Microsoft's back office blitz

Microsoft stunned its customers this month with a swarm of product announcements at its Professional Developers Conference (PDC) and first-ever Business Summit. Add a huge company reorganization that consolidated six divisions into three (Platform Products & Services, Entertainment & Devices, and Business) and even a casual observer might conclude that something big is afoot in Redmond.

Analysts see the reorg as primarily a streamlining effort, although some note that placing "Services" alongside "Products" revealed just how serious Redmond is about fending off software-as-a-service plays from Google and its ilk. When it comes to the glut of new software and technologies, however, many IT folks are left to wonder what it all really means for the enterprise.

The answer isn't all that difficult to see when you step back a bit. Microsoft is marshalling its resources to continue what the .Net initiative started five years ago: use Microsoft's desktop dominance to drive its software ever deeper into the heart of enterprise computing. The difference is that this is Microsoft's widest-ranging, best coordinated assault in a long time.

To begin with, all the new APIs originally associated with Longhorn -- plus a new one just announced, WWF (Windows Workflow Foundation) -- are now in beta, laying the groundwork for a much richer Windows app dev environment. Meanwhile, new Web services connectivity and new versions of Office and SharePoint may fulfill Microsoft's promise to make Windows desktop apps front ends for enterprise apps. Lastly, the new Vista version of Windows, shipping late next year, promises to be the most enterprise-worthy ever.

The penguin terror

Why the swarm of product intros now? Jon Rymer, a vice president at Forrester, thinks heated competition has something to do with it. "A lot of this new development started when Linux and open source first became a real market threat back a few years ago," he says. "That galvanized Microsoft management much more than most people realize. The stuff we're seeing today is a direct result of that."

Several technologies were demonstrated at PDC, but three were key: WinFX generally, WWF specifically, and the newfound importance of Windows SharePoint Services. The WinFX SDK contains everything developers need to build applications using this next-gen set of APIs, including .Net Framework 2.0, WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation, formerly known as Avalon) and WCF (Windows Communication Foundation, formerly code-named Indigo).

Whereas WPF provides developers with a richer GUI than ever before, WCF provides the new programming communications model, which is heavily Web Services-oriented, with a deep reliance on XML that also includes efficiency benefits, like a single API for secure app-to-app communication.

WWF: Whatcha gonna do?

WWF may not have Hulk Hogan's physical brawn, but in terms of Microsoft platform integration, it has just as much muscle. For developers, WWF promises to become the glue that binds disparate Microsoft applications together.

Scott Woodgate, group product manager at Microsoft's Connected System Division is excited about WWF. "It's really going to enable IT departments and front-line business to react much more quickly and compete more effectively." He describes WWF's server side as a sequencing engine that scans existing .Net applications for specific code phrases and then converts those phrases into workflow "activities." These then get stored on a SharePoint server and separately managed and altered using wizard-style tools embedded in specific applications for power users or Visual Studio 2005 talking directly to SharePoint. The result is the capability to manage and modify the workflow process directly, with the underlying applications changing automatically to follow suit.

With its new hooks to WWF and Visual Studio 2005, Windows SharePoint Services will act as a bridge between Microsoft's finished product lines and its development-tool building blocks. For customers running SharePoint merely because it's an easy way to build an intranet, or even those not running it all, get set for a change. WSS could become as core as Active Directory to a mostly-Microsoft enterprise.

WWF's integration with SharePoint as workflow repository is only step one. SharePoint will also enjoy direct ties to Microsoft's new application library, including the much ballyhooed Office 12 as well as the new Dynamics suite. This new library, formerly code-named Project Green and now supplanting Microsoft Business Solutions, was renamed as the Dynamics line of ERP, supply-chain, and CRM servers at the Business Summit show in September. But Dynamics is more than just a simple name change.

