Microsoft is finally beginning to shake its Windows-centric attitude in favor of becoming an equal partner in heterogeneous enterprise networks.
In a couple of weeks, the company will reveal details about the next version of SNA Server, code-named Babylon. The details will show how Microsoft plans to integrate its Distributed Internet Application (DNA) architecture with mainframe, AS/400 and Unix environments. The goal is to create a bidirectional gateway for Windows users that bridges DNA and non-DNA environments. DNA is an architecture based on Component Object Model (COM), a software framework for creating objects that is used to build distributed Internet applications.
Babylon will also add some 27 enhancements -- and 600,000 new lines of code -- to the existing SNA Server package, including better legacy-application access and improved 3270/5250 SNA communications features.
Microsoft, however, is not developing Babylon from scratch. The company is pulling connectivity technology from its SQL Server -- Microsoft Message Queue Server (MSMQ) -- and crafting it into a product much like the company did with Office and BackOffice.
Microsoft is further acknowledging legacy systems as cornerstones in enterprise network environments and is rushing to make Windows more closely interact with them - rather than trying to replace them, according to company officials.
While SNA Server currently provides mainframe connectivity, the goal is to migrate data to Windows platforms.
Babylon's key feature is its ability to allow bidirectional application and data integration via COM Transaction Integrator (COMTI) and OLE DB. In essence, Babylon will become middleware that will not only let Windows-based applications access legacy data but will also allow legacy applications to extract data from Windows systems.
"The bidirectional feature is interesting and shows that Microsoft is starting to acknowledge that other environments will have a central role in the enterprise," says Tim Sloane, director of research for Internet infrastructure at Aberdeen Group. "That's something Microsoft has not said before."
Critics say that although Microsoft is finally beginning to talk integration, Babylon is a weak attempt at best.
Microsoft discussed Babylon at the company's recent TechEd conference, but few details were available. Early this month, Microsoft will post a Web site featuring white papers and a list of features.
The features include a host of COMTI enhancements. The most important, called Terminal Oriented Application Support, is a COMTI method that can bundle multiple 3270 screens into a single object.
Previously, developers were limited to single request inputs and outputs from the mainframe, a simple structure that only worked with about 15 per cent of mainframe applications. Now developers can cull data from 3270 and 5250 data streams, which opens up a richer integration environment.
A number of other new features provide mainframe programmers with access to Windows environments.
The Host Initiated Transaction feature lets CICS or IMS transactions invoke COM and COM+ components in the Windows environment. This capability lets a mainframe programmer invoke the same methods as a program running natively in a Windows environment.
Another feature uses IBM's Distributed Relational Database Architecture (DRDA) services to let mainframe and AS/400 databases make direct queries to Microsoft databases, especially SQL Server. Those types of bidirectional features have not been available to mainframe developers in the past. Also, a new replication server will allow Oracle databases running on Unix and DB2 databases to replicate data to SQL Server.
While Babylon is focused on bolstering Windows communication with IBM and Unix resources, it also includes a software developer's kit to let other mainframe vendors bridge to Windows.
Babylon also will connect to Microsoft's forthcoming BizTalk Server, an XML-based product for connecting business-to-business electronic commerce sites.
Users are applauding the efforts.
"We want the ability to replicate data from the AS/400 to SQL Server," says John Gordon, senior systems analyst at Southern California Water Co. "We are developing an Internet billing system, and if we can interface from the outside to AS/400 that would eliminate a lot of development work."
Critics, however, say Babylon is a collection of existing Microsoft connectivity technologies with a few new features and a marketing spin thrown in.
For example, the MSMQ to MQ Series Bridge, which connects the two messaging middleware platforms, is available in SNA Server 4.0, and Babylon adds only minor security enhancements.
Critics also say the new components provide only base features that will need major enhancements from third-party vendors before Babylon can meet enterprise demands.
"They have collected a hodgepodge of bits-and-pieces; it's a mess," says one third-party vendor who asked not to be identified. "The only thing Babylon is adding is an entry-level capability to slice and dice 3270 data streams. The COMTI enhancements will meet only 10-20 per cent of my customers' needs."
While Microsoft officials acknowledge that Babylon will not be the end-all in integration, they disagree with the third-party vendor's conclusions.
"This is a significant upgrade to SNA Server," says Vesa Suomalainen, director of business development for Microsoft's enterprise interoperability group. "We have reused a lot of code, but we have added significant features."
According to Rob Enderle, an analyst with Giga Information Group, "the difference with Babylon is that all the pieces are together and it takes less rocket science to get them together. But this first pass at the product is less than compelling."
Nevertheless, the efforts by Microsoft represent a huge shift in the company's thinking.
"In the past we would say replace legacy systems with NT," says Chris Olson, Microsoft group product manager for enterprise interoperability. "This is the realisation that not all data will be on a Microsoft platform."
Microsoft has not gone completely over the edge, however.
Babylon runs only on NT and is tightly integrated with DNA, which still makes for a Windows-centric environment. And the message of integration, as opposed to migration, has a trap door.
"When Microsoft is well-connected to the mainframe it builds a hell of a migration platform," Enderle says. "This is a stealth wolf; you won't see it coming. The mainframe is slowly going away."
Babylon is expected to enter beta testing later this year and ship 90 days after Windows 2000, which is expected to be released before the end of this year. Microsoft has yet to decide if Babylon will ship as a stand-alone package or as a part of packages such as BackOffice and Windows 2000 Advanced Server.