Trailblazer

Much of Microsoft’s future roadmap is currently undergoing beta testing. Since switching to its .NET mantra of ‘empowering people,’ with web services delivered ‘anytime, anywhere and on any device’ six months ago, the vendor has been evangelising the technology building blocks of .NET — Visual Studio.NET, SOAP, UDDI, XML and HailStorm services —to developers, partners and customers alike.

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By  Greg Wilson Published  April 30, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|Much of Microsoft’s future roadmap is currently undergoing beta testing. Since switching to its .NET mantra of ‘empowering people,’ with web services delivered ‘anytime, anywhere and on any device’ six months ago, the vendor has been evangelising the technology building blocks of .NET — Visual Studio.NET, SOAP, UDDI, XML and HailStorm services —to developers, partners and customers alike.

But how far has the software giant got? To organisations still tackling Windows 2000, Active Directory and the other Microsoft Server technologies, .NET and the notion of web services are a remote possibility.

Microsoft isn’t hiding the fact that .NET is a seriously long-term play. Key components, such as Visual Studio.NET and Windows XP are currently scheduled to ship ‘sometime,’ this year and despite the noise of the HailStorm announcement, the free suite of 14 XML-based web services, such as calendar, address book, user profile or documents, is also due at the end of the year.

According to Haider Salloum, product marketing manager, Microsoft Gulf & Eastern Mediterranean (GEM), the full deliverables of the .NET are still as long as two years away. However, he adds, a lot of companies are already playing with SOAP, UDDI, XML to learn how they can apply the idea of web services to their business.
“I would love to say that by the end of the year the customer would have everything, but the .NET is really a jump ahead,” says Salloum.

“The [momentum is] starting… with the delivery of Visual Studio.NET, HailStorm, UDDI, SOAP and XML we have all the building blocks to deliver on .NET. In the future we will see fine tuned products and services for .NET,” Salloum explains.
So why all the noise for services that won’t be delivered for another two years? Basically, Microsoft is looking to galvanise the enthusiasm of its developer community, and get them producing web services. If the .NET vision is to succeed, then Microsoft needs ISVs and corporate developers to begin producing web services that can be shared between different sites for different purposes.

HailStorm in conjunction with Passport provides the missing link for the whole .NET strategy, bringing the idea of web services to the consumer and providing an attractive customer base for developers.

The announcement positions Microsoft’s Passport as an identity directory for the Web. In essence, when a user visits a site, it will be able to identify them from the information in Passport. Ultimately, when more partners come onboard and develop services based around HailStorm, it will provide for seamless transfer of information between different web sites and services, resulting in a consistent user experience across different devices.

“The whole point of web services and .NET is to let these backend web sites talk to each other about what is relevant to that consumer,” says Salloum. “For businesses there are also a lot benefits… our message with HailStorm is that we are offering these things and making them available for web developers to go and use,” he adds.
However, to breath life into its pervasive, no hassle vision of the web, Microsoft has to convince ISVs, and corporate developers — that makes the software titan’s whole beta testing programme nothing short of mission critical.

In a bid to win the hearts and minds of the local developer community Microsoft has been campaigning amongst corporate clients and the ISVs to encourage them to experiment with beta copies of Visual Studio.NET. At an international level 5000 copies of Visual Studio.NET have been distributed to developers.

Mercator, the IT services division of Emirates Group been using Microsoft’s emerging technologies for some time, including work with DNA (Digital Network Architecture) and Active Server Pages (ASP). When Microsoft mapped out its .NET strategy the emerging technology team based in the E-business Group (EBG) began working closely with early versions of the software, to see what Microsoft’s .NET could bring to the organisation as a whole. “A lot of stuff is changing as we’re using it, the way code is compiled, the way we access databases and the way we send information between applications,” says David Robertson, Emerging Technologies Manager, Emirates Group. “One day you install a new version and everything we have will stop working, and you will spend a week or two getting that working again… [But] that is part of beta testing. [This] is not beta testing where you get a copy of Windows XP, run it and show it to everyone you know — this is very new technology we’re working with,” says Robertson.

