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The Service-Oriented Architecture Paradigm Takes Center Stage in the Enterprise

Published: May 3, 2005

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Introduction
Microsoft is a Leading Proponent of the SOA Paradigm
The Challenges of Workflow Management
Bringing Workflow Management into the Digital Era
The Importance of XML Technologies in InfoPath
How BizTalk Server and InfoPath Take Advantage of Each Other
Workflow Functionality in BizTalk Server
InfoPath Facilitates the Widespread Deployment of Automated Workflow Capabilities throughout the Enterprise
Conclusion: Toward Enhanced Productivity and Competitive Capabilities

Introduction

This paper describes the benefits of implementing an Enterprise Application Integration/Business Process Management platform based on XML technologies. Specifically, it shows how the combination of InfoPath™ and BizTalk Server® 2004 can address complex workflow issues, demanding documentation requirements, and application integration issues, and thereby enabling an agile enterprise.

Enterprise Application Integration platforms based on XML and Web services technologies can dramatically improve the efficiencies of integrating applications. Thousands of successful deployments in the past two years have demonstrated these efficiencies. Armed with this compelling value proposition, technology executives are beginning to evaluate and investigate the wide-scale, strategic deployment of XML and Web services platforms.

The underlying messaging facilities of an XML-based Enterprise Application Integration/Business Process Management architecture provides a viable solution for any process-centric requirement. A managed workflow, application integration interface, or trading partner interaction can all be described, composed, and implemented with an orchestrated flow of structured XML documents and messages—documents and messages that are processed according to message content, formatting requirements, and business logic contingencies. This development and process execution model is the basis of the Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) paradigm.

In the SOA paradigm, XML metadata precisely defines the meaning and use of information in documents and messages. Any application that can parse the XML metadata can understand, process, and transform the information, regardless of how the information originated. Conversely, Web services can use XML to describe and expose an application’s methods, allowing them to be invoked through asynchronous XML message exchanges, regardless of how the original application was created. Web services also provide the mechanism for transporting entire XML documents in message exchanges.

For XML and Web services to be truly useful in creating agile, process-centric business environments, their capabilities must be broadly embedded within host applications, and readily available to both end users and developers. Integration platforms must use XML to connect disparate systems together. Software development tools must generate Web services directly. Databases must store XML metadata natively. Personal productivity tools must be able to parse, process, and generate XML documents transparently. And SOAP must become the underlying messaging mechanism that allows all of these components to communicate with each other.

If an organization empowers its knowledge workers with accessible and easy-to-use tools for building and deploying XML-based process workflow applications, becoming an agile enterprise is well within reach.

Microsoft is a Leading Proponent of the SOA Paradigm

Microsoft® has recognized the enormous possibilities of XML in creating highly integrated and workflow-efficient organizations. And more than any other information technology company, Microsoft is actualizing the vision of an agile enterprise by not only creating new products based on XML, but also reengineering its product lines around XML technologies.

BizTalk Server is Microsoft’s highly acclaimed platform for application integration, process workflow automation, and trading partner interactions. BizTalk Server is designed around the SOA paradigm, in which the messages and documents, as well as the processing components they interact with, are based on XML and Web services technologies.

In the upcoming release of Microsoft Office 2003, Microsoft makes XML schema the underlying data structure of Word and Excel. Microsoft Office 2003 also introduces InfoPath, an XML-based application for creating, populating, and processing forms that address complex workflow documentation requirements.

With InfoPath, workflow participants generate, analyze, gather, exchange and interact with structured information. In the past, these activities have typically been paperbound, or used a digital representation of paper. A form in a word processing or spreadsheet program can accept information easily enough, but it cannot understand or process the information without programmatic or manual intervention. Generating, conveying, extracting, manipulating, and reorganizing unstructured information is extremely labor intensive, highly inefficient, and costly.

