Microsoft unveiled Tuesday what is sure to become known as its Oslo vision: a simpler, cheaper service-oriented architecture that can be implemented by the Windows platform both inside and outside the enterprise firewall.
For Microsoft, it's a major departure. Instead of talking up the virtues of vertically integrated layers of Windows software, it is instead boasting of its future ability to cross heterogeneous systems, generate composite applications, and even link different organizations.
"We think we can achieve a 10X increase in productivity, agility, and [reduced] total cost of ownership," said Robert Wahbe, corporate VP for the Connected Systems Division in a keynote address to 1,000 attendees of Microsoft's fifth annual SOA and Business Process conference at its Redmond campus.
"You're going to see us double down on services and extend our services platform from the client all the way out to the cloud [the wide area network and Internet]," he added.
Skeptics say they've heard it all before. "Much of what Microsoft is discussing this week is a reprise of the Dynamic IT concept the company began promoting in June," said Ovum's Dwight Davis. Dynamic IT was a method of reducing complexity and improving front-end software design for operational efficiency announced at its annual TechEd conference in Orlando, Fla.
But in addition to something old, there was undeniably something new. For one thing, Oslo proposes a future Microsoft-hosted Internet Service Bus, which links anything inside the enterprise firewall to whatever it wishes to talk to outside, with no presetup. A future version of the BizTalk Server would serve as the integration hub, but it would be supplemented by other Internet services, such as an ability to publish information and service updates to those parties that subscribe to them.
It was as if Microsoft had suddenly figured how the Internet could serve the Windows platform, and vice versa. Oslo is an enlargement of its previous "software plus services" thinking. And it capitalized on the growing acceptance of Web standards as a basis for inter-organizational collaboration and automated linkages.
When it comes to SOA, Microsoft may be playing catch-up to IBM, Sun Microsystems, BEA Systems, and application vendors SAP and Oracle. But if it's late, it's at least arrived with an interesting game plan. The capability of building, not only internal services, but cross-organizational services that are a close match architecturally to those inside the enterprise is more than a good talking point. It's part of a new business reality, where connections to partners are as important as ties between general ledger and inventory. Wahbe used the example of an airline travel company needing to be linked to car rental business partners.
Many of the business applications that will be used to build future component-based composites, however, aren't Microsoft applications, which remains a weakness of the overall strategy, points out Directions on Microsoft analyst Rob Helm.
"SAP and Oracle are better positioned in this regard, so their customers will want to investigate these vendors' composite application platforms alongside Microsoft's," he noted in a report the same day as the announcement.
Microsoft could neutralize some of that advantage by supplying adapters to other vendors' applications, and broaden the reach of its BizTalk Server integration software, and that's the road down which Microsoft officials expect to proceed, spokesmen at its SOA conference indicated.
But Microsoft distinguished engineer John Shewchuk, after the formal presentations, gave a more graphic example. Suppose, he said, an aircraft engineer at GE wants to review engine data produced by a Boeing application? If such a state of collaboration existed, it would be possible for the GE engineer to query a Microsoft BizTalk Server on the Internet, asking for the data.
The server would recognize both the user's request and the application toward which it was directed, without prior notification or set up. After getting a federated identity credential -- one that satisfies the security needs of both companies -- it would mediate the exchange between a Boeing application and GE user. It would retrieve from the Boeing application a user client, and send it to the GE engineer. It would make secure routing connections between that client and the application and perform any message transformations needed enroute.
Said Shewchuk: "This is an incredibly different communication pattern than SOA normally invokes." No changes are needed to the application to make it function outside the organization "other than a configuration change" that realigns its messaging. That is, instead of listening for HTTP calls at one server port, it is assigned another port where the user will be connected.
The Oslo vision also will be enabled in the short term by a greater commitment to modeling. "We're making our platform truly model driven," added Wahbe.
Modeling makes software easier to visualize. Code can be generated from carefully constructed models and the models linked to the code to capture changes. Visibility into the software tends to lead to faster development, fewer bugs, greater reliability, Wahbe said.
Modeling will be made a standard feature in Microsoft's next releases of Visual Studio development tools, its .Net Framework, its BizTalk Server business process design software, and its System Center system management software. Ovum's Davis says the practical date for modeling, shared repositories, and other Oslo features to appear as a standard part of the product line is sometime in 2009.
"We're moving modeling up to ten times the number of people" who use it today, predicted Don Ferguson, Microsoft technical fellow and lead-off speaker at the conference. Only a few high-end tools, such as IBM's Rational unit's, integrate models across the steps of the software development process.
Key information summarizing what's in a model can move from one stage of development with Microsoft's tools, such as an architect's system design in Visual Studio Team System, to the next, where code is automatically generated from the design and worked on further by developers. The ability of the model to follow the code comes from the tools' underlying repositories being able to share key information about each model, regardless of the role of the model generator.
"We want to move models to the center of application development," said Steven Martin, director of product management at Microsoft's Connected Systems Division.
That capability is still a ways off in the future, but Martin said the repository code is being tested in different tools and will become a feature of Visual Studio Team System Version 10; BizTalk Server 6; .Net Framework 4; and System Center 5. "We plan to have at least one major customer technology preview in 2008," stated an Oslo technology white paper dated November 2007.