Begineer to BizTalk Expert : Interview with Alan Smith

Welcome to 21st  interview of the series, today's expert is Alan Smith.

Alan Smith is a Microsoft Azure developer, trainer, mentor and evangelist at Active Solution in Stockholm. He has a strong hands-on philosophy and focusses on embracing the power and flexibility of cloud computing to deliver engaging and exciting demos and training.

Alan has held the MVP title for 10 years, and is currently MVP of the year for Windows Azure. He is in the organization team for the CloudBurst conference and the Global Windows Azure bootcamp.

Let's begin the Interview....

Mahesh: Who are you and what you do?
Alan: I’m Alan Smith, I’m an Azure MVP, I’m from the north of England, and living in Stockholm, Sweden. I work for Active Solution, a company that specializes in system development and leveraging Microsoft Azure technologies for our customers.

Mahesh: When did you start working on BizTalk?
Alan: I started working with BizTalk Server in 2004, when BizTalk Server 2004 beta 2 was released.

Mahesh: How did you mastered BizTalk (Learning path, amount of time)?
Alan: Back in 2003, learning BizTalk was a challenge, and took a lot of perseverance. There were no books and very little in the way of documentation. I remember planning to spend a weekend learning BizTalk, and it took me until late Sunday night before I’d even got it installed. After browsing the BizTalk forums I realized it was not just me, there were many others who were struggling to learn the product. This made for a great community atmosphere, with many people sharing ideas. You really needed to read people’s blog posts and use the forums to learn about BizTalk.
I would say it took me about two years to get proficient at BizTalk, maybe four years before I would say I had mastered it. Some of the functionality, such as EDI and trading partner management, I still don’t have much experience of.

Mahesh: Which are the major projects you handled so far?
Alan: My first BizTalk project was an order processing system for the Swedish dairies. This started in the summer of 2004, and I was responsible for the architecture and most of the development of the solution. I have since then worked on a number of integration projects in many different industries, such as insurance, retail, public services and education.
I have also been very involved in training, and have delivered the QuickLearn BizTalk courses for over 10 years.

Mahesh: How do you see BizTalk compare to other integration platform?
Alan: I have not has much experience of other integration platforms. I see BizTalk competing very well price wise, and for Microsoft Developers who are used to Visual Studio and .NET it’s a natural choice for an integration platform. Unfortunately Microsoft has not focused as much energy as they could on improving BizTalk in recent versions, so I feel that the product is not where it could have been in competing with other integration platforms.

Mahesh: What as per you is must to know to become an Integration(BizTalk) Expert?
Alan: Having a solid understanding of the BizTalk feature set is a good start. Knowing it’s strengths and weaknesses, and how to get the best out of the functionality for a given scenario.
Integration is a very diverse discipline, and the knowledge you require will vary from project to project. Sometimes you will need to be an expert on web services, other times you will need to know about SAP and the old IBM mainframe that sits in the basement. You may also be working in different industries, so there may well be a lot of business specific information you need to know about.
Politics can always be an issue in integration projects, you are dealing with different teams who work with different technologies, and may will have a very different working culture. In some integration projects, politics can be the biggest challenge.

Mahesh: What are your thoughts on forums,blogs and articles etc.?
Alan: I learnt BizTalk thanks to the blogging community. In 2014 I published the first edition of “The Bloggers Guide to BizTalk”, a free CHM format e-book containing the best blog posts from the BizTalk community. This was before there were any books on BizTalk, so it became the “must have” resource for BizTalk developers. For the next couple of years I added blog posts and published it every month or so.
In those days the forums and blogs were the only way to learn BizTalk, but nowadays there are many good books around. It’s funny to see the same names appearing in all the best BizTalk books, blog posts and forum post replies. It seems there has always been a very strong BizTalk developer community, and it’s great to be part of it.

Mahesh: Your suggestion to a newcomers? What should be approach to get sound knowledge in BizTalk?
Alan: Today there are so many great books on BizTalk Server. Many of them are written by authors who were contributing to The Bloggers Guide to BizTalk. My suggestion would be to start by reading on-line to get an idea of what BizTalk is, and what it can do.
Bear in mind that integration is a big discipline and BizTalk, although it’s a great product, is not always the best tool for the job. Many of the best BizTalk / integration experts know BizTalk well, but they are also experienced with other integration products and technologies. Having a broad knowledge of integration tools, technologies and techniques is a valuable asset.

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?
Alan: It’s great to see a lot of community contributions here. I have used BTDF a lot, starting in 2004, when it was pretty much the only way to deploy BizTalk applications. BizUnit is also useful in many testing scenarios.
The tool that has impressed me the most was the BizTalk Orchestration Profiler. It’s very ingenious in the way it combines the orchestration tracking data with the images of orchestrations to create a visual representation of the orchestration execution flow and performance.