The Challenges of Workflow Management

Workflow management is the discipline of optimizing business tasks that depend on the flow of information among people, and between people and systems. Because human resources represent the single largest cost to any organization, increases in worker productivity can significantly improve an organization’s economics and competitive standing. We can generally attribute workflow inefficiencies to the following:

  • The generation, handling, and processing of paper documentation

  • Delays in obtaining prerequisite information to complete a task

  • Delays because of bottlenecks and prioritization conflicts

  • Incomplete or incorrect information that stalls a process

  • Unwarranted sequential dependencies in process steps

The Web, more than any other technology, substantially improved the efficiency of innumerable workflow tasks by giving participants direct access to functions and information. Doing business on the Web works best when the activity consists of discrete, short-lived transactions, and the steps are completed all at once, under the control of the originating participant (for example, making a purchase or checking the status of an order).

However, Web-based interactions do not adequately address the documentation requirements and dynamics of a complex workflow. The documentation dynamics of complex workflows typically have the following characteristics:

  • The documentation is part of a multistep, long-running process where multiple participants generate information, pass it along, exchange iterations of it, and modify or extend it.

  • Participants might need to reference information in its original context at any step in the process.

  • Information in the documents determines the routing and processing requirements of those documents.

  • The documentation includes information that is derived or computed from other information (also know as “self-documenting”).

  • Documentation and the identities of the participants can be authenticated at any point in the process.

Examples of these types of complex workflows include expense report processing, insurance policy applications, financial reporting, merchant banking letters of credit, tax returns, loan applications, and claims form processing. These workflows can include multiple documents and addenda that must persist throughout the life cycle of the process, which takes place over an extended time and involves multiple participants and applications.

Paper-based documentation, while highly inefficient to process, still satisfies the fundamental documentation requirements of multistep, multiparty, long-running workflows in these specific ways:

  • The preservation of information in its original form and context

  • The ability to combine documentation or the information it contains without affecting the integrity of the original documentation

  • The ability to authenticate the documentation and the parties creating or modifying the documentation

  • Ease of understanding, processing, and routing, because of metadata in the form of definitions, instructions, and references

  • Application independence

Bringing Workflow Management into the Digital Era

For participants to accept any digital solution, the solution must support complex workflow dynamics and meet demanding documentation requirements. But beyond acceptance, real benefits begin to emerge only when applications exchange and process information automatically and transparently. (Again, forms in word processing and spreadsheet programs demand enormous manual and programmatic intervention when it comes time to extract and process the information they collect.) The problem of making information functionally usable by many applications is essential to any digital solution. This problem, along with emulating workflow and meeting documentation requirements, is well within the scope of an XML solution.

InfoPath provides such a solution. It is one of the first of an “XML generation” of business productivity applications where both the GUI presentation layer and the information that the application processes are based on XML technologies. End users can design and work in a high-level, visual abstraction of functionality without having to know anything about the underlying XML infrastructure.

The new releases of BizTalk Server and Microsoft Office 2003 provide complementary XML and Web Services capabilities, demonstrating a coherent vision for integrated applications and automated processes, deployed along functional lines and among stakeholders. We will examine a number of these capabilities and discuss how they support and complement each other in enterprise-scale workflows.

The Importance of XML Technologies in InfoPath

One of Microsoft’s key strategic initiatives is the adoption of the W3C XML Schema Recommendation. This initiative significantly maximizes the application integration and process automation capabilities of both BizTalk Server and Microsoft Office, separately and in conjunction with each other.

XML Schema is a specification that formally defines an extensive array of data type primitives and structural components for creating XML documents. It is a dictionary of abstract element and attribute entities and organizational rules. When XML documents conform to the schema “dictionary,” any XML-enabled application with access to the underlying schema can transparently understand and process the meaning, function, and use of the information in the document. Every industry-specific initiative to develop a common vocabulary and set of procedures for the exchange and processing of information is based on XML Schema, as are the Web services protocols themselves. In Microsoft Office 2003, the native file formats for Word, Excel, and InfoPath will be based on XML Schema.

