E-commerce as manifest destiny

Microsoft's upper management is considering how to diversify the company's product lines. In March, at the Commerce Solutions Briefing in San Francisco, Microsoft announced its BizTalk initiative to further expand into the e-commerce market. BizTalk will provide products and services for business-to-business e-commerce transactions.

To appreciate how important e-commerce will be to Microsoft in the next 2 to 3 years, read Bill Gates' new book Business @ The Speed of Thought (Warner Books, 1999). Gates' book is virtually a manifesto about how to rebuild corporate IT systems to make Internet connectivity a central process. Gates' vision is to put information into the hands of the people in a corporation whose jobs depend on that information and who have a need to know. This view of business flattens a corporation's management structure and forces decisions down the chain of command to provide better response time and improve efficiency.

Gates' book also outlines the Digital Nervous System that links business systems to provide a way for customers, partners, vendors, and corporations to exchange information. The infrastructure of a Digital Nervous System joins existing systems, such as production databases and accounting packages.

COM+
The first part of the BizTalk initiative moves Microsoft into the e-commerce market. To make this move, Microsoft is building on its core competencies to create a new technology—COM+. In 1998, Microsoft developed the Windows Distributed interNet Applications (Windows DNA) architecture, which is the blueprint for building Internet-connected and Web-enabled applications under Windows. Windows DNA is a three-tiered application-development model, as Figure 1 shows, in which a middle layer that contains the business and transaction logic accesses a server-based data store consisting of databases, legacy systems, or external applications. This middle layer abstracts the data into an appropriate form and passes the data through a security system or firewall into a presentation layer consisting of applications that thin or rich clients can view and alter.

DNA builds upon COM, which uses cooperative components. For information about COM's development, see the sidebar "COM Again." Developers can use COM to wrap mainframe data that CICS and Information Management System (IMS) transaction programs use inside an object, so a Windows NT Server system can process that data using the Microsoft COM Transaction Integrator (COMTI). SNA Server provides the communication between NT and the mainframe data source. Therefore, COM provides the glue that lets Windows interoperate in large heterogeneous systems. COM components can participate in transaction processing environments that support the Transaction Internet Protocol (TIP). Microsoft Site Server 3.0 Commerce Edition (SSCE—also called Commerce Server) has a transaction processing model called the Commerce Interchange Pipeline (CIP) that lets a developer plug in COM objects and build a transaction flow for e-commerce.

In Windows 2000 (Win2K), Microsoft further expands this model to merge Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM), Microsoft Message Queue Server (MSMQ), Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS), and OLE DB into one technology called COM+. COM+ provides the technology necessary to move Microsoft deeper into the e-commerce market. Additional features that Microsoft provides in COM+ are 8-server load balancing (Microsoft also calls this application clustering), event notification, and up to 2GB of RAM in-memory database support. The in-memory database lets developers build applications that contain large indexes or catalogs—just what you want for a commercial Internet site that stores product information or links.

COM+ also comes with a Microsoft Management Console (MMC) snap-in called the Component Services Explorer. Managing all these technologies previously required individual tuning in separate utilities, but the MMC makes it possible to script and automate components services. A developer can also offload certain settings, such as user access, to administrators.

Although Microsoft touts the Active Directory (AD) as the major new feature in Win2K, COM+ might be Win2K's major benefit. With COM+'s ability to scale applications to enterprise levels and its special Internet capabilities, it might surpass both Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA) and Sun's Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB). Now, COM+ runs on Win2K only, but companies will likely begin to port COM+ to other OSs such as UNIX. Netscape's GNOME project to develop an open source GUI for Linux will add COM compatibility in addition to CORBA support.

The addition of Object Request Broker (ORB), which is a message management middleware system and information access system for catalogs and indexes, moves COM+ beyond an object development model. The result of these merged capabilities makes COM+ a unique Internet application-development environment and is why COM+ technology is central to the BizTalk initiative.

The X Factor
COM+ provides a framework for building distributed fault-tolerant Internet e-commerce applications, but these applications still need a way to exchange data with other applications on other platforms. Business e-commerce applications require exchange of data in the form of transactions, which is similar to the data contained in a database record. If the transaction is an invoice, the data is a set of defined text, numbers, and other fields that make up the invoice. Business applications need a way to read other business applications' transactions. The most commonly used transaction interchange format is EDI, which uses a standard document data mapping schema to read and write data transmitted as a text file. For more information about EDI standards, see "EDI, NT, and the Internet," February 1999.

