ENT’s Second Annual BackOffice Technical Forecast

The launch of Windows 2000 is right around the corner, so it’s high time for another incarnation of the BackOffice Suite of products that surround Microsoft Corp.'s (www.microsoft.com) operating system. This year's BackOffice Technical Forecast will educate users as to what to expect from the suite and its components in the coming year.

The most significant and obvious change to the next version of the suite will be the centerpiece: Windows 2000. The operating system will ship in the BackOffice Suite’s box, replacing NT 4.0.

Windows 2000 won’t change the nature of the BackOffice products, but it will have a profound effect on all of them. Some of the suite’s products will be able to run on both Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 2000 when it ships, but some are designed solely for Windows 2000. All the products, quite naturally, will be honed for Active Directory -- Windows 2000's directory service -- at some point.

The current version of BackOffice -- 4.5 -- shipped last May. Microsoft intends to greet Windows 2000 with a new suite a few months after the operating system ships. Windows 2000 is scheduled to be released February 17.

"We’re targeting the first half of 2000 to ship an updated version of the suite," says Joel Sloss, the BackOffice product manager at Microsoft.

When the suite comes to market, it will include the most up-to-date versions of all the components. But the suite as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is more than merely a collection of components.

For instance, the setup of components was integrated in version 4.5 to ease installation and deployment. Now 20 wizards do what more than 150 did in the past. These wizards, along with Windows 2000 Update Wizards that enable the programs to run on Windows 2000, will ship in the suite’s next incarnation.

Microsoft is building on that investment. The suite will include software to help customers migrate to Windows 2000 that include a Windows 2000 Readiness Kit and team-based knowledge management tools that run on BackOffice to enhance line-of-business data, unified team, and project-oriented tasks.

Additionally, customers will find third-party tools for security that can limit what an end-user can do. Sloss says five or six third-party products will be in the suite. Which ones still have to be determined.

The new version being based on Windows 2000 doesn’t mean Windows NT 4.0 won’t be available in the suite at all.

"BackOffice 4.5 will ship for some time after Windows 2000 ships," Sloss says.

In this second annual BackOffice Technical Forecast, we dissected the suite's individual components to investigate what can be expected from each product in the version Microsoft plans to optimize for Windows 2000.

BackOffice will ship with updated and enhanced versions of its other products: Exchange, SQL Server, SNA Server, Systems Management Server (SMS), Proxy Server, and Site Server, Commerce Edition.

Some will be enhanced greatly, such as Exchange, SQL Server, and SNA Server. Others, such as SMS, will not see as many changes this year.

Exchange Server 2000

Many experts opine that Exchange Server 2000 is the most attractive reason for organizations to migrate to Windows 2000. Indeed, Exchange Server will become an integral part of Microsoft's knowledge management vision of a digital dashboard and its vision of providing "anytime, anywhere" access to data from a variety of devices.

The scalability, reliability, and centralization of Windows 2000 make Exchange buffs drool over the possibilities in the Microsoft messaging realm. The ability to store millions of objects in Active Directory, for instance, means users can store millions of mailboxes on Exchange, all with their own attributes that fit into the rest of the Windows 2000 structure. "From our perspective, when you go to specify within an Active Directory that someone has a mail address, you associate that with an Active Directory Object (ADO)," says Doug Stumberger, Exchange product manager at Microsoft. "What we're talking about is providing an architecture that can really scale to the maximum level needed by a service provider where they're doing massive amounts of data storage across the wire."

The line separating the messaging store and items in databases in Windows NT will be erased with the dawn of Windows 2000's Web Store. This will affect Office 2000 as well as Exchange and its BackOffice counter parts. With the Web store, Microsoft uses XML to unify the user interface to provide one avenue leading straight to documents, spreadsheets, e-mail messages, instant messages, and voice mail messages, which utilize the unified messaging platforms from the major networking companies.

This sets up an entire messaging infrastructure that is completely manageable from the comfy confines of the Microsoft Management Console (MMC).

"You can now store all that information in a much more holistic way," Stumberger explains. "It becomes this central place to store and manage documents as well as messages and Web-based applications."

Exchange 2000 also includes URL addressability for all hierarchies, folders, messages, and attachments. This makes all the data in an Exchange server Web-readable. Integration of that feature with Office 2000 should allow Web access to mailboxes. The products will be capable of determining the type of browser in use, and those with support for XML should have a Web experience of Outlook that is nearly identical to an Outlook client.

The active-active clustering that's achieved through Windows 2000 clustering services is a win for customers who have been clamoring to Microsoft about Exchange 2000. Two systems can be running simultaneously, and if one fails it automatically shifts over to the other machine. In the past, administrators would need to have an idle server standing by for a failover.

