Begineer to BizTalk Expert : Interview with Nick Hauenstein

Welcome to twentieth interview of the series, today's expert is Nick Hauenstein.

Nick Hauenstein is an integration developer, consultant and trainer based in the greater Seattle area. He specializes in BizTalk Server, Azure App Service, as well as the data formats, protocols, and frameworks that surround them.

As a consultant he has traveled all over the country to help build, refine and optimize complex mission-critical BizTalk Server based integrations in the healthcare and financial verticals -- helping teams to remove blocking issues, and satisfy low-latency requirements and stringent SLAs. In addition he has helped teams automate their testing, builds and deployments of BizTalk Server solutions.

He has worn many hats over the years as a small business owner, software development engineer, tester, and a Scrum Master. He is also an avid blogger, open source contributor, as well as the creator and maintainer of the T-Rex Metadata Library for Azure App Service.

Let's begin the Interview....

Mahesh: Who are you and what you do?
Nick: My name is Nick Hauenstein, and I write software, and help others write software (either directly, through tools/frameworks, or through training).

Mahesh: When did you start working on BizTalk?
Nick: I started working with BizTalk Server with the 2006 version of the product back in early 2008. I transitioned into working with BizTalk Server after I had taken a break from development to explore what it would be like to be on the QA side of the fence. While that had its own joys, nothing compares to the sheer ecstasy of crafting executable code from thought.

Mahesh: How did you mastered BizTalk (Learning path, amount of time)?
Nick: Even though I’ve worked with the product for more than 8 years now, I wouldn’t say that I’ve fully mastered every aspect of the product. I’ve experienced the full surface area, and have used 80-90% of it in live integrations over the years, but I feel like there are still techniques to be discovered. Take for instance Charles Young’s implementation of Backwards Chaining in the Rules Engine. While the concept wasn’t new per se, I would still classify it as a breakthrough that took 6 years after the introduction of that version of the runtime.

In terms of how I learned BizTalk – that was one of the perks of the job. My first 5 days on the job were spent in QuickLearn Training’s BizTalk Server Developer Immersion class. I still have the certificate to prove it. The class opened my eyes to the possibilities of enterprise integration. In my job I also had the privilege of effectively working through our entire BizTalk Server course catalog, while testing and improving content.

From there, it was on to Professional BizTalk Server 2006, which provides an excellent overview of the runtime, as well as digging deep into the extensibility of the product.

I think the experience that grew me the most as a BizTalk developer though, wasn’t any of the integrations, books, or training. Instead it was working alongside the team that built out the ESB Toolkit. The ESB Toolkit effectively bends the BizTalk Server engine to do its will, and uses full knowledge of the internals to accomplish it. For example, the Forwarder pipeline component. Take a while just to dig in and understand what’s going on there, and you will understand how the EPMRR Correlation Tokens work to route messages to the back channel of Request/Response receive ports – and you will understand how to build a request/response scenario that involves a single message box hit with 2 pipeline executions (squeezing the maximum possible performance out of the BizTalk Server messaging engine).

Mahesh: Which are the major projects you handled so far?
Nick: I’ve done quite a few integrations in the healthcare vertical and a few in finance as well. For example, processing X12 interchanges (both multi-gigabyte batches, as well as quick request/response interchanges), and using the BRE to make decisions about how orders for securities should be processed. I’ve also done BizTalk Server rollouts, and build automations.
I’ve built official product demos, sessions for conferences, and training classes like crazy over the years as well. Along the way, you might have noticed that I’ve written an unholy number of words about BizTalk Server and Microsoft Azure as well.

Mahesh: How do you see BizTalk compare to other integration platform?
Nick: It depends on the platform. However, BizTalk does provide a thriving (and growing) community with a plethora of extensions. It boasts a 16 year life span thus far with thousands of developers who have learned what it takes to make rock solid mission critical integrations. It’s backed by one of the biggest names in technology, and runs on top of a proven platform (Windows Server + SQL Server). Additionally, it has a story for on-premises, cloud, and hybrid connectivity. It has a team that is committed to its future and is delivering new capabilities that extend its cloud reach.

It’s positioned better than any platform out there. There might be a few points here or there that a competitor might offer up, but none are positioned as strongly at the moment.

Mahesh: What as per you is must to know to become an Integration(BizTalk) Expert?
Nick: I would say to become an expert you have to do it, you have to study it (e.g., training courses, books, blog posts), and you have to continually hone your craft. Don’t settle for being a line cook, strive to be a chef.

Mahesh: What are your thoughts on forums,blogs and articles etc.?
Nick: Obviously I’m biased here having written hundreds of pages of blog posts on the subject, but I think they’re critical in growing your understanding and skill as a BizTalk Server developer. It’s also interesting to watch how the community hive-mind can make brilliant mistakes together. Embracing architectural fads for a time, and then decrying them a year later as utter foolishness. Sometimes, we all grow together, and that’s a healthy thing.

Sometimes there’s even a kind of catharsis as you’re reading a blog where someone is fighting the same fight with a specific integration challenge that you too have faced.

Mahesh: Your suggestion to a newcomers? What should be approach to get sound knowledge in BizTalk?
Nick: If you’re new and have the ability, take a training class on the product. This will take you directly into the inner workings of the product, the core pieces, and get you hands on in actually building integrations in short order. I’m 90% certain that I would not be in the same place that I am today if it weren’t for starting with proper training right out of the gate.

