a trace of thought on...BizTalk Server, Team Foundation Server, AppFabric, etc. RSS 2.0
 Monday, 24 May 2004

(Update: See the latest on the Deployment Framework here.)

One of the more complicated aspects for a developer using BizTalk 2004 is the large number of steps required during the edit/run/debug cycle.  Since your BizTalk artifacts can't be run "in place" (that is, where they were compiled) but must instead be deployed to a local (or remote) BizTalk server, life can get quite complicated.

If you have done much BizTalk 2004 development, you know the routine quite well at this point.  If you have orchestrations, schemas, transforms, pipelines, and (say) C# components all partitioned into separate assemblies - and you have a number of orchestrations with "Call/Start Orchestration" shape dependencies that introduce specific start/stop-ordering - you can spend a lot of time doing the whole stop/unenlist/undeploy/redeploy/enlist/start/bounce BizTalk routine. 

Worse, you might not get it right - which can lead to hours spent debugging problems (over the course of your project) that don't really exist.

To alleviate this problem, it can be quite helpful to use a tool like NAnt to coordinate the "update my BizTalk server" process that must occur after each build.  (NAnt is a large topic - suffice to say it is an Xml-driven software build system.)  As long as your NAnt build file (and BizTalk bindings file) are kept up to date, the whole process can be reduced to:

  1. Comple your solution (which might have multiple orchestrations, schemas, transforms, pipelines, and external components in separate assemblies)
  2. Choose "Deploy to BizTalk" from your Tools menu.
  3. Wait 60 seconds or so, enjoying the feeling that you have a consistent & reliable deployment mechanism.

In addition, you can of course use NAnt to kick off full unattended builds for nightly builds or continuous integration systems (like Cruise Control).  Since Visual Studio.NET is the only supported way to build BizTalk projects - despite that tempting XSharpP.exe file sitting in your BizTalk installation directory - this part of your NAnt build file must defer to calling devenv.exe in command-line fashion.  (A short "getting started" for NAnt & directions for using with a VS external tool can be found here.)

So, how about a sample that shows using NAnt to coordinate a reasonably complex deployment of inter-related BizTalk projects?  Available for download is a zip of a BizTalk solution that contains the following projects:

  • BizTalkSample.Components (a C# project, with a class called from orchestration)
  • BizTalkSample.Orchestrations (that contains two orchestrations, one which calls the other via a Call Orchestration shape)
  • BizTalkSample.Pipelines (a send and receive pipeline, which are not needed but included to illustrate the deployment aspects)
  • BizTalkSample.Schemas (which includes two schemas)
  • BizTalkSample.Transforms (which contains a single transform used by one of the orchestrations)

The item I hope you will find most interesting, however, is a file called BizTalkSample.sln.build.  This is a NAnt build file that has a deployment target which captures the following dependency tree (only partially blown out here, for brevity - but this no doubt seems familiar to you if you've been using Biztalk 2004 for awhile…)

   Deploy Schemas
      Undeploy Schemas
         Undeploy Orchestrations
            Unenlist Orchestrations
               Stop Orchestration
         Undeploy Transforms
            Undeploy Orchestrations
   Deploy Components
   Deploy Pipelines
      Undeploy Pipelines
         Undeploy Orchestrations
   Deploy Transforms
      Undeploy Transforms
         Undeploy Orchestrations
   Deploy Orchestrations
   Bounce BizTalk

Perhaps more illustrative is the output of the deployment itself - a sample of which can be seen here.  Note that the NAnt script relies heavily on the EnlistOrch.vbs and StopOrch.vbs script files that ship as samples with BizTalk 2004, as well as the BTSDeploy command line utility.

The BizTalkSample.sln.build script included in the download should represent a BizTalk project organization of sufficient complexity to act as a template for your own projects.  You will want to maintain the list (and correct ordering!) of the names of your orchestrations within the build targets for "deploy.orchestrations" and "unenlist.orchestrations" (this isn't deriveable automatically…)

Note that the build script relies on a set of naming conventions that will be evident once you spend some time with it - namely, that directory names correspond to assembly names.  In addition, the standard "Development" and "Deployment" configurations in BizTalk projects have been replaced with "Debug" and "Release", in order to not create inconsistencies with standard .NET projects (and allow for one "Configuration" property within the build script.)  This replacement was accomplished with a file-level search/replace.

