CrossNodes Briefing: Microsoft .NET and Web Services

The emergence of Microsoft .NET applications will change the rules of information technology. Essentially functioning as middleware, the Microsoft .NET initiative focuses on integrating applications and data stores regardless of their platform. Under the Microsoft .NET scheme, an application can access programs written in other languages and access the resulting data. This would integrate such activities as browsing, editing and authoring, and information management.

In addition, Microsoft claims that developers using .NET can generate an application that will run on desktop systems, cellular phones, and hand-held computers. The developers create a single agent, and the agent calls or seeks programs on the network to provide the functions and the data the user requested.

In essence, Microsoft’s vision for .NET turns the desktop into a powerful browser. Through the browser, users will access text editing functions, spreadsheets, and database software transparently, regardless of where those applications reside. The Common Language Infrastructure (CLI) will allow programmers to develop web service-enabled applications in more than 20 languages. This tool will help IT departments extend existing applications to run within the Microsoft .NET environment.

The promise is great, but the benefits may be slow in coming. Those who embrace web services claim it will save development time and lower the cost of an application. Others point out the fact that moving to a web services environment will require training and an effort to update existing databases and applications.

Let the Games Begin
The web services market is mired in confusion. Although Microsoft released the final version of its developer tools recently, there are more components to come. In addition, other companies, including Sun, announced and released competing tool sets for creating web services. Most industry observers applaud the concept of using the Internet to create flexible, integrated applications, but they split when they discuss which vendor will shape the web services market.

Sun, for example, based its Sun Open Net Environment (Sun ONE) on Java, a popular network programming language. Microsoft centered .NET around the Extensible Markup Language (XML); the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP); C Sharp (C#), an extension of the C programming language; and .NET Framework, which includes the Common Language Infrastructure (CLI) that allows programs written in several languages to execute on a variety of platforms. Still, many observers feel that Microsofts primary interest is to secure Windows as the primary platform.

Seeking Standards
Microsoft, as it did with Windows, wants to establish .NET as a standard. The company publicly stated that .NET would shape the company’s direction in the near future, and the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) recently accepted Microsoft’s C# and the .NET Framework as standards.

Microsoft continued its push to establish .NET as a standard platform when it joined with Hewlett-Packard, IBM, BEA Systems, Oracle, Accenture, Fujitsu, Intel, and SAP AG to form the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WSIO). The vendors hope to extend interoperability by defining the use of XML, SOAP, Web Services Description Language (WSDL), and Universal Description Discovery and Integration (UDDI). The consortium plans to develop test plans to ensure that software developers’ programs will communicate with the .NET Framework.

An Unsure Market
Creating applications that share data and resources is not new. The Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) represents an early effort to establish that type of transparency. EDI allowed companies to share data by establishing forms-handling and data format standards. Unfortunately, most companies found EDI was too problematic and expensive to adopt. It was difficult to get companies to implement changes, and in some cases, the standards did not support all the functions that companies needed to share.

Microsoft .NET and the web services market face a similar challenge. Many IT managers like the concept, but development projects remain testing grounds. Within the web services market, it also remains unclear whether IT managers and software developers will adopt Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) from Sun or if they will migrate to Microsoft .NET. Microsoft enjoys an edge with the installed base of Windows software and its applications suites, but it must overcome some hurdles before it can define the web services market. In an effort to address the Java market, Microsoft also released Jump, which converts Java applications to Microsoft .NET applications. Some observers note that this implies that Microsoft is more interested in Windows platform development as opposed to offering true interoperability.

The concepts of interoperability and platform independence intrigue IT managers. Microsoft .NET promotes this independence through its .NET Framework, and this component would need to reside on each workstation. Microsoft already released CE .Net, a scaled-down OS for hand-held devices, and the .NET Framework is reportedly being ported to Unix and Macintosh OS X systems. Some IT managers view Microsoft .NET as an extension of the company’s effort to control the desktop. Microsoft already owns the dominant market position with its Windows operating software, but some IT managers prefer a more open solution that gives them the ability to customize and distribute software without paying license fees. Sun ONE will appeal more to those IT managers.

Further, many companies worry about the security implications of allowing software agents to access data and launch applications. To achieve this, the data and the programs will need to identify themselves across the network, which potentially opens the applications and data to unauthorized users. The vendors respond aggressively when researchers identify potential problems, but it seems as though several holes exist in the programs. This will limit IT managers’ and software developers’ enthusiasm for the new technology.

Next Steps
Microsoft and other vendors will continue to invest heavily in developing web services products. Tools will emerge, and the underlying structures used to create interoperability between applications and devices will evolve. However, the vendors will need to demonstrate concrete benefits before IT managers invest the time necessary to convert to a new concept.

Now is the time for IT managers to study web services and launch appropriate pilot projects to gain hands-on knowledge. That way, they will be ready to respond realistically when the information rules change.

Gerald Williams is President of Advanced Information Concepts, Inc., a Technology content company. Over his long career in technology, which began in 1977, he has held the positions of Editor-in-Chief of Data Decisions/Datapro PC Communications, Editorial Director of National Software Testing Laboratories (NSTL) and Executive Editor of all Datapro Publications, among others.

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