The Microsoft Tech Ed conference has two roles. First, to educate developers into the intricacies of using and deploying Microsoft tools such as Exchange, the Digital Nervous System and COM object technology. Second, to push out new ideas and technologies and to see if they ‘float.’ During the 4 day conference there are over 350 presentations, each lasting 1 1/4 hours. It is hard to get the big picture. In fact it is not even clear is there is a big picture. The innovation time-line is extensive and blurred. Last year’s ‘hot stuff’ (XML and the DNS) are now the core of Windows 2000. This years headlines (SOAP, COM+ and Exchange 2000) will probably be in a similar position next year.
The real novelties (C# and Microsoft.net) are like the concept cars at the auto show! But amongst the Microsoft devotees at the show there is a real belief that the "2000" tools are set to change the IT world. Particular interest centres around web access to corporate data - the "Portal." A study by Merrill Lynch estimates sales of corporate portals will reach $15 billion by 2002.
Keynote speaker Dave Reed illustrated Windows’ "coming of age" with an impressive demonstration of scalability. In the commercial world that dominates IT, transaction processing (TP) is the benchmark that counts. Microsoft and IBM have taken TP to new heights with the "Firestorm" Server. This Windows 2000 "concept" machine comprises 32 Netfinity nodes with 4x700 MHZ Xeon and 4GB RAM per server. Running IBM’s DB2 database the system allows 440,000 transactions per minute. Buy yours now for $14 million! Reed sees much innovation for the knowledge worker with a new web client for Outlook with instant messaging support. A remote user can ‘take control’ of a document for editing. SQL Server 2000 is now fully web enabled, with a native XML "web store" (a query returns an XML document) with an integrated data mining engine.
On a more prosaic level the MS Active Directory (MAD) may not be sexy, but judging by the reception it got from the Microsoft aficionados, this is the biggest thing since sliced bread! MAD presents managers, users, resources and locations to the administrator.
Don Box’s three technology talks stole the show. An independent Microsoft COM and XML guru, Box can make a talk on COM seem funny! Whether it is COM+, XML or SOAP, Box gives his all - to the extent that he really makes you believe that each and every one is the tops, but for Box, XML is not about documents.
He explains there are two camps. The traditional SGML crowd who think that XML should be written and read by people, and the new kids on the block - the programming community, who write and read XML programmatically. Box enjoys taking swipes at the standards bodies, comparing the expense account driven OSI - who came up with a "piece of paper" with the "bunch of hippies" who got the TCP/IP protocol running from their garages.
It is not clear if this attack extends to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) since Microsoft’s spin here is that it is the most important member of the W3C and that it will definitely follow the W3C standards. For Box (and for Microsoft) the Document Type Definition (DTD) is dead, and is replaced by the Schema. This is preferred because of the possibility of defining data types a key issue for robust IT solutions.
SOAP is IT infrastructure which, according to Box, will allow interoperability where CORBA IIOP and DCOM have failed. SOAP is XML messaging plus remote procedure calling à la CORBA. Servers can be anywhere on the internet, and can be clustered. SOAP is a minimalist protocol for invoking methods on servers, objects, services and components. SOAP relies 100% on the XML infoset and there will be a binary specification within one year - this is necessary for compression inter alia.
Charles Eliot claims Exchange 2000 is "a new way of looking at how computers can serve the needs of the world"! From enterprise messaging system to "something far bigger and more interesting." E2K’s Release to Manufacturing is "only weeks away." Three main goals have driven the development team:-
Exchange 2000 messaging will be internet-based SMPT and HTML/XML. The web store will store any kind of information and will be tightly integrated with Internet Information Server and Office 2000, while the Active Directory unifies security and access.
Content indexing on the fly is promised, importantly with enhanced search down into attachments. XML is "behind" everything and offers a "rich" experience from just a browser. Note that now saving an Office 2000 documents as a web folder allows properties such as author, date of last modification etc. to propagate into Exchange 2000. Eliot predicts that instant messaging (and SMS for mobiles) will become part of the desktop and that online meetings will move into the mainstream, as they have chez Microsoft, offering "a totally compelling user experience." Voice and video will be common messaging formats in fact we all already create lots of voice content as 50% of cell phone traffic is to/from voicemail.
The .net platform (codename Whistler) is in much the same situation as XML was last year. It is not so much vapourware, but one has the impression that Microsoft is not really ready to talk much about it. Tony Goodhew defined .net as an attempt to "meld computing and communications" and to "transform the web". This is to be achieved through a new, loosely-coupled XML-based Microsoft .net programming model. XML-based services will allow a web site to "federate and collaborate with others." Microsoft is to invest $2bn over the next 3 years in the project.
UK ASP specialist Netstore demonstrated Exchange 2000’s ability to provide a hosted environment for the 8,000 Tech Ed attendees. Netstore believes that ASP, the delivery of software functionality for a fixed monthly fee will be a great boost to smaller companies which can now "play with big boy’s tools" without the overhead of full-blown IT support. The Tech Ed deployment, the "largest hosted Exchange 2000 facility to date" - with 8,500 seats - took a mere 3 days to deploy.
As more companies offer employees internet access, some see the need to avoid abuse. SurfControl ensures that "workplace internet access is business access." SurfControl works by web site categorization and comes with ready made URL "filters." Bandwidth can be freed-up for corporate traffic but constrained for "casual, non-business related content." The software also keeps track of net use by employee - so you had better log-off that porn site now!
German start-up GeoDB has built a Geographical Information System using the database for all storage - there are "no data files." GeoDB runs on Access, SQL Server or Oracle 8 and cooperates with Autocad or Visio. The product was developed for Bayer as a 3D GIS database of sewer routes around chemical plant - mainly used for collision avoidance. GeoDB deploys the Excel PersistentStream format which can be extended to new data types with Visual Basic. Next version (5.0) will use Open GIS specification. GeoDB is delivered as a data bound VBA control letting users tabs through GIS objects.
FastLane’s DM/Suite has been selected by Shell Services International (SSI) to deploy Windows 2000 server and active directory services to over 60,000 Shell group users in 180 countries. This is "probably the largest Windows 2000 active directory in the world." Quest (which has just acquired FastLane technologies) offers Active Directory deployment and consulting. SSI’s Johan Krebbers said "Our Windows 2000 targets are aggressive, as are our objectives for capitalizing on Active Directory’s many features. FastLane understands these technologies."
Data Junction, is a visual design tool for building and testing "transformation objects" that work with hundreds of applications and structured data formats. Components automate application integration and data transformation through drag-and-drop. Project Designer is a graphical process flow component that provides a canvas onto which process steps can be dragged/dropped and interconnected. Conversion Designer combines a GUI with a transformation engine to map data sources to target structures, while allowing the user to manipulate the data in "virtually limitless" ways. A massive number of data formats are supported. Data Junction claims 100,000 licensees including a dozen major oil and oil service companies.
HP’s Digital Sender can legitimately lay claim to be Knowledge Management Hardware! A neat networked scanner that integrates Exchange and Notes letting you scan to the network, fax or mail documents. The Sender can perform OCR on the fly and leverages HP’s AutoStore software to manage document workflow.
There are trade-offs in ASP. Using the Exchange 2000 mail system at the show, we couldn't see the Sent Items. A right mouse click should have brought help, but no. Couldn't quite figure it out, but in fact this is a structural issue. The web browser interface does not have the same functionality as a compiled client application. So your Exchange running over the wire is not quite the same as the Exchange running on your LAN. An Office binary application offers a "rich" experience as opposed to a dumb browser. But the browser brigade are fighting back promising their own richness soon.
Some Box one-liners
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