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Tech·Ed 2005: Connectivity Enhancements Fuel Excitement

Tech·Ed 2005: Connectivity Enhancements Fuel Excitement

ech·Ed 2005 in Orlando is bigger than ever, sold out well in advance, and is the harbinger of big changes and new power in the Microsoft development space.

Announcements: New…Everything
Paul Flessner, Microsoft’s Senior Vice President of Server Applications, had welcome news in his keynote Tuesday: Visual Studio 2005, SQL Server 2005, and a pre-release version of BizTalk 2006 will be released the week of November 7. All three are available now in some form: VS 2005 is in Beta 2 release, available to MSDN subscribers. Anyone can download the June Community Technology Preview (CTP) of SQL Server 2005, and Microsoft has promised to give Tech·Ed attendees the CTP of BizTalk 2006 before the end of the conference.

In addition, Flessner announced new .NET-based Microsoft RFID infrastructure, and followed it up with a live demo that gathered and analyzed attendees’ (conference badges came with attached RFID tags) movements around Tech·Ed. The infrastructure has a device management layer that insulates applications from the rapidly changing and currently proprietary hardware used to read and program the tags. RFID is powerful?and as the demo showed?potentially scary technology. Although this demonstration tracked tags that (supposedly) weren’t linked to individual registrations, they easily could have been.

The tags used in this demo were RFID labels generated by Symbol Technologies, printed on a ticket-sized bit of paper, and quite visible; but they’re small enough to be easily hidden inside the badge itself. The tags used here were passive (unpowered) tags?they acquire what little power they need from the radio signal of the reader. Passive tags have a fairly limited range; attendees were asked to leave them stapled to their badges (uncovered) to improve readability. Active tags powered by a tiny battery are available, and they can be read from greater distances, but they’re more expensive. One of the next big evolutions in computing will happen when computers can use technologies such as RFID or the cellular system to know where devices and individuals receiving information are, and developers can begin writing location-sensitive applications.

XML, XSD schema, and increasing bandwidth are driving this new connectivity, taking computer-to-computer communication beyond its initial application-to-application context and making it possible to connect any device or application, running on any platform, to any other device or application.
On Monday, CEO Steve Ballmer announced Exchange 2003 Service Pack 2 and the Messaging and Security Feature Pack for Windows Mobile 5, which together implement “push e-mail,” letting mobile devices receive e-mail whenever a new message is available?like RIM’s Blackberry?rather than having to query the server to get it. The Security Feature Pack also provides Active Sync, which synchronizes contacts, calendar, e-mail, tasks, and data?as well as security policy?bidirectionally between the server and mobile devices.

That’s a great feature that, fortunately or unfortunately, also extends rather draconian management capabilities to mobile devices. In one demo, Ballmer called on Mike Hall, a technical product manager in the Microsoft Mobile & Embedded Devices group, to show how an administrator can wipe a Security Feature Pack-enabled device remotely should it be lost?or for any other administrative purpose. For example, administrators can cause the device to lock after one minute of inactivity, or to wipe itself after three unsuccessful logon attempts. Such capabilities played well with the IT administrators in the audience, but less so with other attendees. At a Microsoft-sponsored lunch, one person asked whether Microsoft was aware that children sometimes play with mobile devices. The thought of a having your mobile device wiped clean just because your kid got a little curious with your mobile phone isn’t comforting. A Microsoft spokesperson replied that Active Sync stores data on the server, so the information isn’t “lost,” it’s just no longer available on the mobile device. But I doubt that will soothe the many ruffled feathers that are bound to occur when this feature gets rolled out.

Speaking of missing, Longhorn was largely missing from this year’s show; kudos to Microsoft for focusing on the reams of technology they’re about to deliver rather than the technology they plan to deliver in the future.

Connectivity, Connectivity, Connectivity
Ballmer’s keynote was the backdrop for what is probably the most important issue during this year’s Tech·Ed. Ballmer described Microsoft’s vision for the future of business communication, saying that the goal is to connect people with information?a concept Microsoft marketing has translated into “The New World of Work.” Trite-sounding, I know; nevertheless, for you IT administrators and developers, it is a good idea to repeat that until it becomes a deep drumbeat driving your all your development and management efforts, because, for the first time, such connections are supported by standardized technology and increasingly powerful tools. XML, XSD schema, and increasing bandwidth are driving this new connectivity, taking computer-to-computer communication beyond its initial application-to-application context and making it possible to connect any device or application, running on any platform, to any other device or application.

Microsoft, of course, has concentrated on making that connectivity usable primarily?but not exclusively?on Windows, and on providing tools to let Windows developers take advantage of the connectivity infrastructure. Microsoft’s current technology lineup emphasizes both application and enterprise modeling, which they’re calling the Dynamic Systems Initiative. For applications, Ballmer explained that means “end-to-end, to think from development on through operations.” For enterprises, this includes management through Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) and Systems Management Server (SMS) all modeled with XML in a language called Systems Definition Model, or SDM. Ballmer highlighted the non-proprietary nature of management tools by showing how MOM can control Sun servers as well as Windows machines?one of the first fruits of the Microsoft/Sun partnership announced last year.