The underlying structure of an InfoPath form consists of a template that contains one or more XML schemas, XSLT style sheets, embedded controls, and business logic instruction sets. The template controls the behavior of a form in the following ways:

  • Assigning data types and constraining and validating the values that can be entered in a form

  • Controlling the contingencies and dependencies for entering information and activating form sections

  • Generating automatic, derived, and computed values

  • Invoking events, prompts, and instructions

  • Providing access to remote information sources

  • Enabling the incorporation of digital signatures

End users create form templates in the InfoPath WYSIWYG design tool. The form templates require no procedural programming, predefined XML schemas, or XSLT style sheets (although these can be the basis for, or be incorporated in the template). As the end user creates the form template from a palette of drag-and-drop controls, wizards, and dialog boxes, InfoPath implicitly defines the XML schema and processing instructions.

In turn, when an InfoPath form is populated based on a form template, InfoPath generates an XML document that contains the entered and derived information, tagged with its respective metadata. InfoPath processes instruction metadata where required, and can include digital signatures of the participants who have accessed the form. The document also includes references to the template schemas and XSLT files, allowing any XML-enabled application to use them when working with the document.

The XML documents created by InfoPath emulate the characteristics of paper in a conventional workflow in the following ways:

  • An original digitally signed document always resides with its originator.

  • The document can be distributed to any number of parties anywhere, with its signature, and be protected from unauthorized modification.

  • The contents of the document are self-describing and can be processed and routed based on information found within the document itself.

  • The document can be combined with other XML documents while maintaining its original integrity.

How BizTalk Server and InfoPath Take Advantage of Each Other

After InfoPath creates form-based information and makes it available in XML according to a structured schema, BizTalk Server becomes a highly leveraged, enterprise-wide facilitator to workflow automation. BizTalk Server embodies the application integration and process automation capabilities of XML and Web services technologies.

BizTalk Server has two core functions. It is a process execution engine that manages the steps, applies the business logic, and invokes the supporting applications of a complex process and/or transaction set. It is also a multitransport messaging hub for transforming and routing information to and from applications and process steps. The process execution engine also keeps track of the states and variables for all the active processes.

BizTalk Server complements the value of InfoPath by providing an overlay infrastructure for managing workflow processes that can involve thousands of XML-enabled nodes. With BizTalk Server as the messaging and process management hub and Microsoft Office 2003 applications as XML processing clients, participant involvement in workflows can now be orchestrated, monitored, and qualified for reliability and performance metrics. This has the potential to radically alter the overall dynamics and efficiencies of workflow processing and management across an enterprise.

One example of BizTalk Server working with InfoPath to enable sophisticated workflow capabilities is the Publish and Subscribe MessageBox database. BizTalk Server uses SQL Server to store every instance of an incoming and outgoing message. After a pipeline processes an incoming message, BizTalk Server stores it in a MessageBox database. From the MessageBox database, BizTalk Server sends the messages to individual- or multiple-process applications (a BizTalk Server “orchestration”). It can also send messages to URL addresses, e-mail addresses, file locations, and so on (“send ports”).

When sending messages, BizTalk Server uses publish/subscribe logic. Orchestrations and send ports have subscriptions for certain messages, based on document type, specific values or variables in the documents, and correlation sets. The MessageBox database maintains these subscriptions, and sends (or “publishes”) messages to an application or participant based on its requirements.

The significance of this publish/subscribe messaging in a workflow process is twofold:

  • It allows the same incoming or outgoing message information to be consumed by multiple simultaneous processes, applications, or parties without having to create duplicate or redundant messages or routing mechanisms, at either design time or run time.

  • It keeps a permanent record of the received and sent messages, as well as a record of the date and time the messages were received and sent.

Workflow Functionality in BizTalk Server

BizTalk Server 2004 also contains a fully developed set of functions known as Human Workflow Services (HWS), designed to facilitate workflow management with InfoPath. The two main components of BizTalk Server Human Workflow Services are an HWS Project Template in Orchestration Designer, and an HWS Administration Management application.

