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Can the man who revolutionized the PC also build the next generation of I.T. service offerings? If Bill Gates has his way, Web services will be the next evolution.

Hans Hartman correspondent HostingTech | hhartman@hostingtech.com

Web services is one of the hot new I.T. concepts, and Microsoft is arguably the vendor most aggressively retooling its entire technology towards Web services. This spring Microsoft shipped, under the header .NET, a wave of Web services-related programming models, products, services, and tools. According to Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect, this was the result of a major shift in emphasis within his company.

"About three years ago, [we] bet the company on this Web services paradigm ... The entire Microsoft R&D budget is focused around these goals. It's a huge investment, over $5 billion a year," Gates said at the launch of Visual Studio .NET and the .NET Framework in February 2002.

With the energy, money, and focus Microsoft is putting into its .NET initiative, most observers do not doubt the company will be successful in expanding in the enterprise server and application integration market as well as the consumer subscription-based online services market. This is, of course, assuming privacy and security issues do not plague the company.

One day after the lavish launch of Visual Studio.NET, security concerns arose when reports of VisualBasic.NET being vulnerable to buffer-overflow attacks circulated in the press. Bill Gates answered the reports by forcing Microsoft engineers to spend 30 days on security and privacy issues instead of new feature development - a concept he calls the "Trustworthy Computing" imperative.

There's no question that in a world of distributed and connected Web services, security and privacy need to be guaranteed. The ball is now in Microsoft's court to make this happen with .NET.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's .NET focuses on five core areas: programming models; servers; clients; tools; and services.

Programming model: the .NET framework.
The .NET Framework is a programming model enabling developers to build XML Web services. The .NET Framework consists of three major areas:

  • CLR (Common Language Runtime), which executes applications written in any of 22 different languages, including Java and two new Microsoft languages, VisualBasic.NET, and C#. The CLR's purpose is to handle common tasks, such as memory management, security, and language integration, simplifying life for developers. Unlike the Java compiler, Microsoft's CLR supports multiple languages; however, it only runs on Microsoft operating systems.
  • Unified core classes, which facilitate XML support, networking, and data access, and enables developers to build any type of application, Windows-based or Web-based, using the same classes.
  • Presentation classes, which include ASP.NET for the development of Web applications, as well as Web Forms and Windows Forms for the development of Web- or Windows-based interfaces, or "smart client" applications.

ASP.NET is a technology for generating dynamic Web pages from server scripts. Developers can use premade server controls, such as shopping carts, encapsulating user interfaces and related functionalities. Instead of interpreting code each time a page is displayed, ASP.NET is faster by compiling code the first time it is invoked, using the CLR.

The dramatic improvements of ASP.NET might offer the biggest benefits of .NET for hosting companies, according to Eric Rudder, senior vice president, developer and platform evangelism at Microsoft. "ASP.NET has such better operation characteristics that hosting companies could build the kind of powerful Web applications they might not even have thought of in the past."

Servers: .NET Enterprise Servers
Most of Microsoft's server products now support Web services, one way or another. At the Visual Studio launch, Bill Gates stressed this is a phased approach.

"In the same way that you've seen with customer applications, we start with having a rich XML layer on top of our software, and then, as we go to the new generation, [they are] built from the bottom up around XML," Gates said. "You've seen this with products like SQL; we put a very rich XML layer on top. If you look down inside, it's still relational tables, but the next major version will actually be XML as a very central data type."

The following servers are now .NET enabled:

  • BizTalk Server 2000: Through a tool kit, developers can now use BizTalk Server components in the Visual Studio .NET to turn BizTalk Server business processes into XML Web services.
  • SQL Server: Through a tool kit, developers can make existing stored procedures or server-side XML templates available as XML Web services.
  • Commerce Server 2002: Supports Web services and allows ASP.NET applications to benefit from the Commerce Server line of services and systems.
  • Exchange 2000: Through a tool kit, developers can integrate collaborative Web services with the Exchange server.

Clients: Office XP
Developers can create rich user experiences by integrating Web services into client applications, such as Office XP. The newly released Office XP Web services tool kit and smart tag enterprise resource tool kit enable developers to put XML Web services data into Office XP. This allows users to, for instance, view dynamically served data in their local spreadsheets.

Tools: Visual Studio .NET
With distribution of beta versions to 3.5 million developers, Visual Studio .NET is the most widely distributed prerelease software in Microsoft's history. Bill Gates calls it "The most comprehensive development tool of all time."

Now available commercially - hype aside - Visual Studio .NET is a powerful tool to create Web services. It leverages behind-the-scene tasks in the .NET Framework, such as debugging, and the power of .NET Enterprise Servers, by supporting components of Microsoft servers and third-party vendors.

Services: My Services
Microsoft is not only in the business of developing technology for creating Web services, it also developed its own Web services under the heading "My Services" (formerly code-named Hailstorm). My Services include Passport, an online ID system, calendar, profile, e-wallet, notifications, and contact management package. These services will also be accessible from mobile devices.

Microsoft recently changed its plan on how to offer My Services. Instead of offering them as subscription services to endusers, the company now plans to license them to enterprises.

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