.NET: Microsoft's Bold Jump Into Web Services

.NET: Microsoft's Bold Jump Into Web Services<@VM>What Is .NET?<@VM>Extending .NET to Linux

Pat Arnold

The Sacramento County Sheriff's Department wanted its deputies to get out of their cars and interact directly with the community. But to do this effectively, officers would have to take their computers with them, and that meant building a mobile communications network.

So the department turned to Microsoft Corp.'s .NET framework to make information on its legacy databases available to the officers' handheld computers.

"We're moving officers out of the cars and back into the community, and so we're trying to push the technology right out alongside them," said Robert Schultz, technology manager for the sheriff's department.

The department quickly learned that migrating duties from the patrol car's laptop to the handheld device depended more on the right information technology infrastructure than on the specific device itself, Schultz said.

"We see handheld computers like the pagers and cell phones we have out there. Officers drop them in the gutter or damage them in a fight. New models come out. So we want to keep them on a browser base that's not dependent on a single type of device," Schultz said.

Platform interoperability is one of the benefits Microsoft touts with .NET, the company's integrated open standards platform for making applications available over networks.

Using .NET, Microsoft developed for Sacramento a prototype browser-based system that runs on Pocket PCs, called eCOP. With limited bandwidth, eCOP sends officers information about recent dispatches and allows them to submit field identification data back to the station.

While eCOP awaits funding and another round of competitions for the pilot project, Microsoft clearly has tapped a growing market for Web services with .NET.

In fact, .NET is more than a new platform. It is a business strategy for the company itself. The Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft is wagering the software vendor industry will move to a Web-services model, and so this year, the company reorganized its internal structure to reflect .NET.

"We view .NET as a key technology provider for the next-generation Internet," said Pat Arnold, director of technology for Microsoft Federal in Washington, D.C. "There are all sorts of opportunities for integrators and partners to build on .NET. The ability to have an application anytime, anywhere, anyplace is quite exceptional."

The company's fiscal 2001 10K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission stated that .NET is Microsoft's "largest strategic initiative," one that would subject the company to "more intense competition during the transition from the traditional core businesses."

According to Whit Andrews, a research director for technology research company Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn., "Microsoft seems to recognize that its own interest is tightly woven in the open Web services model."

Andrews said there are no clear leaders yet in the Web services field. Microsoft has two main competitors. One is IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., which has "demonstrated substantial vision and intelligence in Web services and is executing quite nicely," Andrews said. The other is Hewlett-Packard Co., Palo Alto, Calif., with its
e-Speak open services software platform.

Thus far, customers remain wary of .NET, according to a May study from Forrester Research Inc., Cambridge, Mass., which found that many Microsoft organizational users aren't ready to commit to .NET. Most cited that it is still too cutting edge. Two-thirds of those surveyed didn't even know what it was.

Perhaps the recent releases of Windows XP and Windows 2000 will help bring recognition to the platform, since both operating systems are tuned for Web services and already benefit from .NET technologies.

Richard Warren, chief strategy officer for Internosis Inc., Arlington Va., an electronic business and knowledge management solutions provider, said .NET helped his company with 1,000-seat-plus deployments of XP. The .NET framework facilitates interoperability among Microsoft's seat management tools, allowing XP to be provisioned and managed remotely with less manpower than previous versions of Windows.

Warren said other enterprise-geared software packages from Tivoli Systems Inc., Hewlett-Packard and Computer Associates International Inc. can be managed by .NET as well.

"Computer Associates has a strong partnership with Microsoft and we are committed to support .NET as well as open standards," said John Pincomb, Computer Associates vice president for the electronic business platform solutions.

When asked about .NET's advantages for integrators, solutions providers and their clients, Arnold pointed to scalability, ease of deployment and cost savings, the last factor coming from how .NET could extend the life span of legacy systems.

"Rather than rip out an old system and rewrite it, just expose it as a Web service with .NET," Arnold said.

The Agriculture Department employed this approach for its Lighthouse portal, a pilot project undertaken with Microsoft and Compaq Computer Corp. of Houston. Using the Lighthouse Web site, farmers check weather reports and futures prices, map their fields, monitor their water efficiency and access other data and services, many of them drawn from legacy systems.

The scalability factor of .NET is being harnessed by at least one Microsoft partner to generate new business, namely Emerald Systems Inc., Spooner, Wis., a custom Internet software provider.

Emerald has already carved out a successful market tying together local and regional law enforcement systems.

