Although Microsoft has been talking about its sweeping .Net strategy for at least a year now, many companies are still trying to determine what .Net means to them. In fact, many IT professionals have trouble articulating what .Net even is. That's because it's less of a specific product or tool than it is a "set of technology architectures and products, and a renewed developer and partner initiative," according to Aberdeen Group. "Simply put," says Aberdeen in its report 'Microsoft .Net: A Foundation for Connected Business,' ".Net is software that connects information, people, systems and devices."
Uh, well, OK, that's clear as mud. No wonder customers are confused about it.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to listen to the voice of reason when it comes to Microsoft products and strategy. That voice belongs to Mark Minasi, a technology writer and speaker. Minasi was addressing several hundred technical-types at HP Enterprise Technical Symposium, and his mission was to help these folks determine the value of .Net Server to their own organizations. His status as "independent consultant" frees him from the binds of recommending a product for the sake of sales. He has written 19 books on topics such as Windows NT, 2000 and XP; Linux; LANs; and PC upgrades and maintenance. He's also a Certified MCSE 2000 and A7 Level Computer Expert. In short, he knows his stuff, and he knows how to explain it to others.
The talk I heard was primarily about Windows .Net Server 2003, although he did give passing mention to the .Net strategy as a whole. He likened it to IBM's old Systems Network Architecture, which was a way of tying together a bunch of disparate IBM products to make it look like they were developed as a coherent set of tools. In a sense, that's what Microsoft is doing with .Net - taking products that were developed in silos and adding features and extensions that allow them to function together as "Web services." Minasi says the .Net strategy is "good overall," but it's hard to point to many "must have" features. There are "many very likable things" about it, though.
At the heart of the .Net strategy is .Net Server 2003, which comes in various versions. Minasi describes .Net Server 2003 Standard Edition as "Windows 2000 Server, Version 1.1." He calls the product name change "a double-em-double-you," or a Microsoft Marketing Word. Don't be fooled by the fancy new name, he says, as this is basically an upgrade that is small scale, relative to the introduction of Windows 2000 a few years ago.
That doesn't mean it's an upgrade to be ignored, though. He identified several major .Net Server selling points that network managers should be interested in:
* The wireless support found in Windows XP, including security that uses .Net's RADIUS server in combination with certificates and Active Directory to authenticate your device.
* Messenger Server Support, which allows you to communicate via instant messaging with people in the Passport directory or via Exchange 2000.
* XP networking features, for setting up good basic network services.
* Improvements in Active Directory (although to get the most benefit, you need to upgrade all your servers).
* New security features as well as better reliability (the main reason to upgrade from Windows NT).
* Improved desktop and remote support.
* Whole new services, in the form of a complete e-mail server with a POP3 component and a stripped-down version of SQL Server.
All told, the improvements in this update of Windows 2000 are significant enough to warrant a look at .Net Server 203. However, he's not urging wholesale upgrades of all of your Windows 2000 servers. (If you're still using Windows NT, however, you should make this upgrade when it becomes available, he says.)
Minasi says .Net Server works fine with clients running Windows 2000, NT 4, and even W9x systems, so you aren't forced to upgrade your desktops.
For more of Mark's sage advice on the topic, visit his web site at www.minasi.com. Take the time to subscribe to his free newsletter, in which he shares his experience and helpful suggestions from readers. With technology getting more complex every day, and the marketing hype growing exponentially, it's nice to be counseled by a voice of reason.