Microsoft describes its .Net strategy as software that lives on the Internet instead of coming in shrink-wrapped packages. Simple description - not so simple a concept.
In its basic form, .Net consists of development tools, server software and devices that are smart enough to run applications locally or at the server. Also included is pre-built code that can snap into other applications.
Microsoft's Bill Gates said last June that .Net will affect every piece of code the company writes, and that not a single product at Microsoft will go untouched by .Net. Microsoft is committing $US2 billion through 2003 to help developers build .Net services.
The key for such integration is XML (Extensible Markup Language) and its derivatives, which will be used to create standard application programming interfaces and so-called Web services - chunks of reusable code.
The idealistic conclusion is that Microsoft is embracing standards for interoperability across servers, development languages, applications and devices. But critics fear .Net will evolve into another "embrace-and-extend" ploy through which Microsoft tweaks standards to its own liking. "Microsoft is shooting for the same degree of dominance in Web computing that it had in the client/server model," warns Jamie Lewis, president of The Burton Group.
Developers the key
Today, what's of use in .Net is mostly aimed at Microsoft's legion of developers. These developers are relying on XML and its offspring, the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), an emerging standard for sending messages across the Internet that activate programs or applications regardless of their underlying infrastructure. Also useful are Universal Description, Discovery and Integration - a directory of companies and their XML interfaces - and Web Services Description Language, which describes what a piece of application code can do.
To most companies .Net means using XML and SOAP to let systems talk to one another and share data. But other vendors, including Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Novell and Sun are using the same standards for their own _similar strategies. Importantly, some enterprise customers are creating their own definitions.
Peter Osbourne, Dollar Rent-A-Car Systems' group manager for advanced technology and decision support systems, used SOAP for what he calls a .Net Web service to create standard interfaces so Dollar's business partners could tap into the company's car reservation system. He is readying a pilot using Microsoft's BizTalk Server to translate electronic data interchange transactions from travel agents for car rentals. And he used Microsoft's SOAP Toolkit 2.0 to create an interface that lets the US-based Southwest Airlines' Unix system easily tap into Dollar's reservation system, which runs on VMS and Windows 2000. The interface, now in final testing, eliminates the need to hard-code a communication channel between the two systems.
"We designed the SOAP interface for Southwest, but we will also use it for our Web site," Osbourne says. "Our Palm application already uses it, _and we're building a Pocket PC _application."
It's a first-step application, but exactly the kind of enterprise network application Microsoft has in mind for companies buying into .Net. "What business people can do is integration of applications and commerce over the Internet," says Barry Goffe, group manager for .Net enterprise solutions. ".Net will allow enterprises to build a reusable integration layer [with XML] that they could not build before."
Microsoft has released a set of eight .Net Enterprise Servers. Many of them, including Windows 2000, are .Net in name only and still a version or two away from truly supporting .Net. The .Net strategy is likely to have little impact on network infrastructure in the short term outside of upgrades to Windows 2000, which is required to run any .Net server.
But wrapping them together with a management platform is a .Net issue Microsoft has yet to solve. The company is developing a platform, which includes upgrades to the operating system, System Management Server and the forthcoming Microsoft Operations Manager, but it won't be ready until next year.
Other Microsoft software, such as Exchange and SQL Server, are on the way to being combined into one repository to support .Net and XML. And new servers such as XML translation engine BizTalk Server 2000, Web server load balancer Application Center 2000 and mainframe middleware Host Integration Server 2000 will bring additional capabilities.
On the client side, there is technology such as Microsoft's Stinger software to extend .Net to mobile devices. The soon-to-be-released Windows XP desktop operating system is starting to incorporate .Net technology, including the recently released HailStorm, Web services which enable authentication and instant messaging services over the Web to consumers.
HailStorm also has become a lightning rod for critics who say the technology is the beginning of where Microsoft will lock users into .Net. "Microsoft is injecting its own services between corporate Web sites and their customers," says Dana Gardner, an analyst with Aberdeen Group. "The question is: if I run a Web site, do I want Microsoft to be between me and my customers?"
With HailStorm's Passport service, a free offering available on MSN, Microsoft could control authentication services and user information for hundreds of thousands of Web sites. Nearly 160 million Passport IDs are in use and 10 million are being issued daily.
Sources say Microsoft is toying with the idea of collecting "micropayments" on those services, therefore guaranteeing, regardless of platform or client, that it gets a cut on millions of authentications made to Web sites daily.
"Microsoft couches .Net in the words of standards, but the devil is in the details," says Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst with IDC. "Looking at XML and SOAP and how they will be incorporated into development tools, the [operating system], serverware and middleware gives me concern that Microsoft is building a fortress, one component at a time."
Microsoft's .Net plan shows signs of being different with its XML-based interoperability thrust. But with the recent court battles over monopolistic practices still fresh in mind, IT executives will be keeping a critical eye on all the company's moves.