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Big Tech·Ed Accelerates Big-Tech Breeding Frenzy

Microsoft's frantic swim up the enterprise IT stream has resulted in Windows Server 2003 mutating to a new Server System, Visual Studio adding team and modeling capabilities, and Microsoft Office gaining new status as an application delivery platform.


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o matter what Microsoft representatives said this week at its Tech·Ed conference in San Diego, the message that the company is delivering to the roughly 11,000 IT administrators and developers in attendance is that Microsoft has grown up. There's nothing micro about Microsoft any more. From Office to Exchange to Windows Server 2003, Microsoft's focus is no longer on microcomputers, its business today is selling big applications, big tools, and wrapping everything with big management and big security. In the past several months, Microsoft has reached a major new agreement with Sun, worked with OASIS to ratify the Web Service Security (WSS) specification, has partnered with Oracle, and extended their partnership with SAP AG. These partnerships and agreements clearly show that the days when Microsoft's primary focus was on individual developers and small to mid-size companies is over.

The new focus on the enterprise is underscored by Microsoft's announcement of its new Windows high performance computing initiative, called Windows Server HPC Edition, which runs Windows Server 2003 on a cluster of high-speed interconnected nodes to create supercomputer capabilities using inexpensive hardware. Despite this shift in focus, Microsoft continues to provide tools and software that help IT administrators and developers do their jobs more efficiently.

Beyond .NET Adoption
A couple of years ago, Microsoft was focused on getting developers to adopt the .NET platform. Although that's happened more slowly than many people both inside and outside of Microsoft may have anticipated (a condition that hasn't been helped by Microsoft's reluctance to package the .NET runtime as part of Windows itself) it is happening. In his opening keynote, CEO Steve Ballmer, citing a Forrester Research report, said, "Forrester, in their market surveys, will now confirm our internal data that .NET is the preferred development framework of over 50 percent of all developers in the United States." With the migration from Win32 apparently well under way, Microsoft has retargeted its developer marketing and training efforts toward the upcoming versions of Visual Studio 2005 (the new, official—and boring—name for the product formerly known as Whidbey), SQL Server 2005 (the new, official—and boring—name for the product formerly known as Yukon), and on a huge set of servers and capabilities collectively known as the Windows Server System. These new tools and technologies will be welcome—but they don't really seem that new any more. Microsoft, tech magazines, and Web sites (including DevX) have all been busy publishing news and information about Whidbey and Yukon since mid 2002. The long lead times for these products and the even longer lead time for Longhorn has ushered in a tech-info state of déjà vu in which a product's features become old-hat familiar even before they ship. Perhaps that's the real reason for the name change. Then again, Microsoft's marketing department has always had trouble picking a name and sticking to it.



Despite such minor kvetching over names, Microsoft is working hard on solving today's computing infrastructure and development challenges. The company's security, spam, and scalability, server, productivity, workflow, collaboration, interoperability, monitoring, data access, and development software offerings are all getting a major overhaul. The official theme of this show is "Do More with Less." Less what? Less time, one assumes, because they certainly don't mean with less technology. Microsoft's Server System alone contains three complete areas built on top of Microsoft Server 2003. In Tuesday's keynote, Microsoft Corporate VP Andrew Lees showed a slide that listed the parts of the Server System, which include: Operations Infrastructure
Internet Security and Acceleration Server
Systems Management Server
Operations Manager
Application Center
Windows Storage Server
Identity Integration Server
Virtual Server

Application Infrastructure
SQL Server
Host Integration Server
BizTalk Server
Commerce Server
Speech Server
Information Work Infrastructure
Exchange Server
Content Management Server
Office Live Communications Server
Office SharePoint Portal Server
Office Project Server

All three areas sit on top of a set of services called Windows Server that includes: Kerberos, Certificate Services
VPN, RAS, DNS, DHCP
WMI, Group Policy
IIS
Active Directory, UDDI
.NET Framework
Rights Management Services
File, SharePoint Services
Terminal Services
Media Services

