Microsoft connects .NET dots

Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. are racing to make major Web services announcements this week, making it clear that users will soon receive the components needed to build Web services. At the same time, users are clamoring for the flexibility to mix and match emerging building blocks.

Microsoft will advance its Web services cause at its Professional Developer's Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles this week, while to the north, in Santa Clara, Calif., Sun will parry Microsoft with an event aimed at positioning some of its own Web services pieces.

Fortifying its Web services strategy, Microsoft will announce at PDC that its Visual Studio.NET toolkit has entered the Release Candidate stage and will be released to manufacturing by the end of the year, said Eric Rudder, senior vice president of the development and platforms evangelism division at Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft.

Microsoft will hand out code for the Visual Studio.NET Release Candidate; ASP.NET, a Web services development platform for ASPs (Active Server Pages); the .NET Framework, an XML Web services integration engine; and the .NET Compact Framework for handheld devices, embedded operating systems, and devices without operating systems, Rudder said.

Sharing the spotlight at PDC will be an SDK (software developer's kit) for HailStorm, the code-name for .NET My Services, said an industry source. A bundle of online personal productivity applications, .NET My Services is going live this week, meaning that some Microsoft partners will be able to begin using it and developers will be able to start writing applications for it, according to the source.

With the goal of helping users mix and match best-of-breed Web services, Microsoft's upcoming .NET My Services is essentially a collection of 14 components made up of new services such as .NET Presence and .NET Location, along with pieces that make up its Outlook mail client such as .NET Calendar, .NET Contacts, .NET Inbox, and .NET Lists.

Microsoft will also discuss the environment needed to support .NET My Services, according to a Microsoft representative.

During Tuesday's keynote by founder and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates, Bob Muglia, group vice president of the .NET services group, will detail how end-users will subscribe to services, how partners will pay to use the services within their own applications and products, and how the business model will work for users who repackage someone else's Web services into their own offerings, the representative said.

Mike Gilpin, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group Inc., said that Gates needs to explain to developers the relationship between .NET and Web services.

Developers should also be concerned with Microsoft tools' ease of use, their robustness, and what it takes to deploy Web services once they are built, Gilpin said.

To further its case, Microsoft will likely tout a key piece of its Web services strategy, the proprietary Passport single sign-on service, at the Oct. 25 debut of Windows XP in New York.

Vying for the spotlight on Microsoft, Sun will position its own Web services software via its Palo Alto, Calif.-based subsidiary, iPlanet E-Commerce Solutions, which plans to integrate an instant collaboration platform into its Portal Server product.

The iPlanet Portal Server Instant Collaboration Pack is designed to bolster the portal server's current collaboration capabilities with the addition of instant messaging, file sharing, polling functionality, and real-time alerts.

Real-time communication services embedded within the portal will open up collaborative possibilities for workers and will allow project teams to reach decisions faster, according to iPlanet officials. iPlanet's conglomeration of software servers work in conjunction with Sun's SunONE strategy as a Web services platform.

Many users will soon be able to weigh the merits of each camp's offering.

"Being committed to Windows servers and clients in my shop, I am very interested in what Microsoft will do with Web services," said Jim Hall, a systems integrator at a large food distributor in Omaha, Neb. "But I am also committed to IBM and Sun on the server side; so whatever [Microsoft] comes up with as a strategy, those services must interact with anything the other two do."

Analysts said that now is the time to experiment with Web services components to become fluent in interoperability.

"Companies should start playing around with and getting used to these products, but they're not really ready for production just yet," said Peter Urban, an analyst at Boston-based AMR Research Inc. "Around the first quarter of next year will be the time to begin creating Web services for production," Urban said.

Users should think in terms of the "best-of-breed aspects of infrastructure, tools, communications access, and directories," said Dana Gardner, a software analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston. "The whole idea of Web services going forward is their interoperability through things like XML, WSDL [Web Services Description Language], and SOAP [Simple Object Access Protocol], resulting in integrable components. It has been the Holy Grail for IT professionals."

Hoping to make the Holy Grail more accessible remotely, Microsoft appears ready to exploit peer-to-peer technology as part of its Web services battle plan.

Two weeks ago Microsoft bought a 20 percent stake in p-to-p pioneer Groove Networks Inc., which will show off at PDC a prototype of a Groove client designed to work with Microsoft's upcoming Pocket PC handheld devices.

Instead of differentiating between technologies, some users are choosing platforms based on what meshes most easily with their existing infrastructures.

Kenny Roberts, manager of e-business at Naptheon, a wholly owned subsidiary of aircraft-carrier maker Newport News Ship Building, in Newport News, Va., is using .NET to extend the access of a collaborative application to users at multiple shipyards. This will help the company collect information about the project management of ship repair jobs, Roberts said.

".NET fits better with the toolset that we have," Roberts said. "With Java, we would have had to do more of the behind-the-scenes hand coding, and given our time frame, we just couldn't do that."

Even so, Newport News is reviewing all options for Web services, Roberts said. A business unit has prototyped an IBM WebSphere-based Web service for its mainframes, but "at this point, we haven't made up our minds," he said.

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