The second part of the BizTalk initiative is the creation of a new set of document interchange standards based on the Extensible Markup Language (XML). XML is a document definition standard that adds a special set of tags to an HTML document that define the data mapping contained therein. In a sense, XML plays the same role of document interchange format for business transactions that Rich Text Format (RTF) plays for formatted text. Microsoft hopes to migrate customers from using EDI traffic over VPNs to transmitting XML documents over the Internet. Going from EDI transactions to XML transactions isn't much of a technology leap, but this move dramatically changes the landscape for business-to-business communications. First, this move gives businesses a low-cost transmission method. Second, this move creates a set of standards that give applications a new way to communicate.

Microsoft hopes that XML e-commerce transactions will play out in several ways. In one scenario, a user has an application, such as Intuit's QuickBooks desktop accounting package, on the desktop. When a user sends a purchase order from QuickBooks, the program will save the data as an XML document, call a connector developed as a COM component, then send the data over the Internet. At this point, an XML translation server checks the intended recipient (e.g., the implementation of a solution from SAP) and retransmits the data in an appropriate form. Companies will need to add only a connector to have this functionality work. Although many companies are working on XML servers, Microsoft BizTalk Server is instrumental to the BizTalk initiative because the server provides XML translation regardless of the document source or destination (application or OS), based on plug-in components. You'll likely see XML templates in future Microsoft Office revisions, and you'll be able to easily add custom templates that your corporation uses.

City of Industry
XML document interchange is a great idea with a straightforward implementation. However, current EDI standards developed from two models, and Microsoft's greatest challenge is to get the parties to agree on interchange standards. The hub and spoke model developed one group of standards. In this model, large organizations (what GartnerGroup refers to as channel masters) created EDI standards and imposed those standards on partners (i.e., suppliers). Industry-standard committees created the other group of EDI standards.

Microsoft needs to use an EDI standard to create compliant XML schema. Therefore, Microsoft will need to serve as a fair broker and sponsor industry groups and roundtable meetings to reach an agreement and create one EDI standard. After Microsoft establishes EDI standards, the company will incorporate XML standards into BizTalk transactions.

I spoke with Microsoft line-of-business (LOB) managers responsible for industry initiatives who believe the BizTalk-related initiatives will play out in the coming months instead of years. Some industry initiatives, such as the Windows CE and NT Embedded 4.0 initiative, aren't directly related to BizTalk but will show up in technology (e.g., set-top boxes to connect businesses through cable modems, IPORT to provide business travelers access to the Internet over hotel T1 lines). Table 1, provides a brief listing of industry initiatives that will likely use BizTalk transactions transmitted as XML documents.

MSN as the Business Portal
The last major piece of Microsoft's e-commerce plan involves reworking The Microsoft Network (MSN) to serve as a conduit for BizTalk transactions. Changes to MSN will involve corporate and technology acquisitions. At the Commerce Solutions Briefing, Microsoft unveiled MSN marketplace services and expressed the company's goal to build MSN as the leading consumer shopping portal. Microsoft officials said the company believes it can bring a million businesses online to do e-commerce transactions in the next year. The MSN has already begun to work with companies such as 1-800-FLOWERS.COM to make products available online. Microsoft is likely to build a system to transmit BizTalk XML documents in MSN and might have MSN marketplace services fully implemented by the time this article goes to print.

To begin MSN's makeover, Microsoft recently acquired CompareNet. CompareNet stores and manages an online catalog of items and provides comparative shopping. At the Commerce Solutions Briefing, Microsoft provided a demonstration of CompareNet's market monitoring mechanism. CompareNet's system automatically notifies a consumer when it locates an item for which the consumer requested data. To obtain this data, CompareNet scans both online and offline sources to find the item at the required price or a lower price. Microsoft will integrate CompareNet directly into MSN and also integrate the CompareNet catalog technology into other Microsoft products.

A new service called Microsoft Passport uses MSN marketplace services to let consumers use an electronic shopping cart to purchase items and services from various businesses and stores. Passport uses single sign-on and requires that each vendor observe Microsoft's rules for customer privacy.

Parting Words
With BizTalk, Microsoft has begun to consolidate various Windows-based architectures, products, and services into a unified e-commerce strategy. BizTalk uses COM+ to provide a framework, EDI to provide standard document interchange schema for business transactions, and MSN as a transport mechanism. Microsoft hopes to be the supplier of choice for business communications between small and midsized businesses and the partners of those businesses.

BizTalk transactions will likely show up in Microsoft Office and many other desktop applications. A market for tools to connect BizTalk applications might also develop. Microsoft SQL Server will read and write XML transactions, a new release of Site Server Commerce Edition (SSCE) will appear, and Microsoft will introduce an XML translation server called BizTalk Server. In the next few years, BizTalk will result in several important new Microsoft product introductions.