Friday, May 15, 2009

TechEd 2009 - Day 5

Friday was the final day for TechEd 2009 North America. There were fewer people around and it had that feeling of writing a final exam on the last day of the semester. I started out the day with BizTalk and ended with a BizTalk RFID session. In between those two sessions I spent some time learning about DUET and WCF. Read the rest of the blog for more details.

Stephen Kaufman had a good session on BizTalk 2009 Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) using the new features of BizTalk 2009 and its integration with Team Foundation Server(TFS). BizTalk is now a first class citizen in the Visual Studio 2008 family and therefore has added benefits when you deploy TFS as well. This includes bug tracking, task management and automated builds to name a few.

Next Stephen ran us through some of the new unit testing capabilities. He went through writing unit tests for both Maps and Schemas. Having the ability to write these tests using Microsoft tools and then having the ability to publish the results to TFS is extremely powerful. Writing and executing unit tests is a good practice to follow. Like most developers I don't mind writing and executing the tests, but I hate documenting the results. If this can be published to a tracking tool automatically then I am all for this type of functionality.

Automating your builds was next on the agenda. If you are using automated builds in BizTalk 2006, then chances are you have a Build server with Visual Studio installed on it. This is no longer required as there is an option in the BizTalk 2009 installation that allows you to specify only the build components. This allows you to execute build scripts using MSBuild without the need of visual studio. I strongly suggest automating your builds and deployments. The benefits are consistency, repeatability and times savings. For those of you who were around in the BizTalk 2004 days know how much of a pain deployment was back then. Having a scripted deployment is truly a breath of fresh air compared to those days.

The DUET session was good, however I walked away a little discouraged with the complexity of the DUET architecture. Being a Microsoft developer at an organization that uses SAP as a system of record forces you to find different ways to integrate with SAP. From a middleware perspective, this path is very clear: BizTalk. However, there are situations when BizTalk may not be the clear cut choice. I would like to think of these types of scenarios to involve User to System interactions and potentially human workflow scenarios. BizTalk is very good with asynchronous scenarios. While it certainly can function in synchronous scenarios, you need to be careful in order to prevent client side timeouts.

The demos were impressive: the speaker showed a few scenarios where a user would be working in Outlook and had the ability to book time against project codes, submit a leave request and generate reports. In scenarios where you need approval, those requests will get forwarded to the appropriate person(Manager) as configured in SAP. The interactions were very smooth and responsive.

Now for the discouraging part…the amount of infrastructure and pre-requisites to get DUET functioning is significant. It would only be fair at this point to disclose that I am far from a DUET expert, but this is the way I interpreted the requirements:

Client Computers:
DUET Client
Local SQL Server Express (yes – must have)
Hidden Mail Folder

Exchange Server
DUET Service Mail Box

SAP Server
Enterprise Services need to be enabled
DUET Add on
Additional ABAP modules

DUET Server
IIS – Microsoft DUET Server Components
J2EE – SAP DUET Server Components
SQL Server

So as you can see there is a tremendous amount of infrastructure required in order to get DUET up and running. What also concerns me is the skill set in order to implement these functions. In my experience, I have not met too many people who understand both of the SAP and Microsoft technology stacks. The other thing that tends to happen on these types of projects is the finger pointing that occurs between the two technology groups. Within DUET, at least from my perspective, the line between roles and responsibilities becomes very blurry. The only way that I can see these types of implementations succeeding is to have a “DUET team” that is made up of both SAP and Microsoft resources and their mission is to ensure of the success of the technology. If you leave these two teams segregated I think you are in for a very long ride on a bumpy road.

Perhaps I am jumping to conclusions here, but I would love to hear any real world experiences if anyone is willing to share.

The next session I attended was a WCF session put on by Jon Flanders. In case you haven’t heard of Jon, he is a Connected Systems Guru having worked a lot with BizTalk, WF, WCF and Restful Services. He is also a Microsoft MVP, trainer at Pluralsight and an accomplished author.

He took a bit of a gamble in his session, but I think it paid off. He essentially wiped the slate clean and prompted the audience on the topics that we would like more info on. He did ensure that the topics listed in the abstract were covered just to ensure that no one felt slighted.
If you follow Jon’s work, you will quickly find out that he is very big supporter of Restful Services. It was really interesting to gain more insight on why he is such a proponent of the technology.

