Microsoft Unifies Stack Behind Web Services

The release of Windows Server 2003 and Visual Studio .NET 2003 is seen as the next major step in Microsoft's plan to create a tightly integrated ecosystem of products in support of its .NET initiative.

With the release of Windows Server 2003 and Visual Studio .NET 2003 on April 24, Microsoft will bring two of the final pieces of its .NET vision into play. Office 2003, slated for release later this year, and the release of 'Yukon,' a forthcoming version of SQL Server, will complete the stack of XML-geared software, which also includes Microsoft's previously released Windows XP.

Windows Server 2003 and Visual Studio .NET 2003 (previously known as 'Everett') are tightly integrated as part of Microsoft's plan to create a cohesive ecosystem on which businesses can build their Web services. Windows Server 2003 fully leverages the .NET Framework, the platform infrastructure that defines Microsoft's Web services push. Meanwhile, Visual Studio .NET 2003 is an incremental advancement to the company's integrated development environment (IDE), a developer tool suite which at its core contains the vision of enabling development teams to share in large-scale projects across the entire development life cycle, even when mixing components of various languages and using a variety of deployment architectures, from the Internet to Windows to mobile devices.

The new version of Visual Studio .NET will contain .NET Framework 1.1, which will sport a unified programming model for building browser and smart client applications for mobile devices as well as for servers and PCs. Microsoft said it will also extend the security and deployment benefits of version 1.1. The new version will also include ASP.NET mobile controls (formerly the Microsoft Mobile Internet Toolkit) and the Microsoft .NET Compact Framework (for mobile devices).

The company is positioning Windows Server 2003 as the perfect deployment platform for applications built with Visual Studio .NET 2003 (though it also plans to support Windows 2000 Server with the .NET Framework and Windows 98 or later for the deployment of smart client applications). Office 2003 will contain the tools necessary to create and consume XML documents, while Yukon will embed the Common Language Runtime (CLR), along with support for multiple programming languages, allowing developers to work with whatever languages they favor. A new version of Visual Studio .NET, currently dubbed 'Visual Studio for Yukon,' is likely to accompany that release and will feature .NET Framework 2.0

"Microsoft is really moving toward unifying their applications onto a single stack," said Ronald Schmelzer, senior analyst and founder of XML research firm ZapThink. "With Windows Server 2003, they've really made it a platform for the deployment of enterprise-class Web services."

He added, "What they are going to be pushing is simplicity through a unified, coherent commercial stack rather than an open stack. The alternative is a jumble of products that may or may not interoperate."

Laura DiDio, analyst with The Yankee Group, agreed, "Microsoft is now telling us, 'look, all of these product introductions are going to be part of an overarching, integrated strategy.'"

Windows Server 2003 is integral to Microsoft's plan because, as Schmelzer puts it, "they feel the operating system really is the application server. They've never had a separate application server product." In a Web services model, the application server, which handles all application operations between users and an organization's backend business applications or databases, takes on much greater importance.

"They see every application that they're going to build on top of Windows Server 2003 as being Web services-enabled," Schmelzer said. "It's really going to be a fully functioning citizen in the corporate architecture."

The .NET initiative is a 'bet the company strategy,' as everyone from Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates to analysts has said. The question is whether the bet will pay off.

While Microsoft has placed XML Web services at the heart of its strategy, customers may not yet be convinced of the business case for deploying them.

"What we are seeing here at Yankee Group, right now mainstream adoption of Web services is at least two years away," DiDio said. "We are seeing a minority of customers that will absolutely develop a Web services framework architecture this year and migrate to it in the next 12 months."

That may translate into difficulties for Microsoft, at least in the short term. A recent survey by Yankee Group, in conjunction with Sunbelt Software, found that 50 percent of 1,000 IT managers and CTOs surveyed said their companies had not yet determined whether they would migrate to Windows Server 2003, and 15 percent said they would not. Of those who do plan to migrate, Yankee found only 7 percent planned to do so as soon as it ships, while 63 percent have no 'definitive plans to migrate.' DiDio said that figure likely reflects the fact that so many IT budgets have been cut.

In addition, DiDio said Microsoft has "not seen as much deployment with Visual Studio .NET as they would like to see."

"Right now, the move to Web services by mainstream organizations is somewhat phlegmatic," she said. "Many businesses just don't see a need. A very significant percentage, I would say about half, are running standalone Web services now [as opposed to Web services architectures like .NET Framework]."

She also said Microsoft's major competitor in the XML Web services space, IBM , has been able to garner greater support for the J2EE out of the gate. The Yankee Group estimates that for 2003 into mid-2004, IBM will lead the market with 40 percent share, Microsoft will hold 20 percent and Oracle and BEA Systems will own 12 to 15 percent each. Sun Microsystems is expected to come in with about 7 or 8 percent of the market, and other companies will round out the rest.

"Right now, at the present time, there's two to three times the level of activity for the J2EE environment," DiDio said. "Microsoft been slow in getting some of these new products out to market."

The company had originally slated Windows Server 2003, then known as Windows .NET Server, for release in 2001. But the company's Trustworthy Computing Initiative, launched in January 2001 as a response to Microsoft's reputation for being insecure, delayed the release for 16-18 months as the company spent more than $200 million on a line-by-line audit of its code.

"Windows Server 2003 is the highest quality Windows server operating system ever released," Bill Veghte, vice president of the Windows Server Division at Microsoft, said on March 28th as he announced that the code had been released to manufacturing. "It was designed and built with security as the top priority."

But Windows Server 2003 will have a lot to prove, according to a recently released survey by Forrester Research . For its report, "Can Microsoft Be Secure?" Forrester surveyed a very small sample of 35 software security experts, though each one came from a $1 billion company.

Forrester said 74 percent of the respondents indicated that they don't trust Microsoft security, though nine out of 10 also said they deploy sensitive applications on Windows anyway. However, the report also noted that Microsoft consistently releases patches for the top nine Windows security flaws an average of 305 days before the major exploits hit. Security experts say network administrators are often lax in applying patches.

In any case, Yankee's DiDio believes Microsoft will begin to whittle away IBM's lead in Web services as it brings its installed base to bear.

"We do see, as all of the Microsoft installed base begins to migrate upward, Microsoft will start to close the gap with IBM, though it could be by 2005 a 30-30 split," DiDio said. "Microsoft, what they've got going for them, is that huge installed base. IBM has a huge global services organization and has been very aggressive with its WebSphere product and their toolkit."

She added, "I expect Microsoft to close that gap considerably barring any unforeseen or unintended stumbles with the product line."

DiDio said she suspects that except for laggards still running NT 4.0, and cutting-edge companies, many customers may decide to wait out the migration until the next release of Windows Server, codenamed 'Blackcomb.' That may come in 2006.

"Half of all businesses are now on a three and a half to four, five, or even six year upgrade cycle," she said. "You just can't tell."

She added, "These new products are recommended for the laggards. If you've got Windows 95 out there and you're still running 16-bit applications, now is the time to toss them out. Microsoft has extended some of the support for NT for the next year or so. If you're seeing real signs of wear and tear with those NT desktops or servers, you want to go to Windows Server 2003 and XP."

The benefit of going with the more unified Microsoft stack is a lot more plug-and-play right out of the box, DiDio said. "You're not going to have to rely so much on service pack this, or wait a year, year and a half or in some cases three years to get them all work together. Additionally she said, those electing to go with the Microsoft stack will have access to a lot more architectural guidance, white papers and 'how-to.'

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