There is probably room for more sophistication in this build file.  It takes a somewhat pessimistic view of what must happen for each edit/run/debug/deploy cycle, but I've found that despite the 60 seconds spent executing the script, your net productivity gain will be quite high given the time you won't waste trying to figure out what aspect of your deployment isn't correct.  Leave comments with suggestions for improvements, if you like.

Monday, 24 May 2004 15:30:48 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00)  #    Comments [0] -
Deployment Framework
 Wednesday, 21 April 2004

In the latest round of documentation that was released for BizTalk 2004 there is an "orchestration operator" defined that was not previously documented: 'succeeded()'

The documentation states that this operator can be used to determine the outcome of a transactional scope or orchestration.  When might this operator be needed?

Well, it turns out that the orchestration compiler has some interesting rules about what you can do in an exception handler that might not be entirely intuitive at first (though as you reflect on analogies to C# or other exception-enabled languages, it begins to make sense.)

Suppose that you have defined a Request/Response port as the means of interacting with an orchestration, and you want to ensure that some response is generated regardless of the failure conditions you encounter.  Your first attempt might look like this (I know mine did…)  Stretch this JPG out to full size to see it clearly (IE will shrink it.)

This will generate a compiler error:
error X2162: must receive before sending a fault message on an implemented port

What is going on here?  It sure seems as if we have received a message already - we did it in the Rcv_SomeDoc shape.  However, we have the Snd_ResponseDoc shape inside of Scope_WorkThatMightFault, and the orchestration compiler is assuming that we might have already executed that shape prior to the catch block executing (i.e. prior to an exception being raised.)  A Request/Response port must only have one response for any given request…and our Snd_FaultDoc shape has the potential to violate this rule.  It sure would be nice if X2162 could be more explanatory in this regard…

How do we overcome this?  It isn't terribly obvious…We must wrap the Snd_ResponseDoc shape in an (additional) transactional scope, and check in our catch block to ensure that the associated transaction did not succeed before performing Snd_FaultDoc.  See this diagram (Acrobat required). 

What we are doing here is structuring the flow such that exactly one response will be sent for the original Rcv_SomeDoc shape.  The way we do this is to use a Decide shape, with an expression such as "!succeeded(Transaction_SndResponse)" in the rule branch.  The Snd_FaultDoc will be in the 'true' side of the branch (i.e. we did not successfully perform Snd_ResponseDoc), while the 'false' side will likely be empty. 

This is a pretty subtle bit of enforcement that the orchestration compiler is performing.  It is somewhat analogous to a typical language compiler ensuring that all code paths have a return value for non-void functions or methods.  And, of course, even though it is not enforced, it is certainly the case that 'catch' and 'finally' blocks in standard languages often have to be aware of what has or hasn't taken place in the associated 'try' block.  The orchestration compiler (apparently) just has some well-defined & strict rules it wants orchestrations to adhere to (such as "exactly one response for each request emanating from a Request/Response port".)

There is a somewhat similar case that is described briefly in the BizTalk documentation.  Imagine we wish to make reference to a message or variable in our 'catch' block that was initialized within the associated scope.  In this case, the orchestration compiler will assume that we might not have gotten around to initializing that variable/message prior to the exception being thrown - and a compiler error will be generated as a result: error X2109: use of unassigned local variable 'Variable_Blah'

In this case, we can wrap the portion of the scope's work that is responsible for initializing the variable/message of interest in an (additional) transactional scope (i.e. "Scope_InitWork"), and we can use a Decide shape with an expression such as "succeeded(Transaction_InitWork)" in the rule branch.  This will allow the orchestration to compile…

Wow! One might start to agree with Charles' boss...

Wednesday, 21 April 2004 15:44:53 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00)  #    Comments [2] -
BizTalk Insights
 Monday, 29 March 2004

(See here for the current version of the naming conventions!)

One of the primary benefits of the BizTalk Orchestration model is the great transparency you can get when a software implementation is pictorial.

Regardless of how well a developer comments code, there will always be a need to maintain a separate set of artifacts (UML diagrams, Visio diagrams with random shapes of your choosing, prose documents, whiteboard discussions, etc.) that are used to convey what the code is actually doing especially when working with a business audience.  This is true if for no other reason than that a discussion of interesting functionality will often take place at a different level of granularity than raw code can support

Round-trip engineering tools - that attempt to keep code in sync with diagrams often seem to suffer from a lack of fidelity that renders them ineffective.

