The cloud can be classified according to three basic uses: data storage (think OneDrive), software service subscriptions (like Office 365), and web application hosting, which is where Azure comes in. Since a business can easily make its cloud applications accessible to users anywhere, including users from other businesses, the potential exists to streamline all sorts of business to business (B2B) communications. Windows Azure BizTalk Services (already known affectionately as WABS) is actually a cloud software service as opposed to a hosting platform, but it allows you to use Azure to either integrate applications within your organization or set up various kinds of B2B communication channels.
BizTalk Services in Azure
BizTalk, whether through Azure Services or as an independent on-prem solution, automates data-sharing by adapting information recorded in one format to other formats for other locations. It handles schemas for over 10,000 industry-standard forms, and it was created to help businesses coordinate processes either between multiple departments internally, by integrating line-of-business applications, or between different external partners. Examples of the latter include the various manufacturers along a supply chain and the offices of individual specialists in a healthcare network. But using BizTalk Services within Azure, as opposed to hosting it with on-prem servers, affords you all the main advantages associated with the cloud:
- It eliminates any need to buy and maintain new hardware.
- You get automatic software updates without having to purchase any licenses.
- Availability is enhanced and sharing expedited.
- Setup and configuration are greatly simplified.
It was this last point that I found most striking when Richard Spice, one of Aptera’s BizTalk experts, walked me through a demonstration of how WABS works. The example he used was of a hypothetical supplier serving hundreds of businesses who routinely place large orders. The industry-standard purchase order file in this case would be the X12 850 (assuming you’re in the US). To complete an order, each of the supplier’s customers fills out the X12 850, and then BizTalk goes out, retrieves the file, extracts the relevant information, and conveys it to all the departments and personnel who will be responsible for completing the order. Once the PO is received, BizTalk also sends an automatic purchase confirmation.
How Azure accelerates BizTalk setup
The PO scenario is the type of function BizTalk was designed for, but when you’re using BizTalk Services in Azure the initial setup can be much simpler and much quicker. The process of setting up the infrastructure to support your BizTalk solution on-prem usually involves purchasing servers, installing operating systems, installing SQL Server, and installing BizTalk Server. So, you’re probably looking at weeks or even months before you’re ready to deploy an application. If you’re using WABS, though, even if you have no technical expertise, you can simply sign in to Azure and follow a three-step process that only takes a couple of minutes. Once you’ve entered all the specifications, Azure sets up your BizTalk platform in about half an hour. Then you’re ready to have a developer create the integration channels you need. (Watch from about 1:00 to 5:00 of this video presentation to see how this is done.)
What we’re seeing here is something like a hybrid between cloud application hosting and cloud software services. The various applications you see available through Azure are reminiscent of software offerings on-demand through Office 365, though the Azure services obviously require some degree of development before you can actually perform any tasks with the software. Microsoft envisions three basic user profiles for applications like WABS:
- Business Admins who do things like manage partner profiles and agreements
- IT Admins who deploy, scale, and backup application integrations
- Developers who establish sources, pipelines, and destinations
The goal naturally is to make the automated integrations as easy to set up, manage, and use as possible. And the potential for saving time and streamlining processes in industries from manufacturing to retail to healthcare is enormous.
Many businesses looking for simpler ways to establish EDIs, or trying to automate data-sharing between different applications or diverse partners, start with collaboration tools like SharePoint. But, while SharePoint is designed to facilitate collaboration among workers—with features like document-sharing, calendars, and workflow management tools—BizTalk is designed specifically for coordination between applications, whether it requires adapting forms to various formats or transferring data between locations.
If you have any questions about Azure or BizTalk Services, feel free to pose them in the comment section below. Or, if you want to discuss how BizTalk or WABS might work in your specific business circumstances, you can contact us through our webpage.
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