"We really view Exchange 2000 as the killer app for Windows 2000," Stumburger expounds. "For a lot of customers, the Active Directory will be the opportunity for them to rationalize the directory structure, to do things like use security groups for Exchange distribution lists and use Windows security for all Exchange servers and objects."

SQL Server 2000

In addition to its new name, Microsoft’s flagship database will get a substantial overhaul this year -- adding a data mining engine and injecting XML into the RDBMS engine.

This time around, Microsoft is building on an already substantially new product. With the release of SQL Server 7.0 in early 1999, Microsoft departed from the code base in place through version 6.5 to create a more scalable RDBMS and add an OLAP engine.

SQL Server 2000, code-named Shiloh, will be released near the end of the second quarter of this year, in time to take advantage of some of the scalability improvements to the operating system that will come with Windows 2000 Datacenter Server, says Barry Goffe, SQL Server product manager at Microsoft. At press time, about 750 customers and partners were participating in a closed beta. A public beta program for SQL Server 2000 is planned for this quarter.

Shiloh can use the full 64 GB of memory that Datacenter Server will support, and it will be possible to use Shiloh in 4-node failover clusters. Both features are only part of Datacenter Server, and SQL Server 7.0 wasn’t built to handle them, Goffe says.

SQL Server 2000 is designed to work with Active Directory. "Integrating with the Active Directory will basically allow DBAs [database administrators] to automate processes that are totally manual today," Goffe says. For example, upon installation, Shiloh will register itself in the Active Directory. This makes it possible for a DBA to query the Active Directory for all SQL Servers installed on the network since the DBA last checked.

Similar to when Microsoft bundled OLAP Services with the RDBMS with version 7.0 at no extra cost, Redmond will add a data mining engine this time around.

Code-named Aurum, the data mining engine won’t compete with existing data mining tools, Goffe maintains. It could, however, drive down prices by eliminating the need for those tools to carry a data loading component.

Microsoft expects the engine to give data mining vendors an infrastructure, to allow users to mix and match different tools’ algorithms, and to encourage ISVs to embed algorithms into nondata mining applications, Goffe says (see sidebar on page xx).

[[Scott's sidebar should be positioned around here]]

Integrated XML support in Shiloh fits a companywide effort to embrace XML as a means for supply chain and enterprise application integration. The RDBMS engine will be able to receive queries and return results as XML documents. It will also be possible to apply Extensible Style Sheet Language (XSL) templates to the XML results -- making it possible for a result to appear as a standard document such as an invoice.

Some of that XML functionality is already available as a component download for SQL Server 7.0.

Another strategic move for the database will be the addition of a Windows CE version of SQL Server in Shiloh. SQL Server 7.0 did not reach below Windows 95/98 desktops, although many of Microsoft’s competitors sport handheld RDBMS editions.

A few other noteworthy feature enhancements in Shiloh include the addition of materialized views and support for multiple instances of SQL Server running on a single machine.

A DBA can radically improve query response times with materialized views, which let the DBA create a constantly updated summary table of frequently accessed data. Microsoft follows Oracle Corp. and IBM Corp. in adding this capability. Multiple instances support was added because users were frustrated with their inability to run more than one SQL Server 7.0 at a time in Windows NT 4.0.

Microsoft vehemently denied press reports a few months ago that a separation of SQL Server and OLAP Services was being considered. Industry observers, such as Nigel Pendse at The OLAP Report (www.olapreport.com), actually expect further integration of the core RDBMS and OLAP in SQL Server 2000. Microsoft is working on improved hierarchy support, larger dimension limits, better security administration, and an improved Internet architecture for OLAP Services in SQL Server 2000, according to The OLAP Report.

One area where OLAP Services in SQL Server could be improved is documentation and training materials, which The OLAP Report calls "very basic."

The feature users clamored the loudest for wasn’t the one with the most bells and whistles. Shiloh will add cascading updates and deletes, which means when an RDBMS entry is changed, all the related rows will be automatically fixed to conform. "It was the number one requested feature from our customer groups," Goffe says.

SNA Server

Sources within Microsoft indicate that big things are in store for the product now known as SNA Server -- including a name change and a new product positioning.

SNA Server users can expect a new version of Microsoft’s client-to-host connectivity gateway sometime within the 2000 time-frame. The current release of SNA Server is version 4.0.

"The server products in the Windows DNA 2000 family … are expected to be available by the middle of 2000," a Microsoft spokeswoman confirms.

The next version of SNA Server, code-named Babylon Integration Server, is expected to go a long way toward fulfilling the promise of transforming SNA Server from a mere client-to-host gateway into what Microsoft terms an applications integration platform. In this model, Babylon Integration Server would function as a general-purpose interoperability connector to heterogeneous mainframe, AS/400 and Unix hosts, as well as the applications that reside on them.