With BizTalk Orchestration, the diagram is the implementation (at least at a particular level) of a piece of functionality.  Yes, you can disappear into components and lose sight of what might happen.  Yes, there is a code representation (xlang/s) underneath the orchestration but it seems to be completely isomorphic with the diagram.

So the opportunity exists to use an orchestration diagram in several interesting ways within a project lifecycle:

  1. As a way to capture an initial high-level design, using all the orchestration shapes as intended but not yet bothering with real maps and schemas.  Stubbing out schemas (so you can declare messages and variables to be of proper types) and maps will allow you to flesh out the orchestration diagram(s) quite a bit, using the compiler as just a way to check for consistency.  All of the external system interactions, communication patterns, decision points, parallel vs. joined flows, etc. can be represented at this point in a shell orchestration.
  2. As a way to gain consensus with the development team & business sponsor about whether the right functionality is indeed going to be built.  The high level design just described is a great tool for this discussion.  Put your orchestration(s) up on a wall with a projector and do a walk-through with as many of the project stakeholders as makes sense.  Or use a tool like CutePDF to print the orchestration as a PDF to send around via email.  (Of course, once Microsoft ships the Visio add-on for BizTalk 2004 orchestrations, this will represent another option for non-VS.NET users.  This has the added benefit of allowing you to exclude what you might consider to be lower-level detail by setting the Report to Analyst switch on various orchestration shapes to False.)
  3. As a way to estimate work.  The various shapes in your initial orchestration can often represent reasonable granularity for time estimates.
  4. And finally, as a way to guide project work...Rather than starting with the entire orchestration that you created to support steps 1-3, you might find it easier to create a new orchestration that represents the path(s) you are tackling at a particular point.  You can cut/paste portions of that original orchestration or simply use it as a reference for what comes next it serves as your outline.

To help realize some of these benefits, naming conventions within an orchestration are quite important

While the naming conventions are good practice for variables, Messages, Multi-Part types, etc. they are even more import for the workflow shapes.  The goal is to ensure that the intent of each shape is clear, and that the text associated with the shape conveys as much as possible given the space constraints.  In this way, a non-technical audience will be able to use the orchestration as documentation.

(See here for the current version of the naming conventions.)

Respond with comments & the document will remain updated per your feedback!

Monday, 29 March 2004 11:21:29 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00)  #    Comments [0] -
BizTalk Tools
 Thursday, 04 March 2004

I intend to cover some more foundational material for BizTalk 2004 in the future, but today I wanted to cover an issue that at least some people will run into fairly quickly when beginning to use the product.

There are times when it is desirable to work with multiple XML schemas that specify the same target namespace, and which specify different definitions for the same element.

For instance, you may wish to have a lax schema when a document lands on your doorstep initially - but further into the processing of that document (along a particular path) you may wish to validate against a stricter schema.  Or, you may have a situation where you have what is arguably an envelope structure which can't be cleanly stripped off (for a variety of reasons) - leaving you with documents which might look quite different, but have the same target namespace and element usage.

BizTalk 2004, in general, wants to see one schema deployed to the BizTalk management database for any given combination of target namespace and element declaration.  If you deploy two schemas with target namespace http://MyNamespace and element declaration MyRoot, and then attempt to receive a MyRoot-rooted document through a receive port using the default Xml Receive pipeline, you will receive an error from BizTalk like this one:

There was a failure executing the receive pipeline…Source:"XML Disassembler"…
Reason: The disassembler cannot retrieve the document specification using this type: "http://MyNamespace#MyRoot". Either the schema is not deployed correctly,
or more than one schema is deployed for the same message type.

To overcome this, you can use custom BizTalk Pipelines on the send and receive ports that will be dealing with schemas that are subject to the ambiguity.  Within a pipeline, you can restrict the set of available schemas from "everything that is deployed" down to the schema(s) that you are interested in.

Specifically, for receive ports, you can add a new item to your project (a "Receive Pipeline"), and add the default Disassembler and Party Resolution pipeline components.  For the Disassembler component, edit the "Document Schemas" collection and add the particular schema you are interested in.  See this picture for an illustration.

Likewise, for send ports, you can add a "Send Pipeline" item to your project, and add the default Assembler pipeline component.  Again, specify the schema you are interested in with the "Document Schemas" collection of the Assembler.

