a quick checkout option on an e-commerce Web site, developers have to write the software code to tie the actual button on a Web page to the company's back-end databases. With high-level business process automation tools, developers define new features, such as quick checkout, through a few point-and-click operations without low-level database coding, for example.

HP's Changengine software and Vitria's BusinessWare products, which integrate disparate business applications, already include such tools.

Such business process automation features can make a huge difference to the thousands of e-commerce sites competing for a limited number of online shoppers.

Giga Information Group analyst Mike Gilpin said that despite Microsoft's retooling of BizTalk Server, the company's overall plan for tackling business-to-business e-commerce is on track.

"Microsoft has a good and complete vision and what's needed for business to business communication, and it's taking a while to get all the pieces together," he said. "(BizTalk Server) fits into a broader strategy regarding XML and the way Internet applications should be architected and how integration should be done. It all fits quite elegantly."

The company has already begun beta testing two of BizTalk Server's three components. The two in beta testing include a communications and connectivity layer for moving data between applications using Microsoft's Message Queue Server or Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), and a layer to integrate business applications using XML.