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.Net Servers Challenge for the Enterprise
Microsoft eyes corporate applications with Web services deployment platform
by Stuart J. Johnston

December 2002 Issue

With Microsoft ready this quarter to ship the keystone component of its .Net architecture, the battle for the hearts and minds of enterprise developers will intensify, say market analysts.

The four editions of Microsoft Windows .Net Server 2003, ranging from a low-end Web server to a highly secure and scalable datacenter version, will be the first Windows servers to ship with the .Net Framework, including the Common Language Runtime (CLR) code execution environment and core pieces of Web services technology (see Table 1). Previously, the framework had been available with the Visual Studio.Net development environment, but now it will become a part of Microsoft's base server offerings.

It's an important milestone for Microsoft because it marks the company's first real foray into the arena for application servers, says John Rymer, research vice president at Giga Information Group. "The Windows .Net servers will be a major factor in Microsoft's ability to compete against J2EE [Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition] as an enterprise platform," he says.

The battle is reminiscent of the OS/2 wars of the early 1990s, in which Microsoft prevailed because all but the largest development shops found it prohibitively expensive to support both operating systems. Microsoft hopes the same logic will convince independent software developers and IT shops that it offers the safest and easiest transition to the Web services future.

"If you're a developer, you probably don't have enough resources to do both Java and .Net," says Amy Wohl, president of Wohl Associates. "So if you want to move over into the Web services space, you will have to decide [which platform to use]."

Today, J2EE application servers from IBM, BEA Systems, Oracle, Sun, and others offer a simple proposition for developers and IT shops: write your applications in Java and run them on a platform that sits on top of Unix or Linux. When the Java community embraced the idea of Web services and incorporated XML access into the Java APIs, the message became even more compelling.

Figure 1. Deploying .Net.

In the Windows world, Microsoft had previously discounted the need for an application server, instead touting the importance of services in the network "cloud." Then, in early 2002, Microsoft pulled back from its planned "HailStorm" services for consumers and emphasized enterprise applications. Company executives even began using the term "application server."

Sales of Visual Studio .Net have been strong, but analysts agree that few developers are yet using the new tool suite to build production .Net-based Web services. With the rollout of the Windows .Net Server, the .Net components are now built into the deployment environment (see Figure 1).

"With Visual Studio .Net, you still have to install [the components] on the server you're going to deploy to and that means there can still be problems. With .Net Server, you know it's going to work out of the box," Rymer says. But while Windows .Net Server 2003 comes bundled with the .Net components, it does not yet take advantage of them itself, points out Michael Cherry, lead analyst for operating systems at analysis firm Directions on Microsoft.

Ahead on the Docket
Deeper integration of .Net in the system may come in future software releases. Until last spring, the company had promised an interim release of Windows .Net (both the XP clients and the .Net servers) code-named "Longhorn," to be followed a year or two later by a major "Blackcomb" update. But Microsoft hasn't mentioned Blackcomb lately and instead is positioning Longhorn as a major update scheduled for 2004. Included in that release will be the long-awaited "Yukon" native XML data store, also a piece of the next release of SQL Server, due in 2003.

When Longhorn incorporates Yukon as the operating system's underlying storage engine, Microsoft will have achieved something it has sought for nearly 10 years: a unified storage and retrieval system for anything and everything stored anywhere on the network.

That's easier said than done, according to Cherry. "I'm nervous about Longhorn," he said. "If you raise any issue about Windows right now, the response is, 'Oh, yeah, we fix that in Longhorn.' If you look at what's been promised, that will take four years. They have two years to ship Longhorn."

Wohl agrees. "Microsoft always [promises a lot of features], and then when it looks like they're not going to make the date, they start pulling things out," she says. "Yukon is the piece that I thought they really have to have in there, but that's the piece that is probably pushing the [ship] date out."

Meanwhile, the Java community continues to gain momentum as Linux makes headway in the server marketplace. Windows .Net Server 2003 gives Microsoft an important piece of technology in the platform wars while developers wait to find out if Longhorn will be a cash cow or a bum steer.

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