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What to expect from Microsoft's .NET enterprise servers

TechRepublic member Luke Mason is an IT manager in Great Britain. Here is his synopsis of the six enterprise servers being offered by Microsoft as part of the company's .NET initiative.


Microsoft really wants you to know about .NET. I can’t remember the last time there was so much information on one subject. Microsoft’s Web site is full of .NET content, including press releases, product launch info, and technical briefings.

The coverage may be justified if Microsoft manages to push .NET into the same market position enjoyed by Windows and Office. I recommend that you read up on .NET and prepare for it.

In this article, I’ll focus on the various .NET Enterprise Servers. According to Microsoft, these servers are “the fastest way to integrate, manage, and Web-enable the enterprise.” I believe the purpose of the servers is twofold:
  1. The servers are the backbone of the platform. They are the only realistic way to achieve what .NET is supposed to accomplish, if you compare the other options currently in the market.
  2. The servers are also part of a marketing exercise that demonstrates that Microsoft is really serious about .NET.

Application Center 2000
Application Center is a deployment and management server aimed at providing a management utility for clustered Windows 2000 Servers. This is where Advanced Server comes into its own, in a clustered environment, serving up Web pages. I have seen Application Center running on a cluster of 8-way SMP Compaq boxes, linked by fiber into one server, which is exactly how Application Center treats them.

If you want to scale up, simply install the hardware and set the new server to be a part of the cluster. Want to push a COM object out onto your cluster? Simply add it in Application Center and, after a couple of minutes, it’ll be synchronized on every machine, accomplishing the task as if it were one single server.

Application Server also addresses the mission-critical aspects of running large Web applications. Any single server in the cluster can be taken offline without affecting the availability of the cluster as a whole. This task can be automated as an event and linked to the constant performance and help monitoring that is provided.

Application Server 2000 is part of Microsoft’s push into an arena that has been held by mainframes. It seems that the way forward is via clustering rather than one massive box because of the scalability and reliability offered by clustering. Application Server is a convincing argument for true server clustering, making each of the advantages of the method compelling and easy to use. Like many of the Enterprise Servers, Application Center is a niche product—you won’t find it running in small or even medium-size businesses.

BizTalk Server
Microsoft has a lot riding on BizTalk Server. If the Internet becomes the operating system of the future—as .NET supposes it will be—then Microsoft will not have control over it as it does within the desktop OS market.

BizTalk server manages the transfer of XML documents. This is the framework which holds .NET together and the key process in business-to-business (B2B) processes. XML can be converted from one “schema,” (or data definition applicable to one business’ internal systems), to another. This is what BizTalk is about—allowing businesses to talk to consumers and other businesses. If Microsoft has control over how these translations occur, then it is back in business. I believe Microsoft is championing .NET because it has realized that the desktop OS is on its way out and the Internet as an OS is the future.

If you want to evaluate BizTalk, then check out Microsoft’s server downloads page, and BizTalk.org, which is an open repository of XML schemas.

Commerce Server
Commerce Server is a renamed new release of Microsoft Site Server, a tool that easily creates and manages a fully featured e-commerce site. While it’s difficult to categorize software such as this, I would imagine that it will be most valuable to people who are catering to business-to-consumer (B2C) enterprises rather than B2B. While Commerce Server would be useful to a B2B company, there are many more B2C sites. Commerce Server integrates with BizTalk Server via, you guessed it, XML.

Site Server was often criticized and has never been the last word in e-commerce site generation and management. Even so, Commerce Server is receiving positive reviews. It may be that Microsoft has reached its “quality threshold,” the quality level of good or excellent that is reached after three or four releases.

If you’re happy to rely heavily on ASP for your e-commerce site (and are willing to cope with what are apparently weak catalogue generation facilities), then Commerce Server may be a product for you. Commerce Server also boasts a site packaging facility, which allows an entire site to be packaged and taken to another environment for testing and deployment.

Host Integration Server
This is a niche product aimed at the larger end of the enterprise scale. Code-named “Babylon” during development, Host Integration Server (HIS) is designed to prevent companies from having to write off investments in their legacy data stores, both hardware and software. HIS integrates Windows 2000 systems with AS400 and mainframe data stores, allowing enterprises to continue to make profit from their often large-scale mainframe investments.

In theory, HIS does a very simple job. If you want to use your existing large-scale data stores in new applications, then this may be the product for you.

Internet Security and Acceleration Server
Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server’s main functions are as a firewall and a cache for Web content. It allows enterprises running any kind of Internet solution of Windows 2000 machines to control exactly what comes in and out of the corporate network, and what crosses the gateway into the Internet. It allows content to be filtered at the packet, circuit, or application levels.

However, to include the word “acceleration” in the title of a product, which will probably mostly be used as a firewall, may seem contradictory. We don’t usually associate firewalls with improved performance. In fact, they normally inflict a pretty hefty hit on performance. However, in this offering, Microsoft has included the ability to cache Web pages each time a request is made, which is probably the best way to easily and cheaply improve performance.

Think about a firewall and the level at which it intercepts requests for information before performing its task. Why would you want a firewall to do its work and then pass the information back into the system only for a cache to pick it up and then act upon it?

ISA Server has a few useful enhancements over Proxy Server 2, as you would expect from this .NET/Windows 2000 generation of applications. It boasts distributed (which means remote) administration via an MMC snap-in. It will easily integrate into Microsoft mail and Web servers without additional configuration. Control over the firewall is via a policy-based approach, which strikes me as the most sensible way to go.

SQL Server 2000
SQL Server 2000 is the continuation of an already mature and well-used application. SQL Server will allow record sets returned to be converted into an XML document, and XML queries can even be issued to update or insert tables in a database.

You will not find the same difference between version 7 and the 2000 release of this product as you did between 6.5 and 7. This is not particularly surprising, considering how much SQL Server could already do.

The most compelling reason to upgrade, or to purchase this product rather than version 7, is likely to be the XML support that it offers. If you are following Microsoft’s advice and following the XML route for any application development, then there’s very little reason to use any other version. However, I really can’t see that many people rushing out anytime soon to upgrade what is a mission-critical server.

View of the future
Microsoft’s .NET Enterprise Servers are something of a mixed bag to most people. Here are my impressions of the future of these products:
  • SQL Server, ISA Server, and perhaps BizTalk will likely appeal to a large market eventually.
  • Commerce Server faces a greater challenge in undoing the damage of the weak Site Server offering.
  • Host Integration Server and Application Center are aimed at the big guns, large enterprises that are likely to evaluate and design for months or years before committing to a purchase. If these products, in conjunction with the newly released Data Center edition of Windows 2000 Server, can really build “mainframe PCs,” then things really are going to get quite interesting for Microsoft.

I believe these are good products, well designed, robust, and mostly very scalable. Long live .NET? Ask me again in two years, when we have seen the true impact of these new technologies on the enterprise.

Luke Mason is an IT manager for one of the largest CD, cassette, and DVD manufacturers in Great Britain.

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