For each of the Send or Receive ports that will be trafficking in these messages, specify your newly created pipelines - instead of the default Xml Receive/Send pipelines! 

Now for the gotchya! (you knew there had to be one, right?)

BizTalk 2004 will require that the assembly containing your custom pipeline(s) is deployed to the GAC (along with every other BizTalk project assembly.)

When components loaded from the GAC wish to dynamically load other types & assemblies, they must do so with fully qualified assembly names.  Applying this to our current discussion means this: BizTalk pipelines must have fully qualified information for the assembly that contains the schemas you configure within pipeline components.

If the pipeline component lives in the same BizTalk project as the schemas you are attempting to reference, the property designer (when editing the "Document Schemas" collection) will only be populated with a namespace-qualified type name - the fully qualified assembly name will be missing.  At run time, the schemas will not be found…and the behavior at run time will appear completely unchanged from the case where no custom pipeline was specified at all. 

To work around this, simply put your pipelines in a different project/assembly than the project containing the schemas you need to reference in the designer.

A bug you say?  Certainly it would be nice if the designer warned you, and it deserves a KB article soon…But keep in mind what is happening:  A GAC-destined component (a pipeline Disassembler) is providing designer support which allows you to select another component (a schema) which will be loaded dynamically at run time...It raises an interesing problem that goes beyond just BizTalk 2004.

Whenever a component that is destined for the GAC has IDE designer support which in turn allows you to select a type for a "plug in" component that will be loaded by the "host" component dynamically at run time (without using Assembly.LoadFrom semantics) - you will run into this issue.  Why?  Because if you select a type from the same project, the fully qualified name can't be reliably known.  After all, the project might not have been compiled yet, or the fully-qualified name might be set up to change with each compilation (gasp!) via 1.0.*.* versioning policy.  If you use such a designer to select a type in a distinct assembly, the fully qualified name can indeed be known -and shame on the component author if the versioning policy isn't sane.

Of course, being deployed into the GAC raises all kinds of thorny issues, but this one was a bit subtle...

Thursday, 04 March 2004 13:23:36 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00)  #    Comments [1] -
BizTalk Insights
 Thursday, 26 February 2004

I agree wholeheartedly with Ian Griffith's response to Sam Gentile's recent post

I went throught this exercise with a client last summer - it was fairly long and drawn out.  The organization had always had a physically distinct middle tier that was responsible for data access - based on the belief that scalability and security would both be improved.

For the application in question at the time, DataSets were being returned from middle-tier objects - marshaled via .NET Remoting (binary/tcp).  Now, DataSets don't have a very compact representation when serialized, as has been described here.  Whether due to the serialization format or other aspects of the serialization process, our performance tests indicated that the time spent serializing/deserializing DataSets imposed a tremendous CPU tax on both the web server and the application server - even after implementing techniques to address it.  The throughput (requests per second) on the web servers & request latency also suffered dramatically.

We conducted extensive tests using ACT (Application Center Test) to drive 40 virtual users with no dwell time (i.e. each driver thread executed another request as soon as the last returned.)  Two web servers were used, and in the remoted middle-tier case, we had a single middle-tier server.  A single Sql Server was used.  All servers were "slightly aged" four-processor machines.  The read operations brought back large DataSets, whereas the write operations were fairly simple by comparison - the workload was intended to simulate real user profiles.



Requests Per Second (RPS)


Remoted middle tier



1400 msec

Local middle tier



322 msec

Remoted middle tier



2791 msec

Local middle tier



193 msec

Notice that not only was the local middle tier (non-remoted case) able to sustain a much higher throughput, but it had far less latency as well.  CPU utilization indicated we would need one physical middle tier server for every web server.  (Of course, when comparing raw performance of "physical middle tier vs. not", you always need to ask "what would happen if I deployed these middle tier servers as front-end web servers instead?  In practice, you don't even need to go that far - just getting rid of the middle tier servers altogther will often improve performance…)

So, after evaluating performance, we decided we wanted to push for a local middle tier, and allow (gasp) access to the database from the DMZ.  This led us to a long and serious discussion of the security implications, and our reasoning followed Ian's quite closely.  The Threats and Countermeasures text was a very valuable resource.  We certainly avoided the use of all dynamic Sql (in favor of using stored procedures), used a low privilege (Windows) account to access Sql Server (that only had access to stored procedures), used strongly-typed (SqlParameter) parameters for all database calls (that are type/length checked), avoided storing connection strings in the clear via the .NET config encryption mechanism, used non-standard ports for Sql Server, etc.  The quantity of advice to digest is large indeed - but necessary regardless of whether you are deployed with a physical middle tier or not...

