TECH ED: Microsoft to unify data

Microsoft this week began to reveal an ambitious project to spread portions of its forthcoming database technology across its back-end infrastructure servers so companies can store data in an XML format and access it regardless of where it lives on a network.

At its Tech Ed 2002 conference, which drew 7,500 attendees, Microsoft laid out a concept for a universal file system that would rely heavily on technology from the next version of SQL Server, called Yukon. That technology allows for the storage of structured and unstructured data that can be accessed through a variety of devices and protocols.

Experts say the project opens all sorts of possibilities for IT shops to create data-driven applications and get control of exploding repositories of information.

Ultimately, Microsoft plans to create a universal file system that, in essence, makes back-end repositories, such as Windows file servers, Exchange Server and SQL Server, look like one virtual storage system for files and applications.

"You are talking about an intelligent engine that blurs the lines between a storage engine and an application engine," says Robert Ginsberg, CTO of Version 3, a software development firm. "There are a lot of things that get interesting programmatically, such as files that can update themselves based on alerts." But Ginsberg says Microsoft is taking on a huge effort that will require a new layer of security and present many complexities.

It's not a new concept, but bringing it to the PC is a huge innovation, Ginsberg says. IBM Corp.'s AS/400 for years has used a single relational database to store everything and Oracle is developing a similar idea with its Internet File System.

XML is key to Microsoft's plan in that the technology makes it possible to create metatags - information about the stored data - that are used for more intelligent access to that data.

But moving to a universal file system won't come without a price, because corporations will eventually have to convert all their files to an XML format.

"I question the value of representing all data in XML," says an IT manager with financial firm Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. who asked not to be identified. "In some systems there is a vast amount of data that may not have to be represented in XML. A lot of the data that we share is in industry-specific formats. There is an issue here of practical implementation vs. theory."

However, Microsoft officials emphasized they are not creating a single data store, much like Oracle Corp. has with its database, but a single data format based on XML.

Microsoft has tried before to create a universal file system, but this time success is critical for its Web services initiative to take off. Web services technology is a set of XML-based protocols for integrating applications and back-end systems across networks.

Microsoft's effort will begin later this year when it releases the first beta release of Yukon. The server is expected to ship in the second half of next year. That will be followed by a version of Exchange, code-named Kodiak, that has Yukon technology at the heart of its data store. Yukon technology will then seep into other back-end systems.

"We have this great storage technology that Microsoft owns, and we will share that technology with other products," says Paul Flessner, senior vice president of .Net enterprise servers.

He says Yukon technology will be part of a universal file system that Microsoft is developing. Other Microsoft technology, such as natural language access and synchronization, also could be used.

"We are trying to create a transparency to data," says Tom Rizzo, group product manager for SQL Server. "We want an easy way for the user to get data and not have to know or care where it came from."

Analysts say Microsoft is trying to solve one of the biggest problems companies face, getting control of their data. "But the trail of crumbs to get to Yukon to fix this looks long and expensive," says Dana Gardner, an analyst with Aberdeen Group Inc. "You are going to have to convert everything into XML."

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