A look at Microsoft's Indigo technology

We'll take a look at Microsoft's new service-oriented communications "plumbing" called Indigo that may well finally put Web services at the center of software development.


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Mood Indigo
Longhorn will have three basic components: Avalon, which is the user interface; WinFS, which is the new file system; and Indigo, which is the communications subsystem beneath it all. Indigo represents a major shift in the way in the way developers can create Windows programs. It moves away from the current object-oriented way of programming with technologies such as OLE and Component Object Model+, and instead makes services, rather than objects, the center of the universe in a service oriented architecture (SOA). So applications will be able to be built as services and run as services — and those applications can then far more easily be strung together and interact with one another. At the core of Indigo are Web services technologies and standards such as XML and SOAP. As Eric Rudder, senior vice president of servers and tools at Microsoft Corp, told Computerworld, "Indigo is our Web services runtime."

Indigo will handles communications among applications, including reliable messaging, heterogeneous interoperability, ways to build and use Web services, security, and peer-to-peer transactions. It will also handle synchronization and collaboration. So, for example, it would be able to unify contact lists among real-time messaging and email clients. On the user end, this would mean an end to separate data stores for contacts. On the enterprise level, it would mean unified corporate data stores.

Like most everyone else these days, Microsoft envisions a world in which Web services applications run not just on desktop, but also on mobile devices, PDAs, cell phones, and clients not even imagined today. So Indigo has been designed so that developers can write a service once, and it will be able to run on a wide variety of platforms and devices, using Indigo's Aspect-Oriented Programming technology. Additionally, Indigo will also include the Web services and messaging functionality that is now part of Microsoft's BizTalk. Microsoft also says that Indigo will dramatically simply Web services development, claiming, for example that a Web services that required 50,000 lines of code in Visual Studio .Net, or 27,000 lines of code in Microsoft's Web Services Enhancements (WSE) toolkit, will take only three lines of code in Indigo. Even when you apply the usual hype filter to the numbers, the difference may well be dramatic. Of course, since Indigo isn't here yet, we don't really know whether to believe this or not, although simplification is in Microsoft's interest, as a way to prod widespread acceptance of the operating system. So simplicity will most likely be a hallmark of Indigo as well.

What the analysts say
Analysts for the most part see Indigo as greatly beneficial to developers, and welcome Microsoft's shift toward a service oriented architecture.

"Developers will be able to build applications as service oriented applications without having to do extra work," says Ron Schmelzer, senior analyst with ZapThink. "It will have backwards compatibility, so you'll be able to run older applications as well," although those older applications won't be able to take advantage of the service oriented architecture unless they're updated with new Indigo code.

When Microsoft makes any move, especially one as dramatic as this, there are worries that it is merely another effort at world domination, and at setting proprietary standards, which would be at odds with the basic point of Web services. But Schmelzer doesn't believe that will be the case.

"They'll stick with standards for communications," he believes. "The run-time parts will be from the Microsoft library, but interactivity will be based on a Web services set of standards."

Stephen O'Grady, senior analyst with RedMonk, points out that most people have focused on Indigo and Web services, but that the new file system, WinFS, has major implications for Web services as well. The WinFS file system will be organized around metadata, so that every file will have a great deal of data associated with it — in essence each file will be part of a sophisticated database. WinFS will be based on Microsoft's SQL Server Yukon technology, and so information will be able to be easily put into and out of it. That means, O'Grady says, that "you make the consumption of Web services easier because the data will be stored in a relational-type database, and when data is described in a robust, metadata fashion, it can make Indigo that much more functional."

Not everyone agrees, though, that the move to Indigo is as dramatic as it may seem. Dana Gardner, senior analyst with the Yankee Group, says that "I'm not sure that the move to Longhorn is nearly as important as Windows System 2003, or before that, Visual Studio."

Most analysts, though tend to agree with the judgment of ZapThink's Schmelzer, who concludes, "It means that Web services are a fait accompli and are here to stay."

But when will we get it?
It's one thing to talk about Indigo, of course, and an entirely other thing to actually get your hands on it. And while Microsoft is giving out no hard and fast dates, it now appears that Longhorn won't ship until some time in 2006, although some people are holding out hope for late in 2005. Indigo code will obviously ship to developers in advance of that, so that development can be done ahead of the new operating system's final release. So over the next several years, be prepared to get increasing amounts of information about where Indigo is headed. And keep in mind that any details about Indigo are more of a statement of direction than an exact roadmap at this point.

There's no doubt that Indigo will mean major changes for enterprises, for average users, and represent a potential problem for Microsoft competitors. We'll take a look at all that in the next installment of the column.

Continues in Part Two



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About the Author

Preston Gralla, a well-known technology expert, is the author of more than 20 books, including "How the Internet Works," which has been translated into 14 languages and sold several hundred thousand copies worldwide. He is an expert on Web services and the author of a major research and white paper for the Software and Information Industry Association on the topic. Gralla was the founding managing editor of PC Week, a founding editor and then editor and editorial director of PC/Computing, and an executive editor for ZDNet and CNet. He has written about technology for more than 15 years for many major magazines and newspapers, including PC Magazine, Computerworld, CIO Magazine, eWeek and its forerunner PC Week, PC/Computing, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Dallas Morning News among others. As a well-known technology guru, he appears frequently on TV and radio shows and networks, including CNN, MSNBC, ABC World News Now, the CBS Early Show, PBS's All Things Considered and others. He has won a number of awards for his writing, including from the Computer Press Association for the Best Feature in a Computer Publication. He can be reached at preston@gralla.com.



This was first published in November 2003

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