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.NET servers all in a row

Microsoft's .NET initiative professes a unified world and promises anytime and anywhere connectivity. To live up to its promise, Microsoft has released a range of server offerings and solutions. Take a close look at what these solutions really address, and how much it can do for your enterprise

Close on the heels of the .NET launch, Microsoft has released eight server products. (See Box) It's interesting to note that some of the servers, which form the core of the .NET server group, have been derived from an earlier offering called Back Office. Before we take a closer look at the .NET server products, it's important to see what the .NET framework is all about and how this server framework can fit into your enterprise's network.

The .NET framework comprises four components. They are, .NET enterprise servers, infrastructure and tools; .NET services; .NET device software (Clients); and .NET user experience. The .NET servers, infrastructure and tools talk about the server products and Visual Studio.NET. They can be used to build both traditional Web applications and .NET services and applications. The .NET user experience deals with the concept of anytime and anywhere connectivity.

.NET's primary product range features its attached products, and includes the recently launched Mobile Information Server 2001. An explanation of some of the servers can throw light on the solutions they address.

1. Application Center 2000: Application Center 2000 comes into the picture when mission-critical applications demand reliability and scalability. It's a server farm management tool which enables administrators to scale distributed applications dynamically across server clusters. Scaling can be handled while managing application server technologies, like Internet Information Services, Active Server Pages, COM+, and Microsoft Message Queuing service for applications built on the Windows 2000 platform.

Enterprises can use a number of less expensive servers and run Application Center 2000 to perform load balancing on them. They won't need to buy large and expensive servers to do the job. When applications are ready, enterprises can use Microsoft Site Server to replicate its content across a server farm. The software automatically synchronizes Web content, registry entries, data-source names for SQL Server, and other file-system data.

Product Highlights

  • Integrated load-balancing management for web services and ASP.NET applications. This is important because middle-tier load balancing is very critical for n-tier applications.
  • Works with third party load balancers like Cisco LocalDirector, ArrowPoint, F5 Networks BigIP, and Alteon AceDirector.
  • A separate routing layer is not required for component load management.
  • Doesn't require new APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). It can be scaled to support existing applications without re-writing or modifying.
  • It includes tools that monitor the cluster and its servers. It also allows you to view performance and event-log data for one server or the entire cluster. Administrators can monitor applications remotely using a browser-based console.
  • It has automated support for deployment of COM+ applications and ISAPI filters.

2. Biztalk Server 2000: This seems to be the only server receiving good reviews. The foundation of BizTalk Server is a rules-based business document routing, transformation, and tracking infrastructure. This infrastructure enables companies to integrate, manage, and automate business processes by exchanging business documents like purchase orders and invoices among applications, within or across organizational boundaries.

In short it is a business process integration product which helps enterprises integrate applications internally and externally. It helps enable B2B trading and business document exchange using XML and other standards. The server could be implemented by enterprises that use ERP applications like SAP and want to orchestrate internal business processes and applications. The organization may also need to exchange documents through fax, conduct B2B document exchange securely over the Internet, have expensive EDI (Electronic Data Interchange), and it may want to leverage XML to do these jobs.

Product Highlights

  • Secure, reliable trading partner relationships can be quickly implemented independent of operating system, programming model, or programming language.
  • Can take over the functionality of existing EDI servers like Sterling, EAI (Enterprise Application Integration) servers like BEA, and B2B servers like webMethods.
  • Supports EDI formats and has built in adaptors for SAP, JD Edwards, PeopleSoft. It supports EDIFACT (Electronic Data Interchange For Administration Commerce and Transport), ANSI X12, and other EDI protocols.
  • Allows Business Process Orchestration where process modeling does not require any coding and can be done visually using Visio 2000.
  • Supports PKI (Public Key Infrastructure), X.509 Certificates, S/MIME, and other leading security standards.
  • Supports the open XML framework specifications from www.biztalk.org. BizTalk Framework compatible schemas can be quickly implemented in the server to eliminate many of the steps in ramping up a trading partner relationship. It also supports SOAP 1.1

3. SQL Server 2000: SQL Server 2000 is a comprehensive database and analysis solution. It has native XML support that allows developers to retrieve data as XML, and store XML data relationally. Other new functionalities are, support for data mining which allows analysis of collected relational and OLAP (OnLine Analytical Processing) data, inclusion of click streams and purchase histories to recognize trends and make predictions, and allow delivery of personalized content.