You can find an image showing the relationship of all these products on this page. I don't know about you, but I find that list a little intimidating. Simply knowing the names of all the components, what they do, and fully understanding how they might or might not fit into an application development effort is a major task. Developers will inevitably fall behind this fast-growing technology curve unless they're working at companies that implement part or all of this stack. And many corporate developers and IT shops, remember, aren't looking only at Microsoft's stack, they're also looking at Sun's stack, or IBM's, along with Novell products, Apache, Linux, and innumerable other core and add-on pieces. So, assuming you can afford this stack, you can "Do More with Less." Do more what? It certainly doesn't refer to writing more code, because the thrust of Microsoft's developer initiative involves letting developers write less code. In fact, Microsoft feels that Visual Studio 2005 will reduce the amount of code developers have to write by 50 percent or more. If you're pressed for time (and who isn't these days) that's a welcome figure. The only possible interpretation for the "More" in the Tech·Ed theme phrase is that Microsoft intended it to mean that you can do more work in the same amount of time. One can only hope that the "less" refers to less effort rather than less money.

Staking New Territory
Microsoft is indeed widening its focus and perhaps the strongest evidence of that effort is the announcement Monday that the company would tread boldly in the deep water traditionally held to be the domain of experienced lifecycle vendors such as Rational. Visual Studio Team System is a VS-native alternative to add-ins such as Rational's XDE, which is designed to prevent the isolation of application programming from the higher layers of application management provided by business-side stakeholders, application architects, and testers. By facilitating integrated workflow and process, the thinking goes, lifecycle management tools improve ROI and overall application quality by letting all the IT professionals who have a role in bringing an application to market—not just developers—contribute to it using a single, integrated environment. Team System will provide a communication medium that allows IT professionals with different roles in the development of an application to hand off tasks to one another, while preserving details that are critical to the efficient completion of subsequent tasks.

This effort will require Microsoft to efface decades-old affinities that are not likely to dissolve easily. The maturity of Visual Studio will work in Microsoft's favor as it takes this leap, but it will be challenged by the entrenchment of competing tools. Enterprise architects and managers who have long used a holistic approach to lifecycle management could dig in their heels against a migration to Visual Studio. Rather, the sweet spot for Team System is likely to be shops using home-grown or mix-and-match process tools. Team System is comprised of new features that allow application designers to model via drag and drop, to enforce coding policies, to ensure service-level requirements are met, and to profile and test code without leaving the IDE. It will also include a facility for source code control that Microsoft says goes beyond the current capabilities of Visual SourceSafe.

In a demonstration during Ballmer's keynote Monday, the CEO stressed that the goal of Team System would be to "design for operation," meaning that newly minted code can be tested against known server configurations, thus letting developers find and fix potential deployment problems before actually deploying the application. The product will track and enforce security policy and simplify rigorous load testing. Lead Product Manager for Development Tools, Prashant Sridharan, said that the time is right for Microsoft to come out with a lifecycle management offering due to the increasing numbers of customers building service-oriented applications. Sridharan said Web services are forcing large numbers of developers to work directly with components over which they have no control and to be in close contact with operations personnel. "With SOAs," he said, "you have to understand your service-level environment."

Building Bridges to Office
For corporate desktop developers, one of the more exciting new technologies announced at Tech·Ed is the Office Information Bridge Framework (IBF). Microsoft is finally leveraging the .NET framework's remote deployment capabilities. IBF enables developers to capitalize on the familiar and ubiquitous Office 2003 application interfaces to deliver additional capabilities to users' desktops without forcing them to install or learn new external applications. The IBF lets developers build UIs that integrate directly into these Office applications, getting their data via secure Web services from back-end systems, and replacing the older, more cumbersome model where users had to switch from Excel or Outlook into an external application, get some information, and then manually insert that information back into an e-mail message, document, or spreadsheet. The impact of this technology is a little hard to understand without an example. Suppose you have customer order information stored in a database. Traditionally, when customer service representatives need that information, they would need to launch an application that connected to the database, and then drill down to a specific order by selecting a customer to see that customer's orders, or entering an OrderID to see a specific order. Using IBF, developers can automate the process. For example, suppose "Susan" sits down, opens Outlook, and finds an e-mail warning that a customer hasn't received an order. The message includes an OrderID. Rather than launching an external application and entering that OrderID to find information about the customer's order, with IBF, the OrderID can be associated with a SmartTag in the original e-mail message. Susan can use the SmartTag dropdown list to pull up the order information directly within the Outlook Task pane, and even insert the fully-formatted order status into her response to the customer by clicking a button. What actually happens is that the SmartTag uses the message context to associate the OrderID with a UI that connects to the order-processing system via an Information Bridge-compliant Web service and retrieves the order details. Because this UI is Outlook-aware, pasting the information into the current e-mail response or creating a new e-mail message containing the data is trivial.

