Microsoft opens tech center to nurture .Net

Microsoft has opened a technology center here to draw corporate customers for shared problem-solving and to promote its .Net strategy, a Microsoft mission described as "even riskier than Windows" by Bill Gates, chair and chief software architect.

Gates presided at the dedication of the facility here on Monday. The Silicon Valley site, the largest of several around the country, is billed as a research and training lab for customers seeking to deploy large-scale, Windows-based applications across the enterprise or on the Internet.

In his keynote presentation, Gates repeated Microsoft's commitment to Extensible Markup Language and emphasized its role as the "center element" in the .Net strategy.

XML allows the sharing of discrete data elements between disparate objects such as a word processing document and an HTML Web page. Browser support of XML has been sketchy, although both current versions of Internet Explorer and Netscape have native support for XML.

Microsoft has also implemented XML technology heavily in Windows XP, the newest version of its operating system. The second beta version of Windows XP was released this week.

Although Gates described the .Net strategy as an "open model for distributed computing," some may question his terms, given Microsoft's penchant for introducing proprietary versions of open standard architectures.

For example, Microsoft put its own technical twist on Secure Sockets Layer, a standard for security transfers online. Its version, named Passport, is intended to ensure security during data transfers, such as credit card transactions, under .Net. Vendors who want to take advantage of Passport must implement Microsoft's particular flavor of SSL. Similar questions have already been raised about Microsoft's XML implementation.

Hefty hardware, happy partners

The Microsoft Technology Center features individual labs centered around a large server farm that houses some heavy-hitting hardware, such as the Unisys ES 7000 server.

Compaq, another key hardware supplier, has invested more than US$6 million into this center, says Shane Robison, a Compaq senior vice president and chief technology officer. Robison views the Technology Center as a key weapon in the heated industry competition with Sun Microsystems and Oracle.

The center is already in business, helping large Microsoft customers migrate or upgrade their applications. An early satisfied customer is American Reprographics Company, which provides reprographic services and technology, such as construction blueprints, to the construction industry. The company sought Microsoft's help migrating from SQL Server 7 and Windows NT 4.0 to Windows 2000 Enterprise Server, says Rahul Roy, ARC's chief technology officer.

The company is now in the final phase of a three-week simulated traffic test of their new construction documentation platform at the new technology center, and expects to deploy the software soon on its own equipment, Roy says.

By planning and deploying its application in the laboratory, ARC was able to model the application in a real-time environment, including stress testing and scalability, which proved an economical alternative to producing the same scale modeling and testing environment in-house.

Staking out a share of the valley

Another partner dubs the Silicon Valley site "the center of gravity" for Microsoft and its partners and customers. DataReturn, which provides managed hosting services to companies that use Microsoft technologies, is the "preferred managing hosting provider" for the MTC, says Sunny Vanderbeck, DataReturn chief executive officer.

Microsoft's Silicon Valley technology center joins similar sites in the Seattle area, Massachusetts, and Texas. A Chicago site is scheduled to open this year.

Establishing the largest center here has symbolic significance for Microsoft, long considered an "outsider" by the Silicon Valley community. Although the MTC caters to customers worldwide, it is not coincidence that it operates on a highly visible turf previously dominated by Microsoft competitors, such as Oracle and Sun.

The MTC's success will be determined, according to Gates, "by the number of .Net applications we can build here." In fact, it could play an even more significant role in determining which camp will ultimately dominate large-scale Web applications in the future, as Microsoft is betting heavily on the business alliances it expects to forge here.

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