Application server war: Microsoft recruits allies

After months of labelling its Windows platform "the ultimate application server", Microsoft is partnering with third- party vendors in the hope of giving customers a solution that better fits with their heterogeneous environments.

Microsoft is pushing the idea that Windows 2000 will, in fact, play well with others.

The company is positioning support for its Distributed InterNet Architecture (DNA) from companies including Allaire, Bluestone, Haht Software, Level 8, and Persistence and as complements to its application server that will let customers extend it beyond Windows, according to Jigish Avalani, group manager of Windows DNA marketing at Microsoft.

This means that customers will no longer need to make full-scale commitments to Microsoft's operating system in order to use services such as Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS) and Message Queue (MSMQ) Server.

"It's safe to say that Microsoft is now committed to building a distributed computing architecture that other [application server] vendors can leverage and extend and build on top of," said Adam Berrey, director of marketing at Allaire in the US.

But on the road to interoperability, Microsoft has stopped short of actually porting many of its services to other platforms. Although the company has brought its Component Object Model (COM) to various flavours of Unix, Microsoft has no plans of doing so with COM+, an upgrade to COM due out as part of Windows 2000 later this year that adds strategic services such as load balancing.

However, the company would not respond to questions regarding its COM+ porting plans last week.

Microsoft is working with newfound friends, such as Allaire, by encouraging support of DNA and relying on their bridging technologies to open its COM+ services to the cross-platform world.

For example, Microsoft is expected to update the status of a bridge that will link MTS to Iona Technologies' CORBA-based Object Transaction Service (OTS). Still in the research phase, the bridge uses the Transaction Internet Protocol (TIP) to exchange and translate transactions between the two environments, according to sources.

But such bridges fall short of providing performance at the same degree of effectiveness as native services. Although the MTS-to-CORBA bridge offers a transparent gateway between transaction architectures, the prototypes have produced excessive overhead, according to observers.

Still, even this limited interoperability marks a strategic change for Microsoft, which, until now, questioned why anyone would look beyond Windows 2000 for their application server needs.

"[Microsoft's] DNA camp understands that they are promoting an object model that competes with Java, RMI [Remote Method Invocation], EJB [Enterprise JavaBeans], and CORBA/IIOP [Internet Inter-ORB Protocol] - and they know they need to rally third-party support to their model," said Al Smith, vice president of development at US-based Bluestone Software. But the MTS camp at Microsoft is working to make MTS, COM+, and DNA Windows-only environments.

Some Microsoft customers suggest that before extending the reach of its application server, the company should improve its scalability.

In other news, Microsoft officials, including Paul Maritz, Microsoft vice president of development, are expected to detail long-term plans for MSMQ. Those include initially opening the server up to HTTP, and then to protocols other than WinSock.

"HTTP support will allow users to more easily send message queues over the Internet without having to create a WinSock connection over the Internet, which right now requires poking a hole in firewalls," said Anne Thomas, an analyst at the Patricia Seybold Group, a market research company in Boston. Eventually, Microsoft is expected to use XML as message formatting structure for MSMQ, Thomas said.

XML will also factor into Microsoft's Internet-commerce strategy, according to sources. Officials at TechEd will outline a set of XML schemas that are part of the company's BizTalk framework to allow communication among business rules and platforms such as SAP. www.microsoft.com.au

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