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Microsoft's New WinFS Gets the PDC Buzz

LOS ANGELES -- Chatter about the new WinFS storage system in the next version of Windows ("Longhorn") is boosting the developer buzz-meter at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference.

Of all the new features they have now seen in pre-betas of Microsoft's next generation tools such as "Whidbey" Visual Studio, developers who spoke to internetnews.com say relational database functions of the next SQL Server database application ("Yukon"), which runs on top of Longhorn's WinFS data storage feature, have them talking the most.

"There's a lot of information here, but the [WinFS] file system is big news -- being able to program against a file system is big news," said attendee Jeffrey Shearer, a programmer with process control systems company Rockwell Automation.

The WinFS storage system's abilities represent some of the best of 15 years of development of the SQL Server database tools, said Gordon Mangione, corporate vice president of Microsoft's SQL Server database team.

During his keynote address introducing the pre-beta build of SQL Server Tuesday, Mangione said the WinFS storage platform in Longhorn with SQL Server running on top is designed to categorize information in multiple ways and relate one item of information to another -- a key function for a coming era of Web services.

Inheriting information from one item to another across all the applications connected to the operating system is at the core of the WinFS data model, he said. "Every element in WinFS derives from an item, concepts like security, relations."

With disk capacity growing at about 70 percent a year, Microsoft reckons that 500 Gigabyte disk drives will be available in the next few years and that many personal computer systems will have more than one disk drive.

Searching for the millions of files that those larger disk drives will hold is one reason WinFS "promotes data sharing of common information across multiple applications from multiple vendors," he said.

Microsoft said Longhorn's ability to synchronize WinFS systems to existing data sources is a great opportunity to build what it calls "synch adapters," which are tools that connect out to other systems and synchronize the data down to the type of data stored on the Windows file system.

"This allows you to interoperate with what you already have and build models where the speed of the local hard disk determines what the user experience is with their systems...rather than the speed of how you connect to the server," Mangione told developers at the second day of the five-day conference here.

Mangione said "there are several core schemas you won't want to be different on the system. Things like documents, people, multimedia have schemas that are built into the operating system that your end users can use, but more importantly, [that] you can relate to and you can extend to provide your own data."

Take the contacts feature in Outlook. "We all have 17 different ways that contacts are described on our local hard disks today. With WinFS, all those applications can derive and extend from your contacts in order to extend that [data] into other applications. So all your CRM applications automatically get something that will synchronize with your cell phone. It has other applications pointing to those contacts that are in there because you can go in as developers and extend those concepts."

Lorin Thwaits, a programmer for Wells Fargo bank, said he likes the idea of having the contact features in Outlook available to him as part of the operating system with WinFS.

"I can pull up e-mail addresses and build applications that simply integrate with that versus having to go through Outlook's object model," he said. "It really makes dealing with content a whole lot more compelling."

Robert McLaws, president and chief software architect of Interscape Technologies, an independent software partner of Microsoft, said the search functions could "absolutely revolutionize" how people conduct business, because it provides a connected search.

"They've made it simple for us to able to make it simple for our end users," said McLaws, who also started one of the early, non-Microsoft-built blogs devoted to Longhorn information, www.longhornblogs.com.

"I think it will revolutionize how we develop and how fast we develop," said Tom Basstad, chief technology offer of Cincom Systems, a maker of customer relationship management software for manufacturing operations.

Attendees from IBM, whose DB2 database product competes with Microsoft's SQL Server, said they understood the importance of adding SQL Server's relational database functions in order to extend the critical search functions necessary for a coming era of Web services.

But as for whether a database bundled into Windows could lock out other enterprise database vendors from an operating system that runs on 9 out of 10 computers in the world, the IBM attendees (who did not want to be identified), said they were still sorting through the pre-beta and thinking those implications through.

The next SQL Server edition, which is slated for beta release in the first half of 2004, features advancements such as a Common Language Runtime (CLR) that will be hosted in the database engine in order to give developers the ability to choose from a variety of development languages for building applications.

Mangione said the enhancements with XML and Web services in the next SQL Server will "provide developers with increased flexibility, simplify the integration of internal and external systems, and provide more efficient development and debugging of line-of-business and business intelligence applications."

Microsoft is doing an amazing amount of integration of its Visual Studio, SQL Server and other productivity products at all levels, said Joe Wilcox, Microsoft analyst for Jupiter Research (whose parent company also owns this publication).

"It's something I thought we'd see. Now to actually see it I'm surprised at how much integration is taking place with the development tools, and Web services, and the platform technologies" that are all being bound together, he said.

"From a development perspective, a lot of it makes sense. Microsoft can ease the developer's burden in doing that. And that's what developers want. On the other hand, it also funnels more things into the Microsoft platform, and that amount of integration raises a red flag about their ability to interoperate with other [applications] and PCs already in existence. How much of a concern that is or could be, Wilcox added, "is just too early to tell."

Corrects spelling of Interscape Technologies in prior version of story