Mahesh: There are many tools from community which support BizTalk in some or the other way(like BTDF, Bizunit etc), what do you say about it? Which ones you would recommend?Why?
Nick: I think they’re mostly all fantastic. BTDF and BizUnit are a given. Again, maybe a little bit biased, but I’m a big fan of the BizTalk Server 2013 R2 Pipeline Component Wizard. I’m also a heavy user of Thomas Restrepo’s Pipeline Testing library – an absolutely indispensable tool for validating custom pipeline components and even custom pipelines.
I also found Richard Seroter’s SSO Config Store Application Manager to be quite helpful for a time – though it was superceded for me by Microsoft’s similar offering.

Mahesh: What are your thoughts around BizTalk certification?
Nick: As far as I know, it’s not possible to sit the exams anymore. That’s a darn shame. I know that there have been efforts to make this happen again, but I’m sure that it gets prioritized lower than actually building a first class product.

I hold two of the certifications, and I’m pretty proud of them. Even though some people don’t value a piece of paper you get for answering questions on a test, I personally value the work that went behind it. That knowledge was gained through years of blood, sweat, and tears – it wasn’t just a bulk fact memorization exercise. So for my own part, I highly value my BizTalk Server certifications.

Mahesh: What is the future of BizTalk?
Nick: Well it’s not a mystery, that’s for sure. The 2016 version of the product is just around the corner. I already have the CTP installed, and have been working on updating a small sampling of the materials (samples, tools, hands-on-activities, etc…) that we’ve built over the years.

Microsoft got it right finally. Jim Harrer mentioned, in the keynote for the Integrate 2016 conference that the balance between cloud and on-premises has to be leveled. Both must be critical pieces of Microsoft’s strategy. It can’t be just BizTalk Server, or just Logic Apps – it needs to be both. Both are providing unique benefits based on either where they live or their specific architecture.

The BizTalk Server architecture looks like it was perfectly crafted by a chef who knew which flavors ought to go together to form the perfect meal every time. On the other hand, Logic Apps provide a buffet, and it’s up to each developer to craft their own meal – a dangerous, yet powerful proposition that allows us to break the rules and do great things (or just break things).

I think BizTalk Server has a bright and long road ahead – both on-premises and in Azure IaaS with the 2016 version.

Mahesh: Any thoughts on cloud?
Nick: The cloud will be where most logic lives in the world of IoT and the coming world of untethered Holographic computing (where we’re already seeing lower general purpose processing power in favor of spending precious power resources on the HPU). I got mildly made fun of when first mentioning the application of Logic Apps to holographic computing back in early 2015, but I really do believe that Holographic computing + virtual assistants (like Cortana) with Logic Apps as our action brokers are going to play a larger role in the future, and most certainly live on the cloud.

Mahesh: What motivates you to do the community work?
Nick: I have to craft a lot of tools, and do a lot of knowledge transfer in my work. It costs me almost nothing to take those things and give back to others. I’ve also benefited greatly from the larger BizTalk community, and in a sense, it’s the least I can do to pay back a debt of gratitude there.

Mahesh: Being MVP, do you feel that responsibilities get added? What is your thought on MVP?
Nick: Interestingly, it seems that a lot more people look up to you, and/or are interested in what you’re doing. I was surprised for example when I traveled halfway across the globe and found a room full of hundreds of people where a large portion claimed to know who I am and what I do. That’s pretty darn humbling.
I’m not sure that I would say responsibilities get added. The MVP award is given for community contributions in the prior year. Effectively you could receive a reward and then disappear off the face of the planet for that year. You’re still an MVP (based on prior contributions). That said, there are more opportunities that present themselves (user groups, conferences, special events, etc…) that do get added on top of regular work responsibilities. I wouldn’t trade it for anything though

Mahesh: As per the Roadmap provided by Microsoft,LogicApps can be run on-premise in addition to Azure.Do you think Azure Stack Logic Apps on prem will supersede BizTalk Server?
Nick: I don’t think so, at least not in the short term (i.e., 5-10 years). I keep thinking about pipelines here. I can’t see a Logic App, coordinating what amounts to a sequence of HTTP calls, ever performing as well as a BizTalk Server pipeline processing a stream of bytes in a forward-only streaming fashion. Because of that, BizTalk Server will likely always have its place in that world of Microsoft Integration – given that there will always be customers that need that level of performance.
That said, I do see a great opportunities for Logic Apps running on Azure Stack in places like Switzerland – where the financial institutions cannot use the Azure cloud due to lack of a datacenter within the country’s borders.

Mahesh:From my perspective, Microsoft keeps coming up with Overlapping technologies like recent ones MABS and Logic Apps, in some situation it gets puzzling. What you say? 
Nick: It can be frustrating for sure. The thing to remember in those times though is that MABS is GA and did provide important learnings about what it looks like to build integration in the cloud. It was trying to be iPaaS, but was far too chunky (you have to commit to a whole MABS deployment) for what it was trying to do.
Logic Apps is still in preview, so at the moment in terms of GA functionality, the answer is MABS all the way. Logic Apps is far superior though, and is going to be a better choice long term.
I could say I’m upset that they did what they did (building two separate offerings with overlapping functionality), however, I am happy that they did a reboot on MABS based on what I’m seeing with Logic Apps today.

That’s all for now! Thanks for reaching out!

Thanks a lot Nick for sharing your insights and experiences, this will surely benefit many !!!

Feel Free to ask questions to Nick in the comments!!!!!!!! 

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