‘Whidbey’ Paving Path For Microsoft’s Longhorn

Paving a path toward its next-generation Longhorn operating system,
Microsoft next month will seed the developer community with an updated pre-release version of its next Visual Studio .NET platform , code-named Whidbey.

Though Longhorn, the code-name for Microsoft’s next version of Windows, isn’t expected to hit the market before 2006, Whidbey’s reception in the meantime could help mold expectations for the next-generation operating system.

That’s because Whidbey will bring into public view both a new runtime model and the first of a
host of new APIs , which will be at the heart of all applications running with Longhorn.

With so much riding on Whidbey, Microsoft appears to be moving it
into public view gingerly. Microsoft unveiled what it called an “early preview release” of Whidbey last fall to attendees at its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles.

Ari Bixhorn, Microsoft’s
product manager for Visual Studio .NET, said a more mature build is slated for release at the company’s upcoming Visual Studio conference slated for March in San Francisco. Bill Gates is scheduled to deliver a keynote on Whidbey.

“At VSLive, we’ll release,” Bixhorn told internetnews.com. “I don’t have an official name for it. It will be an updated version.” The release pattern marks a more incremental approach than Microsoft’s traditional beta-and-release model. “Over the course of the product cycle, we’re trying to release builds to customers on a more frequent basis,” Bixhorn said. The idea is to enable developers to uncover bugs and help Microsoft ensure that Whidbey is ready for prime time when it hits the streets.

“We’re planning to go to a full public beta in mid-2004 and
release-to-manufacturing (RTM) by the end of the year,” Bixhorn added.

The Path to Managed Code

Whidbey has two main components: the Visual Studio development
environment, and the underlying software model, called the .NET
Framework.

The latter serves as the enabling technology for building and running Windows applications and hooking them into the operating system and the Web services environments.

“The biggest thing in terms of Whidbey on the road to Longhorn is the concept of managed code,” said Bixhorn. Managed code is implemented via the common-language runtime, or CLR, supported in Whidbey. Conceptually, the CLR
encapsulates an application. For one, it supplies the many software
libraries required to access Windows functions. But more importantly,
it handles low-level details such as memory management and security functions in order to avoid crashes and prevent the execution of malicious code respectively.

“CLR is the whole underpinning of .NET,” said Visual Studio expert
Andrew Brust, president of Progressive Systems, a software development consultancy in New York. “It’s the central infrastructure of the platform.”

The CLR brings together languages and APIs which heretofore had to be handled separately. “If you were successfully programming before .NET, much of the stuff you had to do involved separate APIs for databases, for multimedia and for other things,” explained Brust.

“Doing low-level stuff involved calls to the operating system, and when things got complicated with memory management, you could try to build the plumbing yourself or rely on the [programming] language. With CLR, it does everything itself.”

The CLR is effectively the nuts-and-bolts mechanism that enables
Whidbey to play with the operating system, database, and Web-services elements of Microsoft’s interconnected software platform.

“When I think of Whidbey, I think integration, integration, integration,” said Joe Wilcox, senior analyst at Jupiter Research. (Jupiter Research and internetnews.com have the same corporate parent.)

“It brings a level of integration between the toolset and the database we’ve never had before,” agreed Microsoft’s Bixhorn. “In Whidbey, because SQL Server [Microsoft’s database application] integrates the CLR into its core database engine, developers can
write stored procedures and functions in the languages they already
know.”

Four languages are supported: Visual Basic , C++ , and Microsoft’s
home-grown C# and J# .

Microsoft also touts tight integration between Whidbey and its Office Suite. Word documents or Excel spreadsheets can be hosted directly within
Visual Studio .NET.

However, there may currently be some confusion about exactly which
database platform Whidbey is going to exploit.

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When Bill Gates demonstrated the pre-beta of Whidbey last fall, he emphasized its ability to work with Yukon, the code-name for Microsoft’s next-generation implementation of SQL Server. But it won’t be ready until some time after Whidbey is deployed. (Notably, Yukon
is expected to be the biggest upgrade to the database since SQL Server 7 was introduced.) For now, Whidbey is expected to work with the existing SQL Server.

Similarly, on the Web services front, Microsoft last fall talked up Whidbey’s tie-in with the upcoming Indigo, the code-name for Longhorn’s Web-services platform.

However, according to Bixhorn, “Indigo is not going to ship in the same time frame [as Whidbey]. It’s part of Longhorn.” Microsoft told
internetnews.com that its goal is to have a beta release of Longhorn this year.

Instead, Microsoft’s existing ASP.NET Web services model is the vehicle Whidbey will work with when it first emerges. And that’s not a problem, Bixhorn said. Developers “can
eventually move to Indigo, but Microsoft isn’t going to deprecate,” or break backward compatibility with ASP.NET because it’s a “core underlying technology” that’s so widely used.

Indeed, the ASP.NET model appearing in Whidbey boasts some important new features, notably, a more secure approach for handling client files in Web applications.

What is significant about Microsoft’s multiple-platform approach is that “there’s so much integration that either the market is going to buy it or they’re not,” according to Jupiter Research’s Wilcox. “If they don’t, Microsoft may have put itself on a course they find difficult to steer away from.”

Nevertheless, in Wilcox’s opinion, “if through integration Microsoft can make application development quicker, I believe developers will be attracted to it.”

In anticipation of the costs associated with purchasing and supporting Whidbey, Longhorn and associated infrastructure, Wilcox said he is recommending that IT organizations increase their budgets by 40 percent.

Just what Whidbey’s up-front cost will be isn’t yet clear. Microsoft’s Bixhorn said the company hasn’t announced pricing. He declined comment on whether Microsoft will offer discounted upgrade options to owners of Visual Studio 2003.

Such discounts could be significant. For example, qualifying
registered users can upgrade to Visual Studio 2003 “Enterprise Developer” edition for $1,079; a complete packaged copy costs $1,799.

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