Currently, the .NET strategy is mostly about Visual Studio.NET (VS.NET), says Robertson. The emerging technology team is currently using an early beta two, while waiting for the formal beta two to arrive.

Early ‘proof-of-concept,’ work within the Emirates Group has focused on developing web services that the organisation as a whole can take advantage of. The IT environment supporting Emirates Group contains multiple platforms and databases in geographically diverse locations. The majority of work has focused on the value add services that can be generated by effectively sharing and distributing information and services between different areas of the business. For example, how can information from the Dnata Management Information System (DMIS) drive a web site that sells the Marhaba ‘meet & greet’ service at Dubai International Airport and in turn how can this site use an SMS or e-payment gateway. These are resources that could be available to all the group’s online ventures. “We’re looking at turning things around so that there are disparate systems that will talk to each other… when you break things down the most logical answer is [distributed] web services, linking these solutions,” says Robertson.

“We take these sort of skunk-work, proof-of-concepts and show it to different parts of the business and say ‘this facility is there is here — take it for granted — see what benefits you can get from it,” says Robertson.

||**||Page 2|~||~||~|Since beginning work with Visual Studio.NET at the tail end of 2000, the emerging technology team has been able to rollout prototype applications in just a matter of days. A highly functional prototype of a medical application for the group was put together in just four days, using ASP.NET. Once the proof of concept application was up and running, “it enabled a budget to be created [and allowed] them to go away and do it for real,” comments Robertson.

EBG has been able to leverage on its existing experience with ASP and Visual Basic when coming to grips with Visual Studio.NET, the suite of development tools that holds the lynchpin for the whole .NET strategy. The beta version of VS.NET has enabled the emerging technology team to grapple with Microsoft’s latest programming language C# (pronounced c sharp), which leverages heavily on the heritage of C++ knowledge within the department.

As part of the team’s remit of ‘looking to the horizon,’ and identifying the future technologies, it is also working with Java and Brazil, Sun’s recently unveiled web application server technology.

“We, as a business, already do a lot of stuff in VB and there is a Java work going on in the organisation and there is [also] quite a lot ASP development work going on,” says Robertson. “[But] I have got to say that Visual Studio and .NET hits that lot on the head, because it can manage all of that — it’s the next version of VB, it’s the next version of C, with C#,” says Robertson.

EBG has been using SOAP — simple object access protocol — in much of its proof of concept work, to enable backend communication between the production data and web sites. SOAP uses HTTP to carry messages formatted in XML — in lay terms it’s a wrapper — and is a core protocol in Microsoft’s .NET vision of delivering XML-enabled products and services to the user. SOAP basically, is what will link them together.

“Things like COM and DCOM are great on paper, but they don’t go through firewalls. SOAP allows us to use HTTP to go through the firewall. This allows applications to access Web Services via ubiquitous Web protocols and data formats, without needing to worry about how each Web Service is implemented. The idea of talking between systems is there now, and .NET and Discovery of Web Services (DISCO) makes it even easier,” explains Robertson.

EBG’s work has for the time being, focused solely on internal proof-of-concept designs, rather than working to deliver .NET web services to consumers. “This technology is very new, and it’s not something that you want to expose your customer base too,” says Robertson. “The [services] that we want to create will be internal. [For example,] what use could we make of mobile telecomms across the group. We have already worked with proof-of-concepts where we have hooked up flight information systems with SMS and WAP,” he adds.

However, being an early adopter in the Middle East does have some problems. The team has had difficultly accessing newsgroups — the primary channel for early adopter information and support. These support newsgroups are not available from within the UAE says Robertson. “We’re talking to Microsoft about some of the other things that they can do for us, with support for applications like Windows MediaPlayer, they have HTML newsgroups rather than secure ones that they use for .NET,” says Robertson.

There are no firm delivery dates for .NET web services within the Emirates Group. With the whole group still to migrate from its NT 4.0 platform to Windows 2000 and roll out Active Directory, there is a degree of planning to be done if the IT infrastructure is to brought up to the level required by .NET when it is released. The group is currently working closely with Microsoft before upgrading. “The biggest Windows 2000, or XP challenge the group has got, is the move to Active Directory… it is really restructuring the way the group is… and making it a lot more manageable,” says Robertson.

