Microsoft bets big on Web services

Microsoft is betting that most customers will be moving toward a services-oriented architecture for their application development environments in the not-too-distant future.

Microsoft is betting that most customers will be moving toward a service-oriented architecture for their application development environments in the not-too-distant future. That bet is in the form of the next generation of Windows, code-named Longhorn, which will integrate a new communications component and other technologies to help bring Web services front and center.

As things stand now, customers need to set up a whole, mostly separate infrastructure for the development of Web services -- including Microsoft's .NET development tools, middleware like Microsoft's BizTalk, and even software to help manage and track all the Web services that are created and used within one corporation. Some of this software can be used to also develop client-server applications that are not Web services -- but some tools are specific to Web services.

And perhaps most wrenching of all, today's programmers and other IT staffers need to be trained to develop Web services and to use a host of new standards and protocols that they didn't need to deal with in a non-wired world. It's a matter of "thinking" in Web services, rather than in the vein of client-server or other development models.

The goal with Longhorn, industry analysts say, is to integrate Web services functionality so deeply into the operating system that programmers and others will be able to create and use Web services in a more intuitive fashion. A developer will be able to specify what the application should do instead of how it should work underneath the covers.

"Microsoft is certainly the company that grasped onto the concept of Web services first," says Thomas Murphy, a senior program director at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group. "And now they're taking it into the operating system." For Microsoft, the starting point is always the operating system, because that's the core of its product strategy, Murphy says. Other vendors are focused on other pieces of the pie.

There are dozens of companies in the Web services space, which has many niches. But in terms of an overall platform, a Web services decision comes down to two major choices: Microsoft's .NET and Sun Microsystems' Java, Murphy and other observers say. The goal is to eventually use Web services to help these two environments interoperate, and that's beginning to happen.

As defined by Microsoft, Longhorn has three major components: Avalon, which is the user interface; WinFS, the new file system that is based on metadata; and Indigo, the communications system that will include middleware to pass messages back and forth among different Web services, their objects and components. So a developer will no longer need to understand exactly how everything works.

One key question is how much Longhorn will incorporate Web services standards like XML Metadata Interchange, from the Object Management Group.

"If you don't subscribe to standards, then Web interoperability becomes limited," says Dana Gardner, a senior analyst with the Yankee Group in Boston. And so he wonders whether Longhorn will be positioned primarily as a means of uniting Microsoft's own architectures -- operating systems, Office applications and the like -- or whether it will allow companies to create heterogeneous systems that work together seamlessly, with the underpinnings hidden from the customer.

"It will be interesting to see whether they use Web services to further assert Windows, or to engender heterogeneity," Gardner notes.

Yet, even with Microsoft pushing Longhorn and its associated .NET tools, it won't be a completely Web services world, industry watchers say. Users will still be able to develop "regular" client-server applications, in addition to Web services.

"For desktop applications, you'll want to use object-oriented because it's tightly coupled," says Jason Bloomberg, an analyst at consultancy ZapThink LLC, in Waltham, Mass. "But for distributed computing, it makes sense to use a services-oriented model. And Microsoft is now saying that the default way of application development is now services-oriented" via Longhorn.

Also, other suppliers will be moving ahead, since Longhorn is still in development. Says Ron Schmeltzer, another ZapThink analyst: "IBM and Microsoft have been amicable over the past two or three years to help make Web services standards happen, but now the gloves are coming off. I expect Microsoft and IBM to be a lot more competitive than in the past. Microsoft will be coming from the bottom and IBM from the top."

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Tip: A look at Microsoft's Indigo technology

Article: Indigo is Microsoft's primary Web services color

Dig deeper on Visual Basic .NET Web services

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