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If You Build It, They Might Come

With Microsoft's long-awaited .Net Server operating system inching closer to official release, the Redmond, Wash., company's two-year quest to construct a Microsoft-dominated world of Web services moved closer to reality.

Combined with its February rollout of the Visual Studio.Net development toolset and the earlier release of the .Net Framework, the .Net Server is meant to serve as the third major plank of Microsoft's .Net Web services strategy. Introducing the Windows.Net server yesterday, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates tabbed Microsoft's Web services effort "a tremendous foundation for breakthrough work in many areas."

However, with all its fits and starts, Microsoft's .Net push has been a mixed success. Reflecting the software behemoth's new penchant for mild self-criticism, Gates gave Microsoft's efforts so far a lukewarm "C" grade.

Grading the .Net Server
Beginning next week, developers can download code from .Net Server, which has reached Release Candidate 1 status, the first step to a beta release. Building on the Windows 2000 server code base, .Net server boasts native support for Microsoft's .Net Framework, as well as Enterprise UDDI Services, expanded support for 64-bit processing, broader inclusion of eight-way clustering, support for non-uniform memory access, and IIS 6.0.

"They're taking all their .Net strategy and they're building on their success in Windows 2000," said Bob Stein, president of Active Network, which runs activewin.com, a site that provides Windows support and news.

"Fundamentally, the biggest shift is this is the first time the .Net framework is integrated into the system," said Randy Heffner, an analyst with Giga Information Group. Previously, developers needed to separately downloaded it in a software development pack.

Stein identified improved security as a big change with .Net server, an important step forward for the company, which is regularly dinged by security companies for releasing flawed software.

Microsoft billed .Net Server as "the most productive platform available for developing, deploying, and maintaining XML Web services."

One early customer is JetBlue Airways, the upstart low-priced airline based in Queens, NY. "Our decision to deploy the .Net Server was a relatively easy one, " said CIO Jeff Cohen. He pointed out the company already operated in an all-Windows environment and the new server has more stability and would allow JetBlue the ability to deploy Web services to critical areas, like the airline's reservations system.

"[Microsoft] is saying it's easy to connect, it's scalable, it's secure, and you're going to get the most for your money," Stein said. "There are many improvements [in .Net server] that would justify the costs of upgrading."

Revolution or Evolution?
While Microsoft has billed the .Net Server as a Web services breakthrough, others are not so sure, particularly since Gates tacitly admitted the company has oversold .Net in the past.

"This is part of the evolutionary process where Microsoft is attempting to move from its client-server model to the next-generation of client-server," said Dan Kusnetsky, vice president of system software research at IDC.

He said Microsoft might object to the description, but that the .Net Server was just the latest in the line of Windows NT servers. Other analysts agreed that .Net Server is unlikely to be transformational.

"It really doesn't shift the landscape at all as far as Microsoft's control of Web services," Giga's Heffner agreed.

While Microsoft has touted .Net as the future of Web services, companies like IBM have been deploying nascent Web services on the J2EE platform , which promises to rival an all-Microsoft approach.

"What we see shaping up is a market where we see a division between some companies focusing purely on .Net and another segment, which is probably the more sophisticated, is definitely shaping up to be owned by J2EE application servers," said Stefan Van Overtveldt, director of technical marketing for IBM's WebSphere application server.

JetBlue's Cohen agreed, saying he decided early on to cast JetBlue's lot with Microsoft. "We have a philosophy that we only fly Airbus 320s," he said. "One of the things I decided early on was that by having an all-Windows strategy I'd have a lower cost of ownership."

Overtveldt said the fundamental difference between the two approaches was that Microsoft marketed its Web services as a huge break from the past.

"We clearly see Web services as an evolutionary technology, not a revolutionary one," he said. "It's not just about building new applications, we're heavily focused on enabling existing applications to participate in a Web services world."

Giga's Heffner echoed this thought, warning that Microsoft's .Net Server was a small step forward in the still nascent Web services industry.

"To a large extent it does a disservice to Web services," he said, "because someone could come to it thinking its revolutionary but it still has some shortcomings."