Product Highlights

  • Enhanced fail-over cluster management that allows a developer to re-install or rebuild any node in a fail over cluster without impacting other nodes. You can easily configure failover for replication and distributed partition views.
  • Can scale SQL Server 2000 databases to SMP (Symmetric Multi-Processing) systems with as many as 32 processors.
  • Has support for differential backup. This allows developers to run backups quickly and with low server impact by only backing up changed pages.
  • Multi-Instance Support: Developers can run applications reliably in hosted scenarios with separate database instances per customer or application.

4. Mobile Information Server 2001: This is the latest addition to the .NET server range. Mobile Information Server is available in two versions. One engineered for the enterprise and the other tailored for the mobile carrier. Both editions allow Windows and Web applications to be mobile-enabled, securely accessed from any mobile device, and be linked together. The Enterprise Edition is designed for use by corporate customers, and is typically hosted on the enterprise network next to the Exchange Server or other corporate data servers.

However the server has a major negative aspect in its performance. The product promises to mobile-enable the existing Windows-based applications, but does not have a WAP gateway. The carrier edition of the server requires 7 installations of the server software.

Product Highlights

  • Scalable when used with a load balancing system like WLBS (Windows Load Balancing Service) which is built in to Windows 2000 Server. It distributes browse requests and notification messages among multiple Microsoft Mobile Information Server-based servers and provides additional reliability. System administrators can increase capacity by simply adding a new server.
  • Closely knit with other server family products especially Windows 2000. It stores device registration, preference, presence, and user data in the Windows 2000 Server Active Directory service. Mobile Information Server claims to access and retrieve user and device data from the indexed Active Directory database quicker than it can from a standard flat-file storage system.
  • Microsoft is also shipping Outlook Mobile Access, with Mobile Information Server. Outlook Mobile Access enables secure, real-time access to Microsoft Exchange 5.5 and Exchange 2000-based personal information management applications like e-mail, calendaring, contacts, and tasks.
  • Microsoft Mobile Information Server supports a technology called DMI (Device Mobility Interconnect). DMI sets up a chain of device or application specific COM modules to process objects. In a given scenario if a device can only handle a small payload, DMI optimizes network bandwidth and system performance by reducing the size of the content destined for the device. The device modules are implemented as "in-process" COM objects that are loaded into the process space of the DMI and can be reused as needed, allowing them to preserve high performance and provide flexibility.

Commerce Server 2000

This product is a primary component of the .NET enterprise server range and is positioned as an e-commerce platform. The advantage with the product is that it can fit into the B2B and B2C scenario. It boasts of visitor personalization and catalogue management. It has five integrated e-commerce systems; profile system, target system, product catalogue system, business processing pipeline system, and analytics system. The advantage with Commerce Server 2000 is that to jumpstart development, application developers can use the B2C solution site and customization can be achieved by using Visual Studio.NET with ASP.NET server-side scripting.

Product Highlights

  • Easy to integrate with Biztalk Server and Host Integration Server
  • Easy administration with built in Commerce Server Business Desk and Commerce Server Manager. Web-based remote access allows managers access and control to manage business operations
  • Business analytics system provides sophisticated decision support and immediate feedback capabilities
  • Business Data Warehouse which is based on SQL server and incorporates all site data including user profile data, click stream usage, product data, purchase history, campaign data, as well as legacy and external data into a centralized repository.

Conclusion

Market opportunities, competitive threats, and cost containment pressures, time to market scenario, and a whole lot of other factors define the selection of enterprise grade products. This was an area where Microsoft was not to be seen. Biztalk Server 2000 and Commerce Server 2000 are potentially very compelling solutions when bundled together with SQL Server 2000. This will be a part of Microsoft's technical strategy and will be aimed at enterprise solutions like e-procurement, trading partner enablement, EAI and CRM.

Microsoft has, as part of its thinly crafted .NET strategy, unveiled a several products, but it's clearly concentrating primarily on Biztalk, Commerce Server and SQL Server. The company has a lot to worry about in areas like Mobile, Firewall, and Intranet solutions, as it has brought out products keeping in mind its Windows 2000 platform without getting into consumer requirements.

Bhavish Sood can be reached at: bhavishsood@netscape.net

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