This new focus on modeling?and the models themselves?cut across both development and operations, and Microsoft intends for organizations to use them to help solve several hitherto intractable problems, such as:

  • Keeping design current. Frequently, architects model applications in detail, only to find that by the time the application is halfway through development, the original model is out-of-sync with the developed code. With Team System, developers can re-sync the model against the code to keep the model up to date as an application evolves.
  • Providing an application test bed. By modeling the organizational IT environment, including such things as hardware, network design, operating systems, and installed software and components, Microsoft provides developers and IT personnel with tools to test applications against that model of the production environment, and thus discover problems before performing a real deployment. In addition, because you can run such tests against a variety of models, it should be conducive to helping developers to write applications that can run in a variety of possible configurations.
  • Increasing security. In addition to the security enhancements in the products and developer tools, the models themselves can help increase security. Because you can run the applications against an accurate (one hopes) model of the organization, you can perform security tests and fix problems early.
  • Encouraging unit testing. Using Visual Studio Team Test Edition, it’s easy to write unit tests, in concert with development, potentially eliminating much of the wearying post-development cycle of testing, fixing bugs, and retesting forward in the development cycle, and thus making it easier to fix bugs, when the fixes have less chance of causing downstream problems.
  • Integrating solutions. Organizations are moving rapidly beyond the single-application mode into the arena of connected systems, often called service-oriented architecture, or SOA. Biztalk 2006, by modeling workflows and connecting the inputs and outputs from various systems, helps to build connected systems even after the individual applications have been deployed.
  • Simplifying management. Via MOM and SMS, administrators can deploy applications easily, monitor their performance, and apply updates or architectural changes across an organization.

To make all this work, you have to know not only what machines, applications, and components are available, but also exactly where they are at any given time, as well as adhere to security policies that describe who or what can access them. Ballmer announced that Microsoft’s Active Directory is the “heart and soul of what we’ve done so far,” and that Microsoft intends for Active Directory to be the repository for all this location and security information. Rather than building applications that are dependent on hard-coded locations for other resources, developers should query Active Directory to discover the location of such resources at runtime. Ballmer said:

“Active Directory is the tool for single sign-on; Active Directory is the tool that allows you to administer your networks and put policy really to work for you; Active Directory is the foundation for identity and advanced identity techniques, smart cards, two-factor authentication; Active Directory is the backbone for determining who gets access to the network and when.”

Office Gains New Importance
Office, of course, has always been important, but the new version of Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO) and last week’s announcement that Office 12 (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) will use XML file formats by default, elevate Office from a suite of tools primarily targeted toward end users to a new and important platform for developers. During his keynote, Ballmer called on BJ Holtgrewe, lead Project Manager for Visual Studio Tools for Office, who showcased VSTO’s new Outlook support in a demonstration that drew loud applause. Holtgrew’s demo showed a VSTO-generated Outlook application that tied together e-mail, customer data, reports, workflow, and calendar information into a cohesive CRM application for salespeople.

Although VSTO 2005 Beta 2 ships with Visual Studio Beta 2, the new Outlook capabilities are available for the moment as a separate download with the unwieldy name Visual Studio 2005 Tools for Office?Outlook (Beta).

The new XML format opens up a huge range of possibilities for developers to interact with Office content. In a meeting with Joe Andreshak, Sr. Product Manager for Office Solutions and Developer Marketing, DevX learned more about the new formats. Although the specifics relevant to each Office application and its file formats differ, the general concept is common across all the XML-enabled Office applications?you can use generic tools to find content in any of the files. The files consist of a zip file containing a manifest and a directory structure for the various parts of the file. There’s a schema for each file type (Word, Excel, PowerPoint), but some portions of the files, such as images, are stored in binary form, making them easier to extract and work with.

For developers who already have applications in place that rely on Office 2003’s WordML, the good news is that they won’t face huge changes because of the new Office 12 format. It still relies on WordML for the text portions of the document, but they will have to alter the way they’re currently handling binary content such as images, as well as add the code to crack open the zip file and extract the WordML.

Andreshak discussed WinFX supports for reading such zipped files and hinted at upcoming tools to help developers build solutions that create and analyze Office documents without relying on Office itself. That capability is often requested by developers who, for example, wish to perform document construction for contracts or who wish to extract data from Word or Excel files on a Web server. In a breakout presentation, Andreshak and Brian Jones, Program Manager for Microsoft Word, gave an impressive demo of a simple application that traverses a folder full of Word files, changing and updating their style sheets, which literally drew “oooohs” from the audience.

Clear Directions
All in all, Microsoft’s strategy for application development is clearer than ever. With Team System, Visual Studio 2005, and SQL Server 2005, it has gathered application planning, data management, development, testing, and management into a single unified IDE that you can use to target every type of application from small personal apps to enterprise behemoths, from Web to disconnected. With VSTO, it has given new life to Office development. With SDM, SMS, and MOM, it has provided a way to model, deploy, and manage developed software and hardware. With Active Directory, it has provided a repository for tracking security, employee, hardware, and application information. With the RFID infrastructure, it has provided new inventory management and a myriad of other location-sensitive application possibilities. And using XML, it has made connectivity ubiquitous, made strides toward unifying the management of both Windows and non-Windows systems, and opened up information workers’ output stored in Office files to the much larger world of XML tools.

The level of connectivity and integration between all these tools is unprecedented. It’s a good time to be a developer.

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