When you think about the various bindings that are available in WCF, you tend to think that the basicHttpBinding is usually the “safe” bet. Meaning that it allows for the most interoperability between your service and a variety of clients. These clients may be running on JAVA or even older versions of .Net (think asmx). Jon quickly changed my way of thinking with regards to interoperability. The webHttpBinding is truly the most interoperable binding. There was a bit of a sidebar jabbering between Jon and Clemens Vasters regarding this statement, but I will leave that one alone for now. The rational that Jon used was that http and XML are extremely pervasive across nearly every modern platform. He gave an example from his consulting experience in that a customer had a version of Linux and they were trying to connect to an ASMX web service via SOAP. In order to get this scenario working, they had to start including some hacks so that the client and service could communicate. When they brought Jon in, he convinced them to change the service to a RESTful service and once they had done that there were no more interoperability challenges. It was a very good scenario that he described and it certainly opened my eyes to REST.

I do consider myself to be more of a Contract First type of guy. Especially when communicating with external parties. Having recently communicated with a really big internet company over REST, I was frustrated at times because it wasn’t explicitly clear what my responsibility as a client was when submitting messages to their service. Sure there was a high level design document that described the various fields and a sample xml message, but what did I have to ensure that I was constructing my message according to their specification? It also wasn’t clear what the response message looked like. At first I wasn’t even sure if it was two way service? So yes some of this isn’t the fault of REST itself, but it does highlight that there can be a lot of ambiguity. Something that SOAP provides via WSDL is that the responsibilities are very explicit. When working with external parties, and especially when tight timelines are involved, I do like the explicit nature of SOAP. Now certainly with making contracts explicit you have challenges with iterations as a change to the service payload may slow down the process. The service developer needs to update his WSDL and then provide it to the client developer.

But all in all it was a very good session, and I am happy to say that I did learn to appreciate REST more so than I previously had.

The final session of the day was a BizTalk RFID session put on by BizTalk MVP Winson Woo. I had a little exposure to RFID previously, but he was able to fill in the gaps for me and I learned a lot from him in that 1h15.

BizTalk RFID is an application that comes with BizTalk, but it is not tightly coupled with BizTalk Server whatsoever. It does not hook into the message box or anything like that. As Winson put it, BizTalk Server is where the real value of RFID comes into play. I am not trying to downplay the role of BizTalk RFID, but it is essentially just reading tags. RFID readers have been out for years so there is nothing earth shattering about this. However, once you have read the data, having the ability to wrap this functionality around business process management and rules engine execution is where the value is really extracted.

Having the ability to read a tag, update your ERP system and send a message to a downstream provider is where this technology is impressive. A sample scenario could be some product being sent from a value add supplier to a retailer. The retailer wants to know when they can expect this product because the quicker they can get their hands on it, the quicker they can sell it. So as a pallet of widgets leaves the warehouse, an RFID reader detects this and pushes the data to BizTalk RFID via TCPIP. These readers essentially are network resolvable devices. On the BizTalk RFID server you are able to create what I will call a “mini-workflow” via event handlers. Within this “mini-workflow” you may write an event handler that will compose a message and sent it to BizTalk using WCF. You may also write this data to the RFID SQL Server Database. If you didn’t want to use WCF to when getting these RFID Reads, BizTalk could always poll the BizTalk RFID database as well. Once BizTalk has this data, it is business as usual. If you need to update your ERP, you would compose a message and send it to the ERP using the appropriate adapter. If you need to construct an EDI message and submit that message to your retailer via ASN you able to do that as well.

In scenarios where you have a hand held reader, you have a couple communication options. These readers will be network resolvable using TCP/IP as well, but in the event that you cannot communicate with the BizTalk RFID system, a store and forward persistence mechanism will maintain a record of all of your reads so that when you place the handheld reader into its cradle these records will be synchronized in the order that they were read.

As these reader devices evolve, so does the monitoring and tooling capabilities. SCOM and SCCM are able to determine the health of readers and push out updates to them. This is a great story as you no longer need to be running around a warehouse trying to determine whether a reader is functioning or not.

So that was TechEd 2009 in a nutshell. I hope that you have enjoyed following this series. You could tell that the tough economic climate had an effect on the attendance and atmosphere this year. There was no night at Universal studio which was a little unfortunate. I had a good time when we did this at TechEd 2007 and PDC 2008. All in all, I was happy with my TechEd 2009 experience. It was also a good opportunity to catch up with some of my MVP buddies and the BizTalk product team.

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