The HWS Project Template in Orchestration Designer is a generic workflow process model, fully designed and implemented within BizTalk Server’s process development environment. It contains built-in schemas for activation, response, and synchronization messages as well as a schema template for defining workflow tasks.

The HWS Administration Management application incorporates the following workflow management resources:

  • A built-in set of Web services that provide the interface to client applications (which InfoPath can call directly)

  • A Constraint Manager that validates and retrieves a set of actions that a user can execute at a specific time, based on constraints associated with users, roles, properties, and facts retrieved through the Knowledge Base manager

  • An authentication facility that can intercept InfoPath certificate credentials

  • An Action Definition tool for assembling discrete workflow tasks and actions into larger workflow activities

  • A Fact Retriever that accesses and compiles facts and object properties from a variety of sources, including InfoPath documents

  • An Activity Model tool that combines workflow activities into “flows” that are linked to orchestration action shapes and message schemas

  • An Active Activity Flow module that understands state information for workflows

With HWS, users can create, adapt, and model workflows according to their needs, and then flexibly capture day-to-day activities and continually incorporate them in and modify their workflows. At the core of HWS is the Activity Model, which tracks workflow activities and provides users with a real-time view of a workflow. The Activity Model combines activities into workflows, based on a predefined workflow (that is, a predefined model), constraint factors, or both. The Constraint Manager stores information about people and organizations, which is evaluated at run time by rules that guide and constrain the composition of activities into flows.

HWS enables information workers to:

  • Perform workflow activities that are either ad hoc or part of a predefined model

  • Track the status of activities related to a workflow

  • Drive workflow with people and organizational knowledge

  • Guide workflow with knowledge about business policies

Additional Features of BizTalk Server Required for Workflow Management

BizTalk Server also has exhaustive capabilities for monitoring and analyzing processing events and message properties. This monitoring and analyzing occurs in near real time, and keeps cumulative historical process activity and messaging information.

BizTalk Server Health and Activity Tracking, Business Activity Monitoring, and Tracking Profile Editor are tools for configuring, extracting, and presenting process activity information. This information indicates the operational status and performance metrics of processes and events. It also provides an opportunity to build business intelligence based on the content and context of the messages.

InfoPath Facilitates the Widespread Deployment of Automated Workflow Capabilities throughout the Enterprise

With InfoPath, knowledge workers without programming skills can create, distribute, and use forms that generate structured XML information. This has significant development, deployment, and workflow implications to anyone who wants to expand the use of XML information and technologies in an organization.

From a development perspective, InfoPath forms provide the following efficiencies and benefits:

  • A well-understood and robust authoring environment based on the complete Microsoft Office composition and editing feature set such as rich text formatting, hyperlinks, lists, tables, images, spelling checker, find and replace, autocomplete, and drag-and-drop editing.

  • A built-in library of form controls such as entry boxes for rich text, drop-down lists, scrollable list boxes, date pickers (calendar control), check boxes, radio buttons, repeating tables, buttons, and numerous other controls. All controls have configurable properties. In addition, InfoPath supports controls that facilitate a very high level of design and functional flexibility, including repeating sections, optional sections, dynamic conditional formatting and visibility, custom dialog boxes, and multiple views of forms.

  • The automatic generation of structured XML information directly from the GUI of the InfoPath form, which is presented as an easily understood, editable tree-view model of the schema. InfoPath can also import an existing document schema and automatically generate a baseline form from the schema. In addition, another application can edit the XSLT files (containing the XML representation of the form’s GUI and controls), and the modified file will still be fully functional in InfoPath.

  • Form access to databases and Web services through a simple dialog box interaction. An InfoPath form is inherently a network client and the form designer can easily design a form to connect to any database or published Web service.

