Microsoft BizTalk Server occupies a unique niche in the company's Windows Server System, providing needed interoperability for heterogeneous enterprise applications. Microsoft specifically designed BizTalk Server to work with incompatible, third-party proprietary server applications that run on mainframes, UNIX servers, and other systems, as well as on Windows systems. BizTalk Server uses XML-based software adapters to communicate with server applications from Ariba, SAP, PeopleSoft, and numerous other vendors, integrating these disparate systems in ways that previously weren't possible. BizTalk Server also provides simple graphical tools for business analysts and development tools for software developers that let them automate or orchestrate business processes. Here's what you need to know about BizTalk Server 2004.

Meeting Changing Business Needs
When BizTalk Server first appeared a few years ago, Microsoft targeted the product at intracompany interoperability so that companies could automate inhouse business processes. Today, companies expect their business processes to integrate with the business processes of other companies, and BizTalk Server 2004 addresses that need. BizTalk Server 2004 includes a more scalable orchestration engine and more flexible transaction-management capabilities. For example, many companies now expect fraud analysis of credit card transactions to occur instantaneously so that the company can deal with the problem before the customer leaves the store. Performance improvements in BizTalk Server's business rules engine enable this type of quick data analysis.

Business Process Automation
Business analysts can use BizTalk Server 2004's improved graphical tools (based on Microsoft Office Visio 2003) to sculpt business processes and the server's activity-monitoring functionality to obtain moment-by-moment updates on the health of their business. For the CEO view, BizTalk Server includes an Office add-on that lets nontechnical users receive regular updates, complete with graphical charts, through Excel or a Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) portal.

Improved the Developer Experience
BizTalk Server has always supported graphical- and code-based development environments, but with BizTalk Server 2004, Microsoft has moved the development environment where it belongs: inside Visual Studio .NET 2003. This change will help developers get up to speed more quickly because the development tool they'll use is both familiar and powerful.

Recommendations
Today's businesses feature heterogeneous software solutions running on heterogeneous hardware platforms that must communicate with the heterogeneous systems their partners use. Tools such as BizTalk Server integrate these disparate systems in ways that weren't possible just a few years ago. BizTalk Server 2004 improves on earlier versions by offering a wide range of systems adapters and accelerators, lower licensing costs, and a familiar development environment.

Overall, BizTalk Server 2004 is a compelling solution for business-process automation, whether used within one organization, among partners, or both. BizTalk Server is a product whose time has come. I recommend that you evaluate the benefits this package can bring to your enterprise as soon as possible.