Getting Ready for Microsoft .NET

We've all seen the commercials promising a world where someone could sit on a tropical island in the Caribbean and use their cell phone to access the Web, find a local doctor and make an appointment all in one fell swoop. While consumers can come close to doing this now, in reality it's still quite a complex procedure involving multiple websites, a browser and multiple clicks. What if that procedure was not only simplified down to a one-step transaction for the person doing the surfing, but was also easy for the company responsible for developing the technology behind the scenes?

 That's exactly the idea behind the newest initiative from Microsoft called

Microsoft .NET. The company is promising that this technology will be the final step in making exchange of information on the Internet smooth and barrier-free for consumers and developers alike.

 ".NET is designed to create what is called a 'Web Service,'" says Michael C. Pelletier, Emerging Technology Strategist at Pinnacle Decision Systems, a computer consulting and software development company in

Middletown, Connecticut. Pinnacle is also one of the Northeast's leading Microsoft Certified Partners. "Web Services are the next and very natural evolution from today's websites. Just a few years ago, most websites were full of static content, not much business could really be transacted.  Developers and business then began to create dynamic sites, called 'web applications,' that allowed a certain amount of interaction with the person visiting the site. The next evolutionary step will take place with .NET technology and the creation of 'Web Services.'"   

One way to visualize a Web Service is by thinking of a current site that uses a mapping function, like MapQuest. Currently, the developer putting together a site that uses MapQuest needs to link their site directly to MapQuest's and use query strings to get directions. This limits the way the developer can display MapQuest's information. But if the website exposes a Web Service, the information from MapQuest would be integrated into the developer's site via a data subscription service. This would allow the information to be manipulated any way the programmer wants.

 "The difference between linking and .NET technology doesn't seem huge on the surface, but .NET represents the technology that allows the remaining walls on the Internet that block developers to be torn down. Right now websites are designed for interaction with people, not computers," says Pelletier. "With .NET, certain sites can be set up to be data providers and will be configured to talk computer to computer, rather than browser (read: person) to computer."

 "For me, I see .NET as representing the ultimate in distributed computing, or what I'm calling a 'service service-provider,'" says Stephen Laich, a Senior Systems Developer with Pinnacle Decision Systems. "As developers, we have always been trying to build reusable pieces of the puzzle. However, these pieces were limited because they relied on proprietary software and technology. .NET is based upon two important and still maturing industry standards: XML and SOAP.  When these standards become solidified, software that is reusable from anywhere in the world will become possible."

 The protocol that lets .NET do what it does is called SOAP, which stands for Simple Object Access Protocol. SOAP has been under development by a number of companies working together for the past few years. It has already been implemented in PERL and Java.  A COM based implementation is also available from Microsoft in their SOAP Toolkit and has only one goal: integration of multiple systems without barriers.

 Even though Java and Microsoft systems all have a way to share information, they all encounter some sort of firewall issue. Typically, there are only two ports open in a system, HTTP (Port 80) and a SSL (Port 443). Current open protocols don't use HTTP or SSL ports and that's why they run into problems. On the other hand, SOAP uses HTTP and SSL as a transport protocol and is able to skirt the firewall issue.

 So who stands to benefit the most from .NET? Developers obviously, but also consumers and companies that provide services and large corporations that have multiple computer systems spanning the globe.

 "For example, say a company like General Electric wants to combine their system with subsidiary NBC. Using .NET as an interface, the two systems would be able to exchange data on an open platform," says Laich. "Or look at a service like Cybercash. The company provides a piece of software that developers install on e-commerce sites to let people make secure electronic transactions. Right now, developers have to buy the program from Cybercash and install it locally. With .NET technology, Cybercash could be used as a service on a subscription basis and be used in a distributed fashion by developers."

So when should we expect to see .NET making a big splash in the business world? There are already a number of smaller developer sites utilizing the .NET technologies as a means to both educate themselves as well gain exposure," says Pelletier.  "Most corporations that have traditionally shied away from the cutting edge will probably start developing their first .NET programs in 2002. That's because the tools to develop these systems are just starting to come out now.

In addition to the technologies the .NET framework provides, it also consists of tools to build and develop Web Services. The development tool used to create the services for .NET is Visual Studio.NET, which currently in its Beta1 stage and should be shipping commercially at end of 2001. Other technologies include ASP.NET, the next generation of Active Server Pages and ADO.NET, which is the .NET version of Microsoft data access technologies. We should see all of these development tools readily available by the end of this year.

If a company is thinking that .NET could offer a solution to their information exchange problems, Laich has this recommendation: "Start understanding the XML programming language as much as possible and start using XML as often as you can in your internal applications," he says. "XML is key to getting the whole process to work.  Also, learn how SOAP is used to package and unpackage remote method invocations.

.NET represents Microsoft's most earnest effort to make interactions on the Internet independent. By using SOAP, information will be able to flow freely from site to site because the platform is independent. Laich says .NET represents the ultimate remote method invocation because it can be used anywhere in the world to get information. And while browsers and dot.coms will still be around in 5 years, the way they are put together will change. You'll start seeing more dot.coms using .NET technology because it makes it easier to integrate 3 or 4 Web Services. Simply put, .NET will make it easier to put sites together and easier to exchange information.

"From a user perspective, you won't see people saying 'Hey, that's .NET," says Pelletier. "But what will happen is users will start seeing the benefits because .NET makes it easier to develop applications. This will translate into lower development costs and better service to customers. Customers will say 'wow what a great site for me to use.' Developers will say 'this was easy to put together and I don't have to worry about constantly updating my information.' .NET is a win-win for both users and developers."

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