Microsoft's .NET strategy means seismic changes for networks

Since Microsoft announced its “Next Generation” .NET software strategy, speculation about its impact on Microsoft products has been the buzz of technology Web sites and publications. Over the past few months, beta software for upgrades and additions to the BackOffice product line have flowed out of Redmond in swift succession. As a result, the details are taking shape for the .NET shift of BackOffice products from local area networking to fully Internet-enabled networks.

When Bill Gates made the announcement about .NET earlier this year, the only thing we definitely knew, from the network standpoint, was that the back end would be built around Windows 2000. All the other visionary talk about XML, dynamic content, and server-based computing didn’t translate very smoothly into the current Microsoft networking architecture. With the beta release of the new server products, the .NET picture is much clearer, and two facts stand out: XML rules, and the back end will be built around Windows 2000.

However, even for the experienced Windows NT/2000 administrator, the flurry of new server product names pouring out of Redmond recently has been dizzying. A number of server products have changed names, several products have been unbundled from BackOffice 2000, and even the products that have kept their names have been changed significantly to better integrate with Windows 2000 Server. And then there are the new products. Here is a summary of Microsoft’s new server product line.

SQL Server 2000
Obviously, one of the key foundations of e-commerce is the database. With SQL Server 2000, Microsoft has delivered a scalable, manageable, Internet-ready database server. In concert with the rest of the .NET strategy, SQL Server 2000 integrates advanced XML support. While SQL 2000 still doesn’t reach the advanced features of Oracle and DB2, it provides a much better enterprise product that stands prepared to handle some serious e-commerce.

Exchange Server 2000
Exchange has been one of Redmond’s most competitive and successful enterprise products. Exchange 2000 provides a major upgrade in terms of both architecture and new features. The storage system has been completely redesigned to integrate seamlessly with Active Directory. Its new Web Storage System uses XML and Web technologies to make Exchange a stronger platform for customer service and knowledge management applications. In general, the product is more scalable and robust. It’s also well prepared for emerging technologies such as video conferencing and wireless access to messaging.

BizTalk Server 2000
Certainly, most of us have heard at least some of the buzz on BizTalk. This product is the beating heart of the .NET strategy. Since Microsoft is leveraging XML as the lingua franca of its new plans, it needs an XML engine to run the operation. That is the purpose of BizTalk Server, and judging by the beta releases, it will be a solid product. It better be. If this product proves to be unreliable, the rest of the .NET strategy will fold on top of it, because so many other products depend upon it.

Commerce Server 2000
Commerce Server 2000 is essentially a major upgrade of Site Server Commerce Edition 3.0—and one that is long overdue. Major e-commerce competitors blew by Site Server a long time ago. Nevertheless, Commerce Server looks like a decent product that integrates well with BizTalk Server and other BackOffice products. This will be Microsoft’s coming-of-age product for enterprise e-commerce. Like SQL Server, Commerce Server judged by itself will probably pale in comparison to products by Oracle and other vendors. However, its tight integration with other BackOffice products makes it very attractive.

ISA Server 2000
Microsoft’s Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server 2000 is basically an upgrade of Proxy Server 2.0. ISA Server is well integrated with the Windows 2000 security model and its new VPN protocols. ISA Server also offers more advanced security features and newer technologies. All in all, it appears to be a much better product than Proxy Server 2.0. Microsoft-only shops will welcome this product with open arms. But winning the nod over other commercial Windows security products or time-tested UNIX/Linux firewalls and proxy servers will be a difficult matter.

Application Center 2000
Application Center 2000 has one single purpose—running Web applications. The beta product was released recently and testing is underway. Microsoft claims that the product will provide simplified application management, excellent software scalability, and mission-critical reliability. This product will also be a key component in clustering Web servers and load balancing. One of its most promising features is a new tool called Health Monitor, which allows administrators to keep close tabs on a number of performance issues on a Web server or cluster of Web servers.

Host Integration Server 2000
Host Integration Server 2000 is an upgrade of SNA Server 4.0. It enables the integration of Microsoft server products with AS/400s, UNIX/Linux servers, mainframes, and other database and application systems. This new release supports Web deployment of legacy applications, integration with Active Directory, improved data encryption between servers, and better integration with DB2 databases. Essentially, this is a standard upgrade of SNA Server to keep pace with AD and other new technologies.

BackOffice 2000
BackOffice 2000 now includes Exchange Server 2000, SQL Server 2000, Systems Management Server 2.0, ISA Server 2000, Host Integration Server 2000, Shared Fax and Modem Server, and a plethora of new management and deployment utilities, including Health Monitor, mentioned above. BackOffice 2000 is a strong bundle for local area networks, but it doesn’t include the essential e-commerce products. I assume that Microsoft is planning to release a separate .NET bundle aimed at e-commerce buyers. For more information on BackOffice 2000, see Microsoft’s BackOffice Web page.

The future of Microsoft
These products represent Microsoft’s two-fold strategy of Internet-enabling the BackOffice suite and winning the data center in the e-commerce enterprise of the new economy. As mentioned above, many of the products judged by themselves fall short of some competing products from Oracle, Sun, IBM, and others.

However, we still can’t forget Microsoft’s strategic advantage on the desktop. It controls both the browser and the productivity software markets. That means that it can closely integrate its server products with the front-end software that most users work with, despite the outcome of the Department of Justice case. There’s also the tight integration of the BackOffice products themselves, combined with both Microsoft’s skill at producing trained professionals ready to deploy them and the Microsoft marketing machine. All in all, this gives Gates and Co. a good shot at winning a lot of the new rack space in the coming years.

Get to know XML
So, what does .NET mean for networking professionals? Learn XML immediately—or if you already know XML, learn more. For years, we’ve heard the hype that XML was going to be the next big thing in software. With Microsoft embracing XML so completely in its new products, the future has undoubtedly arrived. If you are an NT expert who has not yet learned much about Windows 2000 and Active Directory, it’s time to get cracking. Also, consider learning more about UNIX and Linux. Windows 2000 mimics UNIX architecture and networking and integrates more smoothly with UNIX. It is very possible that Windows and UNIX/Linux will become closer partners in the e-commerce data center of the near future, drawing on each other’s strengths.

Most of all, realize that the changes Microsoft is undertaking with the .NET strategy are evidence of larger changes that are sweeping over the software industry and the Internet as a whole. These changes are moving software away from being sold in shrink-wrapped boxes to being offered as a service over the Internet for a subscription fee. Eventually, this will also result in some major changes to the job descriptions, working shifts, and skill sets of network administrators.
How hip are you to XML? Do you buy into the .NET product offerings? If you'd like to share your opinion, start a discussion by clicking Post A Comment or send the editor an e-mail.

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