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Biztalk, Windows Workflow Foundation and Business Rules

I get  a lot of questions about how business rules management systems fit with Biztalk and the upcoming Windows Workflow Foundation. To clarify all this I consulted my friends at Microsoft who gave me some useful links - in particular this great David Chappell white paper that covers the topic - http://msdn.microsoft.com/windowsvista/building/workflow/default.aspx?pull=/library/en-us/dnlong/html/WWFIntro.asp. In it David says:

Perhaps the most well known Microsoft implementation of workflow today is in BizTalk Server (though BizTalk Server uses the term orchestration rather than workflow). BizTalk Server lets developers create system workflows for business process management (BPM), enterprise application integration (EAI), and business-to-business (B2B) integration. The release of the product that follows Microsoft BizTalk Server 2006 will add support for creating Windows Workflow Foundation workflows targeting these areas.

He goes on to explain when to use each option. Windows Workflow Foundation (WWF) is targeted at applications that will host workflows where Biztalk is aimed at orchestration within the server. In addition WWF supports "human" workflow as well as system integration (Biztalk does not) and can run on a client (Biztalk is server only). Specifically he says:

Windows Workflow Foundation lets workflow be built into an application, allowing the workflow to be deployed and managed as a native part of the application.

... it[BizTalk Server] lacks Windows Workflow Foundation's support for things such as state machine workflows and dynamic update. A scenario that requires both human workflow and more complex system integration services could be addressed by using Windows Workflow Foundation and BizTalk Server together, however.

The workflow will execute on a client system. BizTalk Server is a server-focused product, and so it's less well-suited to run on desktop machines.

Besides the obvious "not WWF" scenarios, he discusses some additional reasons for using Biztalk that are around more complex integration within and between enterprises.

Solving an EAI problem that requires communication with diverse applications on diverse platforms ... a large set of adapters is available for BizTalk Server

...BizTalk Server provides tools for working with trading partners, accelerators for RosettaNet, SWIFT, and other industry standards, and more.

BizTalk Server provides important extras, such as tools that let information workers define their own BAM views.

...BizTalk Server includes a full set of tools for administering and scaling a production environment.

What's interesting to me about all of these examples, for both Biztalk and WWF, is that the use of a good business rules management system is entirely complimentary to both. Thus:

  • If you are deploying workflow into an application, chances are you will want to deploy business rules into it also. Although WWF has a simple rules component, the use of a business rules management system allows you to manage the potentially numerous rules across various applications effectively and automatically deploy updates.
  • Human workflow is often gradually replaced with automation, something for which business rules are ideal. The use of a real business rules management system allows manual reviews, one of the most common manual steps, to be replaced with automated ones. An insurance customer of ours, for instance, replaced 99% of its manual underwriting decisions with an automated decision using Blaze Advisor.
  • When it comes to running on a client, Blaze Advisor offers a small footprint local version that can share an enterprise repository. Several customers use Blaze Advisor in this kind of client deployment.
  • When managing complex EAI situations many companies find that the business rules about how to integrate various business objects and concepts require a strong, declarative rules environment. Trading partners exacerbate this, especially when standards take up is incomplete within an ecosystem.
  • Business Activity Monitoring is important but it is not enough to show people what has happened, it must also be possible to trigger automated responses. Business rules excels in this kind of BAM scenario.
  • Lastly, products like Blaze Advisor are scalable and reliable and proven in hundreds of customer deployments. One example presented recently by a major UK online bank talked about a Blaze Advisor system that had been up 100% since February of 2003 despite over 40 updates to the business rules.

So, no matter whether you think WWF or Biztalk is the right solution, Blaze Advisor complements it. Keeping your business rules in Blaze Advisor with its strong, hierarchical repository and powerful business user rule maintenance tools means they can be managed better, deployed to both WWF and Biztalk and, even, to other platforms like J2EE or COBOL, without having to duplicate the rules themselves.

BTW Windows Workflow Foundation will be available as part of the the new managed code API for Windows. WinFx is available now in beta, and according to my friends at Microsoft, is currently scheduled for release in the second half of 2006.

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