This isn't just a one-way, read-only capability either. Users can update information and post it back to the server, making this a hugely attractive alternative to typical small VB, .NET, Access, or browser-based data-driven business applications. The upshot is that you can build Windows Forms applications that run directly in Word 2003, Excel 2003, or Outlook 2003—and soon, in InfoPath 2003 and other MS Office applications. The first version of the Information Bridge Framework is available now on MSDN in a technical beta release version. Identity and Acceleration Server (ISA) 2005
Microsoft is rolling out a new version of ISA that gives network administrators precise control over any information passing into or out of their networks. The ISA server is a firewall and caching server that provides an impenetrable barrier between corporate networks and outside entry points. The server not only caches content, making it a must-have component for remote corporate locations, but this new version has a completely revamped interface, including numerous Wizard-driven tools that make firewall and caching configuration very nearly simple.

Moreover, it reduces formerly complex tasks, such as adding VPN connections, allowing external partners trusted access to network resources, or exposing Exchange e-mail services outside the firewall, to a simple series of point-and-click operations. ISA's tight integration with Active Directory and Exchange goes well beyond the capabilities of similar intelligent firewall products. ISA 2005 also raises the bar by looking inside VPN packets to ensure that the contents comply with network policies, and can even decrypt SSL packets before they reach the network, analyzing their content in the same way as non-SSL connections, and removing the decryption burden from downstream Web servers. Administrators can create policies that describe the minimum configuration for clients trying to attach to the network. Clients that don't meet the policy standards can be shunted off into an isolated network area. For example, you might decide to deny network connection privileges to any Windows client that hasn't installed all critical updates. You can reroute such requests directly to Windows Update, provide updates yourself in an isolated network area, automatically push updates down to the connecting client, or simply isolate most of your network and allow non-compliant clients access only to a limited portion, perhaps a SharePoint portal—whatever you like. It's unclear how well ISA's capabilities will play with non-Windows clients, though.

Network administrators and (network-savvy readers with young children at home) should be salivating at this point, but non-administrative users should be horrified. The product raises privacy concerns by making it easier than ever for network administrators to spy on or control company communications. Decrypting SSL communications at the network edge may marginally improve throughput or scalability, but it also exposes such data to anyone inside the network with a sniffer. The spectre of network administrators reading the CEO's e-mail is not a happy one. All I can say to them is: You'd better keep your ISA Server administrators happy. To everyone else, this should function as a reminder. Your private communications are not private. If we're ever to achieve true communications privacy, this window into private communications must be slammed shut. In the same way that the FBI must obtain court permission before being allowed to wiretap your phone, there must be a way to prevent network administrators from reading private communications, one that lets them control malicious content without intruding into the privacy of others. More Enhancements
Microsoft also announced version 2.0 of their Web Service Enhancements product. The new version builds Web services that comply with the OASIS WS-Security standard, giving developers easy ways to develop secure, encrypted, policy-driven, authenticated, and even message-driven (asynchronous) Web Services with .NET.

New enhancements to Exchange 2003, a plan to combat spam sender address "spoofing" by ensuring that the domain for the stated sender's e-mail and the actual sender's domain match, information about deploying XP Service pack 2, and a plethora of breakout sessions covering both administrative and development topics rounded out this Tech·Ed. Lori Piquet contributed to this report.



   
A. Russell Jones is the Executive Editor of DevX.
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