So are other companies going to follow Emirates Group’s route? There are already several organisations experimenting internally with .NET to various degrees, including Public Warehousing Company and NBK both in Kuwait. However, Microsoft is going to have to put more on the table before it can expect developers with Enterprise JavaBeans training and experience to sign up for .NET.

“You find the enthusiasm where you would expect it, which is the Microsoft developer community,” says David Smith, research director with Gartner Group. “There is a community of developers that tend to follow Microsoft and they are absolutely excited about .NET,” he adds.

But before the region witness wholesale adoption, many organisations are going to have complete Windows 2000 rollouts. Since the OS’ unveiling in February of last year, there have been 50,000 desktop deployments of Windows 2000 in the region, claims Salloum. However, Microsoft’s product manager says that many sites are taking their time over Active Directory.

With many companies still tackling Windows 2000, it’s not clear how keen many organisations are going to be willing to race into Windows XP projects. Salloum, says the move from Windows 2000 to XP will be “an evolution rather than a revolution… the corporates that haven’t gone for Windows 2000 yet we’re recommending that they should consider XP.”

Analysts have noted that the deployment of Windows 2000 has been slower than Microsoft had perhaps first expected. However, Smith, believes XP will see a faster adoption rate than Windows 2000. “There will be a faster adoption curve because it’s targeted at a different market — the new computer market, and consumer market — which is very different than going into enterprises and asking them to change, particularly when a lot of corporate upgrades have been on hold. I think that Passport and Hailstorm will accelerate, interest in XP,” says the analyst.

||**||Microsoft pours fuel into web services engine|~||~||~|For the .NET strategy to work, Microsoft has to kick the web services industry into life. Microsoft’s recent HailStorm announcement is the vendor’s attempt to throw fuel on the web services fire.

So what is HailStorm? Well it’s basically an Internet-based architecture with an extensive set of user definable XML-based web services, which can create personal networks of applications, devices and services. These foundation services will be integral to the use of .NET by applications and users.

If the software titan is successful it will end the reliance on advertising revenue as the way to make money online. In the future, making money on the Internet will require value-added services for which the user will have to pay. Microsoft intends to leverage on Passport, as a single user authentication tool across all .NET services.

Access will nominally be free, but will require membership — and probably a subscription fee — for any service of value, such as the storage of profile information.

By relying on Passport and HailStorm, Microsoft ensures consistent individual identification and sharing of information between services. “The whole point of web services and .NET is to let these backend web sites talk to each other. That is relevant for consumers and businesses,” says Haider Salloum, product marketing manager, Microsoft Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean (GEM).

“If successful, [HailStorm] will make Microsoft specifications the de-facto standard and will complete the software giant’s transition from a vendor of desktop software to a vendor of software solutions,” stated a Gartner Group report.

According to Gartner Group, research director, David Smith, HailStorm provides the ‘missing link,’ in the whole .NET strategy. “It’s very significant for the whole .NET strategy,” says Smith. “[HailStorm] clicks with people and makes them understand, whereas before I think a lot of people were confused… from an industry perspective it is also I believe a set of services that are going to be a catalyst to kick off the acceptance of web services in the consumer space. In that regard it’s a monumental event,” explains Smith.

Getting developers to put together these web value chains, and offer web services perhaps presents the biggest challenge. Already e-Bay has publicly stated it’s working on the .NET strategy.

David Robertson, emerging technologies manager, with Emirates’ E-business Group, added, “the Hailstorm initiative offers the Emirates Group some very attractive customer centric features that allow us to focus on our online value proposition to the customer without having to reinvent the wheel.”

With HailStorm Microsoft is going on a recruitment campaign to try and win developers to its .NET standard. Microsoft’s recruitment drive will be further supported by the forthcoming Windows XP, which will use Passport exclusively for its identity services.

“HailStorm will drive the subscription service model and Microsoft’s XP products will benefit,” states the Gartner Group report.

“Enterprises should expect that HailStorm and .NET will significantly increase Microsoft’s industry influence. Enterprises should prepare for their private networks depending more on services provided by external sources such as HailStorm,” it concludes.
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