Time for .Net Reality Check

.Net is finally turning into something more than a catchy marketing tag for Microsoft Corp.'s .Net Enterprise Server line now that the software maker is building support for its new development framework into its products. But it remains to be seen how much the infusion of .Net technology into Microsoft's 10 enterprise servers will matter to corporate users—or whether it will give the company an edge over Java-promoting competitors such as IBM, Oracle Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc.

"As important as .Net is to Microsoft's overall strategy, the individual servers will have to compete on their own merits with features that in many cases are only marginally related to .Net at all," says Dwight Davis, an analyst at Boston-based Summit Strategies Inc. "Microsoft's not going to be selling SQL Server in competition with Oracle with a .Net message. It's going to be leading with a price and performance message."

Yet analysts agree that the .Net initiative raises Microsoft's credibility in the enterprise application development space. They point out that some corporate IT departments may find it appealing to have .Net technologies built into server software—particularly if they're heavy users of Microsoft software.

Steve Sommer, CIO at New York-based law firm Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP, a Microsoft-centric shop with 1,100 employees, says he can envision in-house programmers using .Net tools to write applications that monitor systems, manage resources or link information through portals.

"You write your own stuff and spend less money," says Sommer, adding that he may be able to substantially reduce his firm's software maintenance costs and reliance on expensive third-party products.

Sommer says he likes the idea of being able to use Microsoft's Visual Studio .Net development tool across his .Net Enterprise Servers, perhaps even to write applications that tie some of them together, such as his Exchange messaging server and Mobile Information Server.

By contrast, CIOs in multiplatform environments who prefer a best-of-breed approach may cast a skeptical eye. Brian Kilcourse, CIO at Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Longs Drug Stores Corp., says .Net frightens him.

Fear of Lock-in

"The unmentioned intention is to lock you into a strategy that you can't get out of, and I just don't think that's the right way to go," Kilcourse says. "In order to run the .Net framework, you've got to be on a Microsoft operating system. That's not open."

Longs uses Microsoft products, but Kilcourse says it won't permit .Net into the enterprise space "because it, in a subtle way, corrupts the viability of enterprise Java." Longs uses San Jose-based BEA Systems Inc.'s Java-based WebLogic application server.

Chris Atkinson, vice president of Microsoft's .Net Enterprise Server group, says that an application's ability to interoperate with applications running on other operating systems is more important than cross-platform capabilities, Java's main purported benefit.

"If you're talking to partners and customers, you've got no control over what systems they're using," he says.

Atkinson claims that XML Web services provide the best way to let internal applications communicate both with one another and with the external applications of customers and business partners. Using that approach in .Net, application data is sent in XML-based messages transmitted via the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP).

Davis says Microsoft's support of SOAP, XML and related standards "has definitely undercut the ability of competitors to pigeonhole Microsoft purely in a proprietary hole of Windows, because you should be able to create .Net Web services in a Microsoft environment and have them interoperate just fine with SOAP-enabled Web services created in a Java-based environment."

But how well XML and SOAP perform between two applications is a key question, according to Randy Heffner, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group Inc. "The best number I'm getting at this point is that the XML/SOAP connection is going to [give 30% slower performance] than if it was using some straight binary protocol" such as remote method invocation or Microsoft's distributed component object model, Heffner says.

Adding 30% overhead to a firm's messaging system won't hurt if the application is asynchronous, Heffner says. But if the application has stringent response-time requirements, he advises that considerable testing be done to see if the XML/SOAP approach works well.

Microsoft product manager Philip DesAutels acknowledges that "a proprietary customized protocol between two points could indeed perform better than a generalized protocol." But that "belies the fundamental principle that Web services are platform-independent," he says.

Unwavering in its commitment, Microsoft points to rival vendors, such as IBM, that also support XML and SOAP. "We're reaching a point when there is agreement across the industry of new ways of standardizing the flow of data between systems," Atkinson says.

At Microsoft, all roads appear to be leading to XML Web services. The company last month released a new version of Visual Studio .Net that aims to make it easier for programmers to build XML Web services. Its Windows .Net Server, pegged to ship in the second half of the year, will be the first server operating system to feature native support for the .Net framework and class libraries.

Also due for injections of .Net technologies, to varying degrees, are Microsoft's 10 .Net Enterprise Servers—six of which are due for new versions this year (SharePoint Portal Server, BizTalk Server, Commerce Server, Content Management Server, Internet Security and Acceleration Server, and Mobile Information Server).

Support for XML, SOAP

Paul Flessner, Microsoft's senior vice president of .Net Enterprise Servers, told a Microsoft developer audience that the servers will feature deep support for XML and SOAP and tight integration with Visual Studio .Net to make it easier for users to build and deploy applications.

The servers also will be embedded with Microsoft's Common Language Runtime engine, which will allow code written in more than 20 programming languages to run, giving developers a wider range of choices, according to company officials.

"Once the .Net framework is put in SQL [Server], then you can essentially write SQL queries and stored procedures in multiple different languages," Atkinson says, pointing to one of the capabilities that users will gain in the .Net-enabled version of Microsoft's database server due in 2003.

Calendar Sharing

Citing a potential new use with another one of Microsoft's most popular .Net Enterprise Servers, Atkinson says XML Web services could let an Exchange Server share calendars and schedule information over the Internet with a business partner using another vendor's software, such as Lotus Software Group's Notes. The .Net-supported version of Exchange is due next year.

Larry Perlstein, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., says that Microsoft has made it easier to integrate .Net Enterprise Servers with a non-Microsoft server. "But it depends on the level of complexity of the integration you want to do," he says.

Ray Valdes, also an analyst at Gartner, says he sees no reason for non-Microsoft shops to leap to .Net, even if Microsoft's developer tools are easier to use and its server products are generally more tightly integrated than the competition's offerings.

Companies that have chosen the Java approach for server applications might have concerns about vendor lock-in, lack of flexibility and potential architectural limitations if they move to a .Net environment. And they might decide that the benefits of .Net aren't worth the price, Valdes says.

But for Microsoft shops, he says, it's a "no-brainer" to go to .Net; the only issue is timing. He notes that Microsoft has "raised the bar" with respect to the scale and complexity of applications that can be developed on .Net.

How much corporations will be willing to rely on .Net remains a question. Companies that have complex applications running on mainframes and Unix boxes will "tend to value the portability of Java applications more highly," says Giga analyst Mike Gilpin. He notes that surveys show some companies will use both the .Net and Java development environments.

Will Zachmann, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group Inc., says Java may have garnered mind share in many large companies, but he expects that Microsoft's .Net story will appeal to corporations going forward.

"Microsoft's server-side platform is good for a lot more than it's given credit for in the enterprise world today," Zachmann says, adding that in the Internet space, he thinks Microsoft's enterprise servers will compete favorably against the Unix products that dominated the dot-com world.

"If I wanted to bet on who's going to gain the most ground over the next year, I'd bet on Microsoft," Zachmann says. "Microsoft has the advantage of being low-cost, easy to work with and able to do the job."

.Net Enterprise Server Adoption
Tightly integrated server offerings provide consistency, common administration
Lack of flexibility due to potential vendor lock-in
.Net framework helps give cost-effective, productive development environment
Users skeptical of Microsoft servers working with products from other vendors
Support for emerging standards XML and SOAP offers promise of interoperability between disparate applications
Questions remain about performance of XML/SOAP-based messaging between applications

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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