Download Microsoft's BizTalk Server 2000 Technology Preview while you can and get smart on this technology. This is important stuff. BizTalk will help all of us make business-to-business (B2B) as big as everyone predicts it will be. It's our universal translator to the world.
As great as BizTalk will be, the idea isn't new. Interface engines that convert messages from one format to another have been around for many years, but they operated in niche markets that had the luxury of standardized message formatting. These interface engines were also responsible for routing messages to appropriate destinations. The health care industry, for example, has standardized on the HL7 message format, which for years has let hospital systems successfully trade information. But as with many standards, each partner interprets the HL7 message format differently, so an interface engine is necessary to normalize the messages that different systems generate.
Now we can all take advantage of a standardized message format that the entire e-industry has adopted—XML. No longer will we have to pigeonhole data elements into specific fields within a message. But like the legacy health care systems that have subtle differences among their messages, your different trading partners might have subtly different XML document formats. Document Type Definition (DTD) files can normalize different formats, but you don't always know what data was available on the source systems when the author wrote the document, how the author formatted the data (e.g., which date format the author used), or the level of detail the author used when writing the document. Also, you might want to create a new document from a subset of data elements that you retrieve from a trading partner's document. BizTalk handles this scenario quite nicely by providing tools with a drag-and-drop interface to automatically build Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations (XSLTs) to convert one document format into another. The resulting document doesn't have to be in XML format. Using the health care example, you could convert an XML document into an HL7 message and route it to the appropriate hospital system.
If you've never built your own TCP/IP interface with custom message formats that only your system and the target system can understand, you probably won't appreciate what XML and BizTalk have brought you. And you might think that if a company doesn't trade information with partners, it has no need for BizTalk. Not true! I recommend that you open all your systems to this framework, even if you aren't trading information today. For example, at my company we plan to convert our intranet applications to the BizTalk framework solely to be able to control the business processes outside the application. We will treat different applications within the intranet as trading partners. By opening our applications for internal purposes, we'll extend the life of our intranet. For example, if I'm sending into my database an XML document that contains my timecard information, I can later extend my application to send financial data to an accounting system without modifying any code! Many online white papers address BizTalk basics.