  • Support for the direct attachment of digital signatures to completed forms. The digital signature remains embedded in the form representation of the document and is transmitted with the XML schema representation of the document information.

From a deployment and use perspective, InfoPath also provides these benefits:

  • Easy form entry and configurable controls facilitate optimal reuse of form templates.

  • InfoPath’s “publish” facility makes distributing a form with all of its respective resources (schema, style sheet, template manifest, and so on) transparent and easy, whether to a Web download site, to shared folders, or by e-mail.

  • Because an InfoPath form generates an XML document based on a schema, the information extraction and processing efficiencies are unprecedented. InfoPath provides extraction and merging capabilities using a simple dialog box interaction, but these capabilities, and others, can be obtained from almost any application that is XML enabled.

  • InfoPath’s extensive functional controls and rich design capabilities result in a satisfying and effective end-user experience, where the requisite information is gathered and generated efficiently, completely, and correctly. An InfoPath form can provide context-sensitive prompts, real-time validation of entered information, and the immediate generation of derived and computed information. Because the underlying schemas and style sheet reside with the form on the end user’s computer, the user can fill out the form and all of its features and local functionality at any time without being connected to a network. When connected to a network, database and Web services functionality become automatically available to the form. At that time, the form and all entered information can be submitted to a Web service, database, or Web site.

These features and benefits provide a compelling rationale for adopting XML-based, personal-productivity tools. Tools like InfoPath facilitate the enterprise-wide creation and dissemination of high-quality information—that is, structured and semantically rich information that is capable of being consumed and processed by any XML-enabled application. InfoPath not only emulates the characteristics of paper in addressing the requirements of complex workflows, but it also significantly supersedes the functionality of Web-based forms.

Conclusion: Toward Enhanced Productivity and Competitive Capabilities

Creating and disseminating structured and semantically rich information throughout an organization with InfoPath sets the stage for BizTalk Server to coordinate and manage workflows that can accommodate any operational contingencies and performance requirements. Through their mutual use of XML schema, Web services, and XSLT, InfoPath and BizTalk Server take advantage of each other to make unprecedented workflow efficiencies possible.

We are entering an era of information technology that will be defined by widely distributed processes and the detachment of information from applications. The meaning, function, and presentation of information will be self-describing, embedded in the information itself using XML schema vocabularies and XML style sheet references. Information will be generated and published without knowledge of how it will be consumed or used. Applications will be capable of consuming information and the methods of other applications, as well as being consumed themselves. Processes will be self-configurable at run time based on event-level interactions between XML rule sets, orchestrated Web services, and information. Entirely new applications and new business models will evolve from this paradigm.

The first generation of information technology infrastructure, based on the Service-Oriented Architecture paradigm, is beginning. Widely distributed and well understood applications such as the Microsoft Office suite are directly generating and decoding exposed XML documents with their schema definitions and processing instructions.

The next step is to allow those XML-enabled applications to engage in event-level interactions based on their ability to understand and process the information found in the documents. Essentially, they will become “content responsive” and will be capable of enacting automated processes among themselves. This is the same fundamental premise of Web services, and it will redefine the functional concept and capabilities of these applications. They will effectively behave as network clients, in the manner of a Web browser or e-mail client, but will be capable of participating in sophisticated and automated interactions with any source of XML information. Participants using these tools will still engage in their respective workflow functions, but much more efficiently because of the elimination of manual processing tasks that are irrelevant to the effective execution of those functions.

From this overview of the innovations in BizTalk Server and Microsoft Office 2003, it is clear how cumulative XML functionality accrues. The XML protocols (Schema, XSLT and Web services) enable InfoPath and BizTalk Server. In turn, BizTalk Server and InfoPath enable application integration, automated workflow, and trading partner applications based on the Service-Oriented Architecture paradigm, which is a new development and process execution methodology.

Each manifestation by itself has significant value, but when combined they offer the potential to facilitate wholesale efficiencies and innovative solutions to numerous challenging problems. It is an object lesson in the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

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