Two closing thoughts on this topic….First, Martin Fowler sums up this whole topic well in his book Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture (Chapter 7) on the topic of “Errant Architectures” - excerpted in a SD magazine article.  After introducing the topic, he says:

"…Hence, we get to my First Law of Distributed Object Design: Don’t distribute your objects! How, then, do you effectively use multiple processors [servers]? In most cases, the way to go is clustering [of more front-end web servers]. Put all the classes into a single process and then run multiple copies of that process on the various nodes. That way, each process uses local calls to get the job done and thus does things faster. You can also use fine-grained interfaces for all the classes within the process and thus get better maintainability with a simpler programming model. …All things being equal, it’s best to run the Web and application servers in a single process—but all things aren’t always equal. "

Second, does anyone remember the nile.com benchmarks that DocuLabs conducted?   I can't find the exact iteration of the benchmark I'm looking for, but they found that ISAPI components calling local COM+ components on a single Compaq 8500 (8-way) could achieve 3000 requests per second, vs. just 500 once the COM+ components were placed on a separate Compaq 8500.  Unreal.  (And by the way, with those numbers, what the heck was wrong the ASP.NET code above?  Oh well, nile.com WAS a benchmark after all…)

Thursday, 26 February 2004 17:38:41 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00)  #    Comments [0] -
 Friday, 20 February 2004

Steve Maine's post on "single-parameter service interfaces" - and the assertion that such interfaces are more in keeping with the SOA theme - got me thinking just a bit about the real relationship between [WebMethod] methods and the associated WSDL.

Recall that WSDL port types consist of operations that define (at most) an input message and an output message.  WSDL messages consist of "parts" - and for literal formatting with “wrapped“ parameter style (the default for ASMX), you will have a single "part".  The part in turn refers to an XML schema-defined element.  (Here is a concrete example to look at.)

Notice that at this point, we haven't said anything about whether a) we have multiple parameters to our service interface, with a mapping between those parameters and child elements in the WSDL-referenced schema or b) we have a single (xml document) parameter to our service interface that is expected to conform to the WSDL-referenced schema (or for that matter, a single parameter consisting of a serializable class.)

But the WSDL operation definition is quite clear - there is only one message associated with each of the potential directions (input, output, and fault.)  The operation definition doesn't care whether the underlying code that supplies implementation shreds the associated schema types to and from method parameters!

And in an important way, it doesn’t matter.  From the client's perspective, I can submit an xml document (or serialized object) to an operation defined on a port type, as long as that xml document conforms to the associated schema.  The client isn't forced to take a parameter-oriented view of a web service interface regardless of whether or not the server implementation is "parameterized".  Likewise, from the server's perspective, a web service interface could be implemented with consumption of (compliant) xml documents - without forcing that view on the client (who might very well prefer a parameter-style proxy to be generated from WSDL.)

This point remains true even if I was using “bare“ parameter style (i.e. if I had multiple message parts) or if I was using RPC formatting (i.e. if I had a parent element for my parameters named after the web service method.)

Of course, your philosophical bent will lead you to either the WSDL-first path (for the document view) or the ASMX path-of-least-resistance (for the parameter view.)

And, handling the open content case that Steve discussed is only possible with a document-oriented approach.  (XmlAnyElementAttribute could assist with the case where you want to rely on serialized/deserialized objects to stand in for raw xml documents.)

Note that the parameterized view exhibits some aspects of being a leaky abstraction.  SOAP 1.1 allows for missing values ("Applications MAY process requests with missing parameters but also MAY return a fault.") - and so does the XmlSerializer.  This means that you can wind up with malformed requests, and not know it.  (Is your service really going to be ok with treating missing parameters the same as freshly initialized data types?)  Since ASMX offers no schema validation by default, you really need to rely on a schema-validation SoapExtension to solve this problem.

Friday, 20 February 2004 07:22:44 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00)  #    Comments [0] -
 Tuesday, 03 February 2004

'Nuff said.

Tuesday, 03 February 2004 16:55:54 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00)  #    Comments [0] -
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Scott Colestock lives, writes, and works as an independent consultant in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis, Minnesota) area.

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