Microsoft Corp.'s .Net strategy is something akin to the old television game show "Concentration," which challenged viewers to decipher a phrase cleverly written in letters and hieroglyphics.
While Microsoft describes .Net as software that lives on the Internet instead of coming in shrink-wrapped packages, the year-old strategy still has IT executives scratching their heads as they try to figure out what the slew of .Net marketing lingo, standards and products will mean to their enterprise networks".Net is like a five-dimensional cube," says Peter Osbourne, group manager for advanced technology and decision support systems for Dollar Rent-A-Car Systems Inc. "I'm a mathematician and I know if you try to visualize that cube, you will never understand it. You need to look just at the pieces you can use."
In its basic form, .Net consists of development tools, server software and devices from PCs to phones that are smart enough to run applications locally or at the server.
Also included is prebuilt code that can snap into other applications. For example, a prebuilt calculator program accessible over the Internet could be called into a mortgage or loan program running on another Web site.
Microsoft's Bill Gates said last June that .Net will affect every piece of code the company writes, and that not a single product at Microsoft will go untouched by .Net. Microsoft is committing US$2 billion through 2003 to help developers build .Net services.
The key for such integration is XML (Extensible Markup Language) and its derivatives, which will be used to create standard application programming interfaces and so-called Web Services - chunks of reusable code.
The idealistic conclusion is that Microsoft is embracing standards for interoperability across servers, development languages, applications and devices. But critics fear .Net will evolve into another "embrace-and-extend" ploy through which Microsoft tweaks standards to its own liking.
"Microsoft is shooting for the same degree of dominance in Web computing that it had in the client/server model," warns Jamie Lewis, president of The Burton Group.
Today, what's of use in .Net is mostly aimed at Microsoft's legion of developers. These developers are relying on XML and its offspring, the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), an emerging standard for sending messages across the Internet that activate programs or applications regardless of their underlying infrastructure. Also useful are Universal Description, Discovery and Integration - a directory of companies and their XML interfaces - and Web Services Description Language, which describes what a piece of application code can do.
Companies are using the standards to create common interfaces that integrate unlike corporate systems. This fall, Microsoft hopes to make that exercise easier with the release of its Visual Studio.Net development tools and .Net Framework, programming interfaces that support multiple languages. Microsoft also created a programming language called C# that it submitted to the European Computer Manufacturers Association for consideration as a standard.
But today, to most companies .Net means using XML and SOAP to let systems talk to one another and share data - a goal that by no means defines just .Net. After all, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Novell and Sun are among other vendors using the same standards for their own strategies similar to .Net.
"If the .Net computing model is based on XML and SOAP, the whole industry is going that way. If you want to, you can cater to Microsoft and call it .Net," says Dwight Davis, an analyst with Summit Strategies. "Microsoft hasn't defined what it takes to be a .Net application, a .Net product."
But some enterprise customers are creating their own definitions.
Dollar Rent-A-Car's Osbourne used SOAP for what he calls a .Net Web Service to create standard interfaces so Dollar's business partners could tap into the company's car reservation system. He also is readying a pilot using Microsoft's BizTalk Server to translate electronic data interchange transactions from travel agents for car rentals.
Dollar used Microsoft's SOAP Toolkit 2.0, which is nearing release (1.0 went out in December) to create an interface that lets Southwest Airlines' Unix system easily tap into Dollar's reservation system, which runs on VMS and Windows 2000 (see graphic). The interface, which is in final testing, eliminated the need to hard-code a communication channel between the two systems.
"We could have hard-wired it, but that is low-level and we wanted something at a higher level. SOAP created a generic front end. Anything that can talk to that front end can talk to our reservation system," Osbourne says.
And generic means reusable.
"We designed the SOAP interface for Southwest, but we will use it for our Web site. Our Palm application already uses it, and we're building a Pocket PC application," Osbourne says. "It took us three days to build the prototype for the reservation system. It was amazingly simple, almost too good to be true."
