Integrate 2014: Thoughts on the Announcement of the BizTalk Microservices Platform
I will outline here some of my thoughts on Microsoft’s new venture in the EAI space, announced at the Integrate 2014 conference: the BizTalk Microservices Platform. I guess this could be called “BizTalk Services 2.0”.
When I first heard the news, I was surprised. I didn’t attend the conference but had one eye on the #integrate2014 hashtag and as the talks progressed, I got progressively more excited as I saw more of the platform. My immediate reaction was: “this is Docker!”.
My intention of this post is to put forward what the new platform might be like and what this means for integration devs like me. I should mention here that these thoughts are a result of reading various blogs after the event and my own personal experience, so there may be many inaccuracies.
Before putting forward my ideas though, I would like to discuss Microsoft’s current cloud EAI offering – aka “BizTalk Services 1.0”.
Background – BizTalk Services 1.0
Like a lot of BizTalk devs I believe, I have spent quite a bit of time playing with Microsoft Azure BizTalk Services (MABS) in my spare time whilst working with BizTalk Server during the day.
It’s easy to get up and going: install the BizTalk Services SDK and you are pretty much there. This is a comprehensive guide that I found useful.
I could pick up the concepts from my BizTalk Server (and ESB Toolkit) experience quite quickly.
To be honest it left me quite disappointed since I was expecting some radical new thinking and tooling: it felt like an attempt to replicate BizTalk Server in the cloud. As the year wore on, it seemed little attention was paid to MABS by the product team; for example, one still has to use Visual Studio 2012 to create a solution (no update so we can use Visual Studio 2013). This made me think that the team must be “heads down” working hard on version 2.0 and too busy to release minor versions.
Another major issue is around unit and integration testing. It’s only possible to test a solution by deploying to Azure (directly from Visual Studio). Also the tooling to exercise your solution is limited: perhaps the highlight is a VS plugin that is very much an alpha version with little TLC given to it since it’s release.
Another burning question for me was: how is BizTalk Services actually realised in Azure? Originally I remember reading that MABS would be a multi-tenant affair. But I know that I needed to create my own tracking database… Surely this would be shared storage, I thought? However I’ll quote from Saravana’s latest blog post here:
Under the hood, completely isolated physical infrastructure (Virtual machines, storage, databases etc) are created for every new BizTalk Service provisioning. 
So this explains why it wouldn’t be possible to deploy and test a MABS solution locally, on my developer workstation. It wouldn’t be possible to replicate this runtime environment locally (without a lot of work anyway).
Also it’s obvious that a MABS solution is completely tied to Azure and cannot exist outside of it.
So my final thought on the first version of MABS was: a bit disappointing, nothing really radical here, good for lightweight integration scenarios (at best), hope 2.0 is (heaps) better and given much more TLC than 1.0…
The Inbetween Months – MABS 1.0 => MABS 2.0
So my day job got busy and I put MABS aside for a bit.
I have a FreeNAS box at home so I have spent some time this year setting it up, playing around with it and using it as a central place to store my photos, files and Git repos for my personal projects. It was then that I uncovered the concept of “jails”, which is basically a way of sandboxing. Each jail is bound to a separate IP address. Further info can be found here.
Learning about the jail idea lead to reading about an interesting open source project called “Docker“. I’m certainly no expert on this subject: I think of it in a similar way to the jail concept but instead of the term “jail”, the term “container” applies. Docker has an engine that enables containers to communicate with one another.
What I really like about Docker is that it is a “grassroots” developer led project. After a period of introspection (and no doubt feedback from customers and market forces), this seems to be something Microsoft is keen to promote: that is, a focus on developers and collaboration. .NET going cross platform and open source supports this.
Announcement of the BizTalk Microservices Platform (MABS 2.0?)
What I was alluding to in the previous section is that (with that wonderful thing called hindsight) I shouldn’t have been so surprised to hear that the next version of MABS would run on a “microservices platform”. In fact, this platform will be a key infrastructure component/concept of Azure: “BizTalk Microservices” will just be a subset of a new microservices platform. I suspect Microsoft will build it’s own container management technology for Azure and that Azure containers will be compatible with Docker. Already a Docker engine for Windows server is on the cards. I have heard mention of the term “Azure App Platform” and I think this will be a container management platform (or at least a component of a bigger platform).
From the diagram below, app containers are a foundational, basic building block of the platform.
I think the idea is that each container will have a single very specific function (i.e. be “granular”). Containers will be linked together (communicating over HTTP?) and as a whole be able to do something useful. So a container could be a transform container, a data access container, a business rules container, a service bus connectivity container and so on (I wonder if there will be a bridge container, or is this a monolith? ;-)). It would be possible for each container to be implemented using different technologies: the common factor would occur at the network transport level.
I reckon the (specific) term “BizTalk Microservices” will simply be a way of grouping integration specific containers together in the “toolbox”. BizTalk as a “product” (in the cloud) will be reduced to just a name and a way of locating containers specific to integration, nothing more. Over time, many other containers with a very specific function will come onboard: templates (“accelerators”) will exist which are basically a grouping of containers, designed to tackle a specific end-to-end problem.
Another deal clincher with the platform is that it would be possible to host, run and test locally on my dev workstation. Hopefully the Azure SDK will enable a local runtime environment for running containers (or maybe the Windows server Docker engine would enable running Azure containers on prem).
I’m really excited with the announcements at the conference. It’s very early days, but the microservices concept seems to be a good model: a way of decomposing services into their component (micro) parts that can be finely scaled and tuned (hopefully addressing some of the failings of “old school” SOA, particularly around scalability).
In a number of sources I have read the comment that it’s a really exciting time to be a developer and I agree with that. It’s exciting since cloud computing requires some new thinking and tools, which need to built. There is also a “cross-pollination” of ideas between different platforms.
I can’t wait for the preview of the microservices platform, which looks to be available early next year.
 Microsoft making big bets on Microservices – Saravana Kumar, Dec 4th 2014