Interview Series: Four Questions With … Tom Canter

Happy New Year! Thanks for checking out my 45th interview with a thought leader in the “connected technologies” space. This month, we’re talking to Tom Canter who is the Director of Development for consultancy CCI Tec, a Microsoft “Virtual Technology Specialist (V-TS)” for BizTalk Server, and a smart, grizzled middleware guy. He’s seen it all, and I thought it’d be fun to pick his brain. Let’s jump in!

Q: We both recently attended the Microsoft BizTalk Summit in Redmond where the product team debriefed various partners, customers and MVPs. While we can’t share much of what we heard, what were some of your general takeaways from this session?

A: First and foremost, the clarification of the current BizTalk Roadmap. There was significant confusion with the messages that were shared earlier. Renaming the next release of BizTalk from BizTalk Server 2010 R2 to BizTalk Server 2013 demonstrates Microsoft’s long-term commitment to BizTalk. The summit also highlighted the maturity of the product. CCI Tec and the other vendors showing at the Summit have a mature product and a long path of opportunity with BizTalk Server. We continue to invest, specialize, and grow our BizTalk expertise with that belief.

Q: You’ve been working with BizTalk in the Healthcare space for quite a while now and it seems like the product has always had a loyal following in this industry. What about the healthcare industry has made it such a natural fit for integration middleware, and what components do you use (and not use) on most every project?

A: I think there are a number of distinct reasons for this. First is the startup cost of BizTalk Server, which is relatively low. Next is the protocol support–H HIPAA and HL7 protocols have been a part of the BizTalk product since BizTalk Server 2002 (HIPAA) and BizTalk Server 2004 (HL7). Follow this with the long, stable product life, which has enabled some mature installations to grow from back room projects to essential parts of the enterprise.

Every healthcare organization that needs BizTalk has been around for a while. They are inherently homogenous computing environments almost certainly using mainframes, but just as likely to have SAP or a custom homegrown solution. BizTalk Server has an implementation pattern (as opposed to a SOA pattern) that allows integration with existing applications. Using BizTalk Server as the integration engine enables customers to leverage existing systems, thus preventing the “Rip and Replace” solution. So in summary: cost, native protocol support, length of product life, and flexible integration options.

Q: What are some of the integration designs that work well on paper, but rarely succeed in real life? Do you have some anti-patterns that you always watch out for when integrating systems?

A: I don’t know how well the concept of pattern/anti-pattern works in the in the real world. The idea of a pattern normalizing an approach is a great concept, but I think you can get into pattern lock–trying to form a generalization around a concept and spending all of your time justifying the pattern. What I can talk about is some simple approaches that have worked for me.

Most people know that I started as an electrician in the US Navy, specifically, as a nuclear power plant operator, and I spent about 4 ½ years of my 12-year career under water in a submarine, i.e., as a nuke. This puts a particular approach to situations and one that stands out in particular is the choice of simplicity versus architecture. I don’t necessarily see them as opposing, but in a lot of situations, I see simplicity fall by the way-side for the sake of architectural prettiness.

What I learned as a nuke is that simplicity is king. When something must work 100% of the time and never fail, simplicity is the solution. So the pattern is simplicity, and the anti-pattern is complexity. When you are running a nuclear reactor and you want the control rods to go in, you have to shut down the reactor, and you can’t call technical support. IT JUST MUST WORK! Likewise, when you submit a lab result, and the customer is an emergency room patient waiting for that result, IT JUST MUST WORK—100% of the time.

Complexity is necessary for large-scale solutions and environments, but this is something I rarely need in my integration solutions. One notable thing I’ve learned in this regard is requirements, like archiving every message. Somewhere in the past everyone got the idea that the DTA Tracking should be avoided. Over the years the product team has worked out the bugs, and the DTA Tracking is a solid, reliable tool. Unfortunately that belief is still out there, and customers avoid the DTA Engine.

Setting the current state aside, what happened in the early days? Everyone started writing their own solutions, like pipeline components (and I wrote my share) that archived to the databases or to the file system abounded. The simple solution to me was simply to categorize the defects as I found them, call Microsoft Support, demonstrate the problem, and let them fix it. As a customer using BizTalk Server, would I rather pay a consultant to write custom code, or not pay anyone, depend on the built-in features and when they didn’t work, submit a trouble ticket and get the company I bought it from (i.e., Microsoft) to fix it? As I said in my presentation at the Summit, I code only as a last resort, reluctantly, when I have exhausted all built-in options.

Q [stupid question]: Last night I killed a spider that was the size of a baby’s fist. After playing with my son’s Christmas superhero toys all day, my first thought (before deciding to crush the spider) was “this is probably the type of spider that would give me super powers if it bit me.” That’s an example of when something from a fictional source affected my thoughts in the real world. Give us an example of where a movie/book/television show/musical affected how you approached something in your actual life.

A: I’ve lived an odd life, with a lot of jobs. I’ve done everything from driving a truck in Cleveland, telephone operator, nuclear power plant operator, submarine sailor, appliance repairman to my current job (and a few more thrown in for fun), whatever you might call that. I’ve got a fair amount of experience to draw from, a lot of different ways of thinking to solve problems.

Having said all that, I love reading fiction. One book that comes to mind is The Sand Pebbles (the movie had Steve McQueen and Candice Bergen). Machinist Jake Holman decides to repair a recurring bearing problem with the main engine. What I loved about that is how Jake depended on his experience and understanding of the machinery to actually get to the root of the problem and solve the problem. So, if I had a super hero power it would be the power of “getting it”—understanding the problem, figuring out if I am solving a problem or just reacting to a symptom, and by getting to the core problem, figuring out to solve the problem without breaking everything else.

As always, great insights Tom!

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Categories: BizTalk, Four Questions

2 replies

  1. Tom, I’m on your side, simplicity is king.
    A view on DTA is another view from tranches. I also saw a lot of hand-made archiving for no reasons. Hope MSFT (or partners) will invest in some tooling for process the tracking data.
    One thought about popularity of the BizTalk: the development workflow (creating schemas -> maps [ -> pipelines] [-> orchestrations] -> ports) is the one of the best approach to integrate systems. And the same workflow nicely works as a run-time integration model. The idea is simple and it is implemented beautifully.

    Richard, thanks for your Interview Series! It is always smart, funny, and interesting.

  2. Great interview, Tom is indeed a very intelligent and a great guy to hang out with. I had a great time at the summit. Some of that experience resonates back from the answer to the first question. I also had the opportunity to have dinner with Tom and his wife. During that time I got to know Tom a little better and loved his stories on odd live and jobs.

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