Casting a wide .Net

In the future according to Microsoft, a wide array of Web-enabled devices — PCs, handheld computers, smart phones, kiosks — will seamlessly share information and deliver services. And the engine that will bring about this new era of distributed computing, the company says, is Microsoft.Net.

But although Microsoft Corp. unveiled its .Net Web-services initiative in June 2000, it's difficult to say just what it will mean for end users because it's still a work in progress.

"Microsoft.Net is more of a road map for how people can go about developing Web-based services, and it's an evolving story," said Tom Murphy, program director for the META Group Inc., a market analysis company. "Some people may be able to make use of it in the short term, but for most others it will probably take a lot longer."

Microsoft describes the .Net platform as a framework for driving the next generation of distributed computing, one that will take the Internet far beyond the one-way transactions of today and toward a truly collaborative, interactive environment. The core support for all of this is Extensible Markup Language (XML).

Underlying the .Net framework is a line of software products and tool sets that will be used to build Web services. A series of .Net Enterprise Servers, for example, will provide the back-end support for the distributed Web-based environment, including products already available, such as Windows 2000 servers, SQL Server 2000 and Microsoft Exchange 2000.

Coming later this year will be a Mobile Information Server, which will allow access to Web-based applications for mobile services that can be delivered to handheld computers and other wireless devices.

One of the most important parts of the .Net lineup is Microsoft Visual Studio.Net, an open-language development system. With the system, developers can write programs and create Web services that run on any platform that uses open standards.

The languages available include the old standbys, such as Visual Basic and Visual C++, as well as Microsoft's new C# (pronounced "C sharp"), the company's equivalent of Java. With C#, the comp-any "is at last shipping a complete object- oriented language," said Quazi Zaman, Microsoft Federal's advanced technology manager for platforms.

The real added value, however, is Microsoft's new Common Language Runtime (CLR), an executable environment that in effect turns this part of the .Net platform into a virtual platform on which any language can run.

"In the traditional way of writing programs, for every language used you had to come up with its own runtime, and that meant that everyone was basically running on their own set of wheels," Zaman said. "With .Net, you no longer have the need for all of these multiple runtime environments. All .Net-comp-liant applications, whatever language they are written in, will be able to run" under the CLR.

With .Net, Zaman added, developers do not have to learn new languages to write applications. So Cobol programmers can still write in Cobol, and C++ programmers in C++. As long as the languages are certified as compatible with .Net — and Zaman said there are 29 available now — applications developed using them will run in a .Net environment.

But for users, a major attraction to .Net stems from its reliance on open standards, such as the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), an XML derivative. That ensures that Web services built under .Net are platform independent, unlike object-based applications constructed using the Windows-only Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM). A .Net Web page can employ services provided by various Web sites, eliminating the need for someone to write code for all of those services.

Early .Net adopters among federal agencies are using this capability to provide services to their users that would otherwise be difficult and costly to produce. The Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service, for example, has built a Web page it calls the Lighthouse portal that uses Microsoft's TerraServer service to allow users to build an image of soil conditions in any area of the country, without having to query databases one at a time, as in the past.

"It means we don't have to be data stewards any longer," said Steve Ekblad, Lighthouse project manager. "It means we can build an application using data from many different sites, to which we can add value, but we don't have to keep in-house the six terabytes of data or so that we would otherwise have to use."

Competitors such as Sun Microsystems Inc. and Oracle Corp., while knocking .Net as over hyped and late to a game that's already under way, consider it enough of a threat to have introduced their own branded versions of Web- service development platforms.

Oracle's is called 9i Dynamic Services and employs a policy and service management engine that controls how Web services operate. Sun's Open Net Environment is based on Java. In both cases, the companies claim they are taking a standards-based approach to Web services, matching Microsoft's claims for .Net.

IBM Corp. is also developing a similar vision for Web services.

How this will all shake out is still open to interpretation. Will one vendor's solution predominate? Will it be a shootout between .Net and Java, or will it be a mix of different approaches?

At the least, the META Group's Murphy said, Web services' dependence on interoperability will help drive the focus on standards. Given past problems of reliance on proprietary approaches to applications development, he said, "that has to be good." n

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore.Building .Net Microsoft.

MORE INFO

Net strategy includes five parts:

Development software, such as .Net Framework, Visual Studio.Net tools

and Hailstorm technologies (forthcoming).

Server software, including Application Center, BizTalk Server, Commerce Server, Exchange Server, Host Integration Server, Internet Security and

Acceleration Server, and SQL Server.

.Net Building Block Services, such as identity verification, personal

notification and storage capabilities that allow users to move from one

device to another.

End-user devices, including PCs, personal digital assistants, PocketPCs,

cellular phones, tablet PCs, gaming platforms and set-top box platforms.

Personalization services via portals and products such as MSN, bCentral

and Office XP for Knowledge Workers.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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