The company was awarded contracts from Minnesota and Wisconsin to develop Internet-based integrated records management systems for juvenile services and law enforcement, respectively.

For these contracts, Emerald, partnering with Microsoft, developed a regional crime information system, a framework to allow real-time data sharing among about dozen agencies, such as police departments, federal agencies or neighboring counties.

According to Phil Brandsey, Emerald chief executive officer, Emerald will now use .NET to offer more complex systems integration. Emerald has created a product called the Web Index Server, which aggregates data from many regional crime information systems.

The Web Index Server would allow federal agencies to tap into the collected databases of local, county, regional and state crime information systems to gather data on possible suspects.

"One of the things we found out about law enforcement is that information in one system is intelligence to someone else," Brandsey said.

Internosis' Richard Warren said .NET facilitates quicker development times in his shop.

"We're finding an incredible decrease in time needed to build Web-based applications," Warren said. Web forms that took 16 hours to complete now take only two to three.

Another benefit for Internosis is how .NET allows components written in different languages to be assembled into a single project. Warren said this shifts the resource allocation focus from "How many of our Java developers can we get in one place?" to the much stronger position of "Who do we have available who is really good at doing this kind of thing?"

For Schultz of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, Web services ? either .NET or another solution ? is inevitable.

"When radios got small enough to fit in cars, police departments put radios in cars. When radios were small enough to put on officers, we put them on officers," he said. "Now, we're at the edge of technology where computers are small enough to be placed on officers. It is the wave of how things are going. It's not just this year's technology."With Microsoft labeling many of its commercial offerings as .NET, it's difficult to decipher what .NET really is.

In a nutshell, .NET is Microsoft's strategic move to become a vendor of Web services software. The approach is twofold: The company is rewriting its own applications and even services to communicate and share data over the Internet; and it is providing the tools for developers and integrators to network their solutions as well.

Like other Web-service solutions, .NET will allow organizations to integrate different applications and systems into seamless wholes, even those running on different platforms, by using open-standard Internet protocols to connect them.

Data and software functionality can move smoothly from, say, legacy mainframe computers to cell phones, increasing the ability to retrieve and generate information.

On the development level, the .NET framework integrates many popular programming languages, from Java to C, in one environment. It also integrates the latest Internet communication protocols. Specifically, it employs extensible markup language (or XML) to format data, simple object access protocol (SOAP) to pass data between applications, and the universal description, discovery and integration protocol (UDDI) to provide a directory of Web services.

Microsoft's own tool to develop .NET applications, VisualStudio.NET should be released in 2002, though beta versions are widely in use now.

To .NET enable hardware, Microsoft offers a whole range of server software. The latest versions of Microsoft's operating systems, Windows XP, Windows 2000 and Windows CE are also able to tap into .NET applications.

In addition, the company is .NET branding a number of its own consumer-related services, such as the Passport authentication service, that were built on the .NET framework.While the open architecture of Microsoft's .NET promises cross-platform usability, it's still up to other companies to provide the tools for using .NET on non-Microsoft systems.

To this end, Ximian Inc. of Boston, a Linux services and software provider, is spearheading an open-source implementation of .NET, called Mono, that will allow Linux and other variants of the Unix operating system to run .NET-enabled applications.

"We wanted to ensure that Linux desktops can interoperate in competing environments where Web services are going to be common," said Jon Perr, vice president of marketing for Ximian. Perr said the project would also give Linux programmers tools for developing .NET applications in their native environments.

The Mono project, with approximately 60 regular contributors, has received a lot of visibility in the developer community thanks to its originator, Ximian co-founder and chief technology officer Miguel de Icaza. He is the driving force behind the creation of the GNU Network Object Model Environment, or GNOME, one of the two major graphical user interfaces used for Linux.

The Mono project will create open-source versions of a compiler for Microsoft's new C# programming language, class libraries and the common language run-time environment.

Perr said the Linux versions of .NET tools should start rolling out by the middle of next year ? allowing Ximian and other Linux software vendors to release .NET-enabled offerings alongside Windows-based applications by Microsoft and its partners.

Not surprisingly the Mono effort has received considerable criticism in the Linux community, where many members consider Linux a competitive alternative to Microsoft's own operating system.

"You can look at Mono as a validation of the technology and tools Microsoft is offering," Perr said.

However, the Mono project does have a potential downside for Microsoft as well, Perr said. After all, with .NET standards, even Microsoft applications will be able to run on other platforms, such as Linux.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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