June 5, 2003 7:49 AM PDT

At Microsoft, all roads lead to Longhorn

DALLAS--Microsoft this week gave customers a look at forthcoming development and management tools that are part of the company's long-term plans for the product.

In interviews with CNET News.com at the company's TechEd customer conference here, Microsoft executives sketched out the company's product release plans for next year. Products designed to work with the next major release of the Windows desktop operating system, code-named Longhorn, were high on the agenda.

Longhorn has become the centerpiece of Microsoft's future product strategy. Underscoring the importance of the operating system upgrade, CEO Steve Ballmer, in a memo sent to Microsoft employees on Wednesday, said that Longhorn was "even bigger, perhaps, than the first generation of Windows."

Also at TechEd, Microsoft executives acknowledged the existence of a long-rumored programming language research project, called X# (pronounced "X sharp"). Microsoft is working on the building blocks, or "language constructs," of a programming language that can handle data in Extensible Markup Language (XML) more effectively than current languages, according to company executives.

Microsoft's Visual Studio.Net development tool is already XML-savvy, and the software maker is betting heavily on XML-based Web services to glue together its disparate products. The X# work is still in the early development phase, and Microsoft has no immediate plans to incorporate X# into specific products, said Paul Flessner, senior vice president of Microsoft's server platform division.

In a version of Visual Studio.Net due in 2004, code-named Whidbey, Microsoft will introduce some language enhancements to speed up development time, according to company executives. People will also be able to more easily develop for Microsoft's server applications, including its BizTalk integration software and its Commerce Server e-commerce software, with new tools.

Another addition for Whidbey is the inclusion of a "knowledge base," or documentation to solve programming problems, according to the company. The help system will be tailored to programming languages supported in Visual Studio.Net.

The enhancements in Whidbey are closely tied to an update of Microsoft's SQL Server database, code-named Yukon and due for release in the latter half of 2004, according to Microsoft executives.

Mining for data in Yukon
One of the goals of Yukon is to give a broader number of people access to back-end databases to do data analysis, said Stan Sorensen, director of SQL Server product management.

Yukon will include software to generate reports, and Microsoft is improving SQL Server so that it presents data in a variety of formats, including XML. That will make it easier for people familiar with Microsoft's Office desktop applications to query back-end data sources, Sorensen said. Microsoft will also extend the data analysis, or "data mining," capabilities included in SQL Server with Yukon.

One feature that didn't make it into Yukon is a database clustering enhancement that allows several hardware servers to share a single instance of data in storage in a so-called shared disk configuration, Sorensen said. This configuration of lashing together several servers to increase processing power is touted by Microsoft competitor Oracle, and will be considered for future versions of SQL Server, Microsoft executives said.

In the area of application management, Microsoft is taking the first steps in a program to consolidate its various offerings under a single umbrella product called Systems Center, which will make a debut in 2006. Systems Center will be a single application for administering all of Microsoft's wares. Next year, Microsoft will update its Systems Management Server (SMS) and Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) administration products and sell them as a bundle, Flessner said.

With the release of Longhorn in 2005, Microsoft is preparing a version of Visual Studio.Net, code-named Orcas, which will be designed to create applications for Longhorn. The company will also release a version of its Office suite of applications to coincide with Longhorn, according to the company.

In 2006 or 2007, Microsoft expects to update its Exchange messaging server, which will use SQL Server as its underlying data store. In 2006, the follow-on to Windows Server 2003, which is code-named Blackcomb, is expected to make a debut.

Microsoft is designing its products to work very closely together and share common components, which will allow customers to take an a la carte approach to software purchasing and save companies money, Flessner said. That "integrated innovation" message was also high on Ballmer's agenda for the coming year.

Close integration of its products also puts Microsoft in stronger position against the competition, particularly IBM's WebSphere line of Java-based server software.

"We want to take the systems integration out of the hands of customers," Flessner said.

Out-of-the-box product integration is important because it lowers the overall cost of building new systems, and shortens the time needed to deliver them, said Gafar Lawal, a director of architecture at Merrill Lynch.

But tight integration could make it more difficult for customers to swap Microsoft's products for a competitor's products, said Blair Calton, deputy director of information technology at the American Federation of Teachers.

"At a strategic level (for Microsoft), it makes sense," said Calton. "However, I worry about whether in reality it will reduce our flexibility."

News.com's Mike Ricciuti contributed to this report.

 

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