Mahesh: What are your thoughts around BizTalk certification?
Alan: I have taken all the BizTalk exams since 2004. For the 2004 exam I spent a lot of time preparing, and learning the feature set that I was not experienced with. For the other exams I have not done any preparation, and managed to pass with a fairly good score with my knowledge and experience. I think the exams are worthwhile if a good BizTalk developer can pass based on their hands-on experience of the product.
It would be nice to see a BizTalk administration exam. This is an important discipline, and providing a certification path would be a good way for BizTalk developers and administrators to have their skills recognized.

Mahesh: What is the future of BizTalk?
Alan:As I see it, BizTalk has been in maintenance mode since about 2010. There has been talk of a number of Microsoft products and technologies replacing BizTalk (Oslo, Dublin, AppFabric, MABS, Logic Apps etc.) but, so far, none of them has succeeded.
The core architecture of BizTalk is rock solid, and has survived, pretty much unchanged, for the past decade. I think that BizTalk will stay around for another couple of versions at least. I don’t see anything on the horizon that will replace it.

Mahesh: Any thoughts on cloud?
Alan: I was lucky enough to be at PDC 2008 in Los Angeles and saw the Azure announcements in the keynote. I’d really gone there to hear the latest news on the “Codename Oslo” technologies that were planned to replace BizTalk, but I had spent some time working with what is now the Azure Service Bus, and was interested in the new cloud-based technologies. My allegiance has shifted from BizTalk to Azure, and I have been an Azure MVP for a number of years. 
The main reason I learned BizTalk was that it was new, it was cool, it was challenging to work with, and it was evolving rapidly. All these are now true of the Azure technologies, and I’m involved in a number of projects that aim to leverage cloud-based services to our customers.
Microsoft has a great offering with Azure, it has taken a number of years for the technologies to mature and gain acceptance with customers, but there are now a lot of opportunities to use these technologies in many customer scenarios.

Mahesh: What motivates you to do the community work?
Alan: I enjoy sharing my ideas and experience with others, so I have focused a lot of energy on delivering training courses, both classroom courses, and on-line content for PluralSight. I also like to engage with the development community, and have presented at a lot of conferences and user groups.
One of the best events I have been involved with has been the Global Azure Bootcamp, which has been running for four years. Together with a few friends, we had a crazy idea of running a hands-on day learning Azure technologies on a Saturday, and running this at a few different locations to build up a community of events. For the past two years we have had almost 200 locations around the world. It’s a lot of hard work, but seeing the twitter stream, and the photos of people from so many different countries and cultures all focusing on the same learning experience is a great buzz.

Mahesh: Being MVP since 2005, do you feel that responsibilities get added? What is your thought on MVP?
Alan: I have never felt that as an MVP I have any responsibility to Microsoft. I see it more as a reward for people who contribute to the community. I have got a lot out of the MVP program over the past 10 years, it has given me the opportunity to meet with so many passionate developers, and share ideas and inspirations about technology and how that can be promoted in the community.
The MVP summit is awesome, in that you get to meet and mingle with like-minded people from many different communities and backgrounds who all share the same passion and energy for the technologies they work with.

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?
Alan: Personally I don’t see this happening. We have seen a number of technologies trying to use a graphical development tool to replace BizTalk (Workflow Foundation, Azure AppFabric Composite Apps, MABS). These technologies are pretty much redundant now, and BizTalk is still the weapon of choice for many integration scenarios.
I think many of these technologies try to suit a number of scenarios. Workflow Foundation was a general-purpose workflow technology, and therefore lacked the tighter coupling to message orientation that BizTalk orchestrations provided. I see the same with Logic Apps.

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? 
Alan: I’ve been dealing with this for over 10 years. We have seen many technologies come and go (Workflow Foundation, Windows Server App Fabric, Codename Oslo, Azure App Fabric, MABS etc.). It’s great to see Microsoft innovating here, without that innovation so many of the technologies we use today would not exist. It’s also good to see Microsoft making these technologies available for developers to experiment with and share their feedback. Sometimes what seemed like a good idea at the time may fail as a product, other times it may become a core service that many people leverage in projects.
It could be argued that the Topic and Subscriptions in the Azure Service Bus overlaps with the functionality in the BizTalk message box. They both support publish-subscribe messaging, both have correlation, promoted properties, failed message handling. I have used both of these technologies in a number of projects and, when used in the right scenario, they both provide solid functionality for solving our implementations. I also found BizTalk developers are able to do great things with the Service Bus, as they know the best techniques for working with asynchronous message processing.

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

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

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