RealTime IT News

Getting to Know WinFS

As the faithful descend on the Los Angeles Convention Center for the four-day technology fest that is the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2005, one of the biggest draws will likely be its next-generation file system: WinFS.

Considered by many as nearly dead in the water because of an expected final release well after the launch of Windows Vista, WinFS has stirred up excitement again since the first beta launch of the technology last month.

Essentially a relational database index wrapped around the NT File System (NTFS ), WinFS seeks to index all file information on the computer or network -- whether it's a Word document or an e-mail, video clip, RSS note or audio file -- and find connections between them to make finding and manipulating gigabytes of information easier to manage.

Application developers outside the Redmond giant will be able to join this new level of data togetherness and create innovative products using the WinFS API , one of the five building blocks to the technology (the others are Core WinFS, data model, schemas and services).

Microsoft officials said feedback has been good since the launch of its first beta. They'll likely hear a lot more at PDC, where developers will get some face time with members of the WinFS project team and learn more about developing applications for WinFS with a number of learning sessions and hands-on lab time.

That's good news. Over at the WinFS Team Blog, more information on the technology is one of the biggest calls from developers and interested technophiles -- where's the documentation, will it support previous versions of Windows, is WinFS a true file system or a sub-system?

According to a Microsoft spokesperson, WinFS will still be in beta form when Vista launches late next year. When it ships, it will be available as a downloadable add-on component like the .NET framework is today. Officials are still mulling whether WinFS will support Windows XP, though the beta includes XP support.

Application developers will like the new technology because it allows them to leverage the built-in data stores found in WinFS rather than building their own proprietary data technologies, Microsoft officials said. This way, they said, developers can focus on their application's features rather than tying it to the file system.

Or, as Kimbro Staken, an independent software developer who authors a blog called Inspirational Technology, WinFS will create even more vendor lock-in than before. With an application making use of WinFS, he said, it will be difficult to develop cross-platform programs.

"I would love to be able to use it, as a developer, if it was a cross-platform tool available on Mac and Linux and Windows," he said. "But if it's just on Windows it's an interesting technology that's just interesting."

Networks these days are heterogeneous, not Windows-specific realms, Staken said, and the innovative developers Microsoft is looking to appeal to "simply don't care about Windows-only technologies anymore."

But you have to give Microsoft credit, said Ron Schmelzer, a senior analyst at research firm ZapThink. They're one of those companies that operate in their own universe and when you make the decision to go with Microsoft, a whole world of opportunities come to you; but you can't go halfway, he said.

The danger, he said, is that Microsoft's plan to deliver WinFS -- and Avalon and other next-generation technologies -- only on Windows Vista could alienate its customer base (and by extension application developers), many of which are still on pre-Windows XP platforms. People, he said, might look at switching to lower-cost Linux if the price to migrate is too high.

"Microsoft realizes they want to keep people on the Windows platform," Schmelzer said. "Upgrading them would be nice but maintaining their operating system hegemony is more important than simply upgrading people because there's so much more on the platform, like BizTalk, SharePoint and the Office environment."