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Microsoft Gears Up for Longhorn With Developers

While release of the next version of the Windows operating system, codenamed Longhorn, is still at least two years away, developers are likely to get the most thorough look yet at its new features near the end of the month, as Microsoft begins to arm them with the tools they need to utilize it.

"You can sum up what they're going to be talking about in one big word: Longhorn," David Smith, an analyst with Gartner Group, told internetnews.com. "It's the monster release, the bet the company release."

Microsoft has promised code for Longhorn -- as well as SQL Server "Yukon," Visual Studio "Whidbey," and other technologies -- to attendees of its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles on Oct. 26 through Oct. 30. The CD with the code has been described as a "pre-beta release." The release is part of an attempt by Microsoft, espoused earlier this year by Eric Rudder, senior vice president of Server and Tools at Microsoft, to be more transparent in its roadmap. It also helps give developers the knowledge they need to prepare applications for Longhorn when it launches.

Just how far along development has come remains to be seen, as the operating system is not slated for release until 2005, and some analysts believe 2006 is more likely. Microsoft has promised a "major architectural change" with the Longhorn release. While the code shown at PDC should give developers a good idea of the direction it is going, the release remains at least two years away and subject to change.

Still, developers should have a chance to dig into a number of topics, including WinFS (short for Windows Future Storage), which may either be a new file system or a resource manager for the existing NTFS file system, the 'Whidbey' release of the Visual Studio .NET development environment, the 'Avalon' graphics engine, and the 'Indigo' Web services framework. Some details may also be forthcoming on NGSCB (short for Next Generation Secure Computing Base), a new strategy by Microsoft, formerly known as Palladium, which is intended to integrate security features, DRM features and hardware into a single security package.

Microsoft is likely to spend the most time underscoring integration and the next-generation file system, WinFS, Joe Wilcox, an analyst with Jupiter Research (which is owned by the same company as this Web site) told internetnews.com.

"I think the two most important things that will come out of the show is the tighter integration between the developer tools and next-generation products, and the new file system," Wilcox said.

The WinFS file system, developed for and expected to debut with the next version of SQL Server (codenamed Yukon), is slated to first see light when Yukon ships in the second half of 2004. In Longhorn, WinFS is intended to be the first time server technology will manage data on a home PC through a relational database, making it context dependent. By doing so, WinFS should dramatically cut the length of search times while also offering new searching and navigational features.

That, Wilcox said, means it is likely that Microsoft, and Bill Gates during his keynote at the show, will spend some time discussing metadata -- and possibly an attempt to establish some type of new standardization for metadata.

Metadata will allow the new Windows to improve its search capabilities by offering the ability to search for things beyond just a file name. A particular audio file may have metadata that includes artist, album, composer, label, etc.

"Search is a big deal for Microsoft right now," Wilcox said. "There is a recognition that the kind of information people are accessing today is different than it was in the past."

The question remains whether WinFS is actually a new file system, or just something that runs on top of Windows' existing NTFS file system. Early builds of the operating system that have leaked to the Net showed WinFS operating on top of NTFS, but Wilcox noted that those early builds may just have been part of the testing process. If WinFS is running on top of NTFS, then it should be easier for developers to prepare existing applications for Longhorn. If not, developers will need lead time to prepare their applications for the new architecture.

"The sooner Microsoft can get that file system out there for testing, the better," Wilcox said. "If there really is a new file system, not just SQL Server running on top of NTFS, we're talking about a major architectural change. The developers will need lots of time to prepare for that, and the customers as well."

Gartner's Smith, however, was not so sure.

"My understanding is that the whole goal of the file system project is to make it not really relevant as to what's underneath," Smith said, noting that he views WinFS as a sort of 'virtual' concept. "It's a universal storage model where the underlying technology is less important."

In other words, the point is to knock down the walls that separate data in a Windows environment. For instance, Outlook Calendar data would no longer be restricted to Outlook, but could be utilized by other applications, so long as they are designed to work with WinFS.