It's a first-step application, but exactly the kind of enterprise network application Microsoft has in mind for companies buying into .Net.
"What business people can do is integration of applications and commerce over the Internet," says Barry Goffe, group manager for .Net enterprise solutions. ".Net will allow enterprises to build a reusable integration layer [with XML] that they could not build before."
Another .Net adopter is Solidworks, which makes Windows-based CAD software. The company used SOAP to develop 20 APIs for its hosted Web Service called 3-D PartStream.Net.
But the company uses a familiar back end that would be hard to describe as .Net.
It consists mostly of Microsoft's SQL Server, Internet Information Server and Win 2000 products. The company also uses Microsoft's Application Center 2000, one of eight .Net Enterprise Servers, to load balance its Web site.
The infrastructure hosts the Solidworks Web Service, which delivers three-dimensional models to online catalog sites. The SOAP interfaces let users download, configure on the fly and translate models from any format for insertion into any online catalog.
"The most intensive part is on the development side," says Mark Digregorio, partner and technical manager. "To set up with partners, we have to ask if they understand XML and SOAP."
So what's left to figure out is how the infrastructure becomes .Net and where Microsoft may put its hooks into IT executives.
Microsoft has released a set of eight .Net Enterprise Servers. Many of them, including Win 2000, are .Net in name only and still a version or two away from truly supporting .Net.
The .Net strategy is likely to have little impact on network infrastructure in the short term outside of upgrades to Win 2000, which is required to run any .Net server.
But wrapping them together with a management platform is a .Net issue Microsoft has yet to solve. The company is developing a platform, which includes upgrades to the operating system, System Management Server and the forthcoming Microsoft Operations Manager, but it won't be ready until next year.
Other Microsoft software, such as Exchange and SQL Server, are on the way to being combined into one repository to support .Net and XML. And new servers such as XML translation engine BizTalk Server 2000, Web server load balancer Application Center 2000 and mainframe middleware Host Integration Server 2000 will bring additional capabilities.
On the client side, there is technology such as Microsoft's Stinger software to extend .Net to mobile devices. The soon-to-be-released Windows XP desktop operating system is starting to incorporate .Net technology, including the recently released HailStorm. The HailStorm Web Services are authentication and instant messaging services available over the Web to consumers.
HailStorm also has become a lightning rod for critics who say the technology is the beginning of where Microsoft will lock users into .Net.
"Microsoft is injecting its own services between corporate Web sites and their customers," says Dana Gardner, an analyst with Aberdeen Group. "The question is, If I run a Web site, do I want Microsoft to be between me and my customers?"
With HailStorm's Passport service, a free offering available on MSN, Microsoft could control authentication services and user information for hundreds of thousands of Web sites. Nearly 160 million Passport IDs are in use and 10 million are being issued daily.
Sources say Microsoft is toying with the idea of collecting micropayments on those services, therefore guaranteeing, regardless of platform or client, that it gets a cut on millions of authentications made to Web sites daily.
"Microsoft couches .Net in the words of standards, but the devil is in the details," says Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst with IDC.
"Looking at XML and SOAP and how they will be incorporated into development tools, the [operating system], serverware and middleware gives me concern that Microsoft is building a fortress one component at a time," he adds.
Kusnetzky says it is a "clever strategy because business people hear all the right words - open, interoperable, compatibility - but a lot of the details are not yet specified and they can still be spun in Microsoft's favor to where others have to jump over high hurdles to participate."
It's a strategy similar to those Microsoft has put forth in the past for file formats, APIs and development technologies such as Component Object Model and Distributed COM. Such strategies were what got Microsoft into trouble with the government in recent years.
Microsoft's .Net plan shows signs of being different with its XML-based interoperability thrust, but the strategy could become entangled in a Web of Microsoft's own making.
If that starts to happen, IT executives who keep a critical eye on Microsoft now may be able to head the company off this time.