|December 4, 2000|
Doing .Net In Internet Time
Pioneers are testing Microsoft's new architecture, even as components are being released
By Don Kiely
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State management over the inherently stateless HTTP Web protocol requires custom, ad hoc solutions if scalability is to be achieved. Sites that have to support a variety of browsers can serve up static Web pages, write multiple versions of every page, stick to the lowest common denominator, or do extensive page customizations on the server. Most client-and server-side automation is accomplished through scripting, a largely type-free and interpreted language subset that's difficult to write and even harder to debug. The list of difficulties goes on and on.
Microsoft is once again betting the company on a new technology that it promises will solve these kinds of problems, making it easier to develop robust sites. This time they're betting on the .Net Framework, Visual Studio .Net, and other new and existing technologies. It's a massive undertaking, something the company has been working on for almost three years. The first bits and pieces are finally surfacing, starting with alpha software at the company's Professional Developers Conference in July and the release of beta 1 of Visual Studio.Net and the .Net Framework a couple of weeks ago at the Fall Comdex.
The message Microsoft is promoting about .Net is that it helps build scalable systems fast, using as much as possible the existing skills of Web developers. It represents radical new ways of thinking about distributed applications, as well as old-fashioned desktop applications, reversing the trend in Web development to add kludge to aging technologies. The industry has rarely seen such aggressive promotion of a new Microsoft technology so long before any significant components are available (probably sometime next year). The amount of technical material about .Net on Microsoft's Web site is already overwhelming as the company works to convince developers of the value of these new ways of doing things.
Some companies have been working closely with Microsoft to shape .Net and are making their own bets on the technology. Some have implemented complete products and Web sites using the technology; others are applying it piece by piece, integrating it into existing Web sites. I talked with representatives of four such companies about their experiences, to find out what worked, and what didn't work for them. If the enthusiasm at these companies is any indication of .Net's reception in the coming months, it has a bright future.
WebPutty Inc. creates application frameworks for browser-based applications, using an XML, metadata-driven framework to serve up customizable business objects, workflow logic, data structures, and interactive pages that conform to n-tier architecture practices. The product isn't so much a development tool as it is the plumbing infrastructure needed to created scalable, distributed applications.
The company has enthusiastically embraced .Net for the upcoming versions of the framework. Paula Cappello heads marketing at the company and Catherine Ruggles directs product development. They're implementing .Net in pieces for the next beta release of WebPutty, with a full implementation on .Net sometime next year. Integrating parts of .Net to run side-by-side with existing Active Server Page and Component Object Model+ (COM+) applications has worked well, letting WebPutty implement the technologies in a controlled manner. Already, individual components are benefiting the overall application when rewritten in C#, one of the Microsoft .Net languages.
Adopting .Net has meant big gains in scalability for WebPutty's clients. Even though they've been working with early alpha and beta versions, they have already seen dramatic performance improvements. In fact, just moving to one of the .Net server components, SQL Server 2000, is helping speed up the application without changing a single line of code. Another big gain comes from ASP.Net's improved support for keeping code, data, and presentation separate. Most of the middle tier of WebPutty is now written in C++, so Cappello and Ruggles are planning to migrate to C# using Visual Studio.Net. The WebPutty application uses COM+ under Windows 2000 to make middle-tier business components scale. The application also uses .Net features for transaction handling and component pooling.
Microsoft's BizTalk Server and Application Center Server will play big roles in future development, as will integration of the components with Visual Studio.Net. The current version of WebPutty provides a wizard interface to produce a Visual Studio project that a user can customize to build their Web site. In the future, WebPutty plans to support mobile users with PocketPC and Microsoft's Mobile Information Server, meaning mobile users will be able to access selected parts of the application.
These plans are causing the company to think about the application differently, opening new possibilities of support for remote users.
Consistent with the company's willingness to be innovative, it started using early versions of Microsoft's MSXML version 3.0 collection of tools for parsing and manipulating XML data. XML hasn't found its way to every corner of the app yet, but it's used extensively internally and as the format for passing data between the middle and presentation tiers of the application. WebPutty can use the inherent features of Microsoft Internet Explorer or create browser-independent apps. There's some loss of functionality when supporting other browsers, but it means companies using WebPutty can cater the app to their client bases.
WebPutty will ship version 2.0 of its product this month with SQL Server 2000. It'll follow up in the first quarter of 2001 with a version that builds on the enhancements of ASP.Net and then will wait for the final release of .Net components to implement them in the overall application. Cappello and Ruggles say that using .Net was an easy decision, given the productivity of its developers, the growing acceptance in the marketplace, and the way Microsoft is letting the mar-ket guide its work on .Net. Like Microsoft, WebPutty is betting big on .Net.
One of the most aggressive early .Net adopters is Merchandising Avenue. In just 11 weeks with 10 developers, the online merchandising service went from requirements to deployment of a Web application built entirely on .Net, including the time it took to get the development team up to speed.
Phil Trubey is CEO and Bob Millar is VP of engineering of the company, which uses technology to select and place branded products alongside relevant content on Web sites in real time. It regularly queries partners' Web sites to verify that products are still on the market before fitting them into marketing strategies. The company decided to use .Net primarily for its Web-services integration and the productivity improvements they've already experienced. Internet Explorer extensions call the Web services, which send XML to the server with the information needed to customize product content.
Compared to developing the same applications in current versions of ASP, Merchandising Avenue has seen a 20-to-1 reduction in the lines of code required because so much of the necessary infrastructure is built into .Net. So far, it's taking about the same time to develop projects, but the application is easier to maintain with fewer lines of code. The shared data sets of ActiveX Data Objects, which are an integral part of .Net, are providing some of the development efficiencies as well as improved performance.
The ease of transition to .Net for the development staff has depended on each person's previous experience. Millar found it easy to make the switch to .Net languages, given his background with the Visual J++ software developers' kit. Others have had to struggle a bit to make sense of the classes and the Common Language Run-time that ships with .Net. The shift from the record sets of ActiveX Data Objects to ADO.Net's data sets requires a new way of thinking about data access. But Millar says the change is worth it, allowing for more efficient code and easier use of XML throughout the application, and developers are able to get up to speed very quickly.Illustration by Randy Hess
Photo of Cappello and Ruggles by Gary Parker
Photo of Trubey and Millar by Nick Souza
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