Green waves

James Utzschneider, general manager at the Business Solutions Group, has been working on Project Green for several years. "We were tasked with designing a new suite of back-end ERP servers based on the Microsoft stack, and Green is the result." Utzschneider describes Green mainly in terms of ERP, accounting, and CRM. Instead of relying on disparate applications, such as the Great Plains, Axapta, and Navision applications currently available, however, Dynamics will eventually work off a single back-end code base.

The radical shift comes at presentation time. Instead of purchasing suite software, Dynamics customers will eventually purchase the software only in terms of user roles. "We've defined 50 roles so far," says Utzschneider, "and we expect to define another 25 or so in 2006 to 2007. These roles will encompass the full functionality we've observed so far across thousands of our customers' ERP implementations." Customers will be able to design their own roles, and the functions of these roles will be directly affected by WWF.

Utzschneider acknowledges that the full Dynamics vision is still a long way off. "We know this has to be rolled out over time, and not just because we've still got plenty of work to do," he says. Microsoft feels its ERP customers simply can't upgrade at an all-at-once pace, so the Dynamics technology is being rolled out in two phases that Utzschneider calls Green Wave 1 and Green Wave 2.

"Green Wave 1 basically represents the client-facing portions of the technology," Utzschneider says, "while Green Wave 2 will deal with the full power of the back-end server technology."

A big part of Microsoft's front-end vision is definitely Office 12, which represents one of the most radical updates of the productivity suite since its inception. Not only upgraded with new tools and a glitzy new Avalon-based interface, Office 12 will receive new peer-to-peer collaboration capabilities based on Microsoft's Groove Networks acquisition. Additionally, SharePoint will act as a collaboration and workflow server for Office 12. Applications such as Excel and InfoPath will get many new server-side capabilities that smack much less of productivity than they do of client interfaces to server-side applications.

When asked whether Office 12 is evolving into a full client for Microsoft's back-end server library, Utzschneider balked, saying that idea was taking things a step too far. Analysts, though, don't necessarily see it that way. "It's definitely evolving that way," Rymer says. "It may still be a stand-alone productivity suite, but the new functionality that Microsoft's been showing around Office 12 all tracks back to its server applications, especially SharePoint and Dynamics."

Wow 'em with Vista

There are several other technology announcements that Microsoft rolled out in September -- more than we have space to cover, in fact -- but all have their place in the new product vision. Viewed as a whole, the best way to summarize that vision is: "Wow 'em with Vista."

All of the new announcements discussed here tie into each other as well as to the rollout of Windows Vista. True, WinFS along with the new presentation, communications, and workflow Foundations can be installed on Windows XP, as can Office 12. But this is the first time since 1995 that a major release of Windows and Office have been scheduled to ship simultaneously. At that time -- the second half of 2006 -- the Foundations will also be finalized. And to make Vista downright irresistible to enterprises, Microsoft is promising a bevy of new security and deployment features. It's going to be a whole new world, says Redmond, and to get the full benefit you'd better buy into the whole thing.

All this must be balanced against Microsoft's unfortunate tendency to promise features or reliability it can't deliver. The new Microsoft middleware vision of WFC, WWF, and SharePoint sounds amazing, but it leaves several questions unanswered.

Paul Lindo, CIO at FB2 and a thirteen-year IT veteran of the Federal Reserve Bank, has several concerns. "This is going to raise big security concerns. [WWF] is opening an entirely new interface to not one but several underlying applications. How does this get locked down, and do I lose functionality by locking it down?"

Programmers outside the Microsoft fold are also slightly skeptical. David Aubrey, senior Java software architect at KomatiSoft, is less worried about integration than performance. "[WinFX] actually looks like it'll help us talk to Microsoft applications, not hinder. But XML and Web Services are still performance hogs no matter which side of the fence you're on, so banking an entire strategy on it right now seems like they're once again hoping new hardware will make up the speed difference."

Real answers to those questions must wait until Vista is a stable and available platform. The new slew of Microsoft announcements may portend the next level of enterprise computing, and it may even take some of the sheen off the Linux Penguin, but the way Microsoft is selling it really hasn't changed. The deeper the feature set you need, the deeper you'll get with Microsoft.

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