But both Smith and Wilcox agreed that developer tools will remain one of the most important parts of the show. The Tools & Languages track at the conference will focus on Whidbey, codename for the next version of Visual Studio .NET that is slated to appear in 2004 along with Yukon (in fact, it has been referred to as Visual Studio for Yukon). A number of sessions in the Architecture & Infrastructure, Mobile PC & Devices, Data Systems and Web Services tracks also focus on Whidbey.

Talking up Whidbey at the VSLive! Conference in New York earlier this year, Rudder told developers that the aim of Whidbey is to set a new standard for developer productivity, while providing enterprise-grade scalability and performance.

Aside from deeper Web services support and enhancements to the Visual C#, Visual C++, Visual J# and Visual Basic languages, a primary push with Whidbey is integration with Yukon in order to provide more robust tools for database programming.

"The conference may showcase a tighter business strategy and technological integration between Microsoft's developer tools and major forthcoming products like Yukon and Longhorn," Wilcox said.

Another major push with Longhorn is to provide a totally new graphical experience, with support for much higher screen resolutions, and 3D.

"One of the big things about Longhorn is the new user interface," Smith said. "It has a 3D look and feel, higher fidelity and better graphical experience. I would be surprised if we weren't going to hear quite a bit about that."

The technology is actually separated into 'Aero,' the new user interface for Longhorn, and 'Avalon,' which is the graphics engine for the operating system. The early bet among analysts and other Microsoft watchers is that developers won't see much of Aero, though Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates may offer a sneak preview during his keynote.

"From my perspective, it doesn't matter whether or not we see it," Wilcox said. "Microsoft is, at best case scenario, two years from releasing this OS, and probably more than that. The interface is going to go through so many changes. Whether Microsoft shows it off now, or six months or a year from now, what's the difference? The final interface may look very different anyway."

But for developers, Avalon is likely far more important at this stage, Wilcox explained, noting that supporting Avalon could require a lot of prog ramming to ensure applications take advantage of all the things the graphic engine enables. Early access to Avalon is even more important to hardware developers, he said, because they require much longer lead time.

Backing that up, the entire Client track at the conference focuses on Avalon.

In the Web services realm, Microsoft will also spend a lot of time discussing Indigo, Microsoft's forthcoming programming model and framework for building connected applications and Web services. Microsoft has largely kept quiet on the topic of Indigo, which is expected to debut in the Longhorn timeframe. But that quiet period should come to an end with the PDC, with the Web services track devoted almost entirely to that technology.

It is not clear how much time Microsoft will devote to NGSCB at the show. At the WinHEC show in May, Microsoft held 16 hours of breakout sessions on the technology, which depends upon deep collaboration between Microsoft and hardware providers. At that show, Gates said that NGSCB will combine work on the processor, keyboard (which will incorporate cryptographic technology), video display and Windows itself -- a software component dubbed "Nexus." The controversial NGSCB technology, which some critics have suggested could serve as a Trojan for Microsoft-placed digital rights management (DRM) technology, works by creating a secondary operating environment within Windows that securely connects applications, memory, storage and peripherals.

Bryan Willman, a leading Microsoft Windows architect focused on NGSCB, said at the time that the security platform delivers four fundamental components: attestation, sealed storage, strong process isolation and secure input and output.

Willman compared attestation to having a document notarized, allowing other computers to verify that a computer is the computer it claims to be and is running the software it claims to be running. Meanwhile, sealed storage allows users to encrypt information. Strong process isolation "essentially acts as a bank vault," Willman said.

"What we've done is carve out a secure area -- what we call the 'right-hand side' -- which looks a lot like the regular CPU that you use to do normal, day-to-day computing, which we call the 'left-hand side,'" Willman said. "Today, computers only have a left-hand side. With NGSCB, operations that run on the right-hand side are protected and isolated from the left-hand side, which makes them significantly more secure from attack."

The final component, secure input and output, encrypts keystrokes before they can be read by software and then decrypts them once they reach the right-hand side.

"That means that nobody can use malicious software to record and steal or modify your keyboard's strokes," Willman said. "Secure output is similar. The information that appears onscreen can be presented to the user so that no one else can intercept it and read it."