As a result, Babylon Integration Server will provide connectivity to Unix hosts in addition to its bread-and-butter mainframe and AS/400 host access features. Therefore, when it finally ships, the product is expected eschew the familiar SNA Server brand name.

SNA refers to Systems Network Architecture, a host-controlled centralized network architecture for mainframe and AS/400 environments.

Because Babylon Integration Server will use Microsoft’s Windows DNA 2000 framework, the next-generation host-connectivity product is expected to help developers build scalable, distributed applications without rewriting code or wrapping code in COM or CORBA objects.

Babylon Integration Server will consolidate a number of additions to SNA that Microsoft released over the course of the past three years.

In addition to enhancing replication support for IBM Corp.’s (www.ibm.com) DB2 database, Babylon Integration Server will extend the replication capabilities of Microsoft’s Host Data Replicator for SQL Server to Oracle environments. The Host Data Replicator currently provides snapshot replication of DB2 data from either IBM AS/400 or System 390 computers. It is now expected to do the same with Oracle databases running on a variety of platforms.

Microsoft says Babylon Integration Server will ship with a new service -- dubbed the host-initiated data access component -- that allows DB2 developers to access SQL Server 7.0 as a peer DB2 data source.

Babylon Integration Server will also include COMTI, which functions as a transaction integrator for IBM’s CICS/IMS and Microsoft’s COM-based Microsoft Transaction Server transaction processing environments, and the OLE Provider for AS/400, which provides record-level access to both physical and logical files on AS/400 VSAM datastores.

COMTI will be extended by virtue of Microsoft’s new XML Transaction Integrator (XMLTI), which is expected to provide an XML interface to COMTI components. XMLTI is designed to interoperate with Microsoft’s BizTalk e-commerce XML framework and server platform, which by default makes Babylon Integration Server a key component of Microsoft’s e-commerce strategy, since any substantive e-commerce solution must account for the heterogeneous mainframe, AS/400, and Unix hosts that provide mission-critical underpinnings.

In addition to a new software development kit for general development purposes, Babylon Integration Server will also ship with a GUI-based development tool -- dubbed the Babylon Component builder. It will provide developers with a drag and drop environment for building components.

Commerce Server

While tweaking the names of BackOffice products, Microsoft clipped the name of Site Server, Commerce Edition, down to Commerce Server. It’s still unknown whether Commerce Server will be tagged 2000, like several of its BackOffice brethren.

Since last year's BackOffice Technical Forecast, few additions have been made to Site Server, Commerce Edition, version 3.0. Not surprisingly, though, new things are on the horizon for 2000.

Sometime during mid-2000, customers can expect a new release of Commerce Server.

"We are focusing on building an integrated set of tools and components for e-commerce," says Rebekkah Kumar, lead product manager for Commerce Server at Microsoft.

The company intends to make it easier for developers to build scalable e-commerce sites. Microsoft is also working toward creating a set of technologies that allows developers to take advantage of Commerce Server's components.

One of the Commerce Server team’s main goals for the coming year is to give customers more control over information about their e-commerce sites. Business managers, for instance, will be able to gain access to more information about how users are accessing a site and how effective the site is. The expectation is that with this information, managers will be able to improve a site and make it more efficient, enhancing the visitors’ experience at the site. For instance, if a significant number of users leave the site because the registration page is too long or complex, a company can adjust that in hopes of keeping visitors at the site.

In addition, the new version of Commerce Server will work with SQL Server 7.0 and its OLAP capabilities, giving managers the ability to conduct in-depth analysis and drill down through data.

Commerce Server will not be losing any functions in its new release. "Expect us to move all core features forward, we're not throwing away any feature sets. There will be the same level of sophistication [and] it will be faster and more scalable, but there won't be anything new to learn," Kumar says.

One thing will be very different in the new release, though: It will require Windows 2000. "Commerce Server may run on other versions, but Windows 2000 is required. We are not testing the new version of Commerce Server against any other platforms," Kumar says.

That means whether or not the new release will run on Windows 95, 98, or NT is uncertain. Despite this possible shortcoming, Kumar says Commerce Server is the quickest route to building e-commerce applications on Windows 2000.

Commerce Server will reap some of the benefits of upgrading to Windows 2000, mainly the same benefits Microsoft is emphasizing as Windows 2000 upgrades: performance, scalability, reliability, availability, and Internet-enablement.

The version currently available, Site Server, Commerce Edition, has not been officially tested on Windows 2000.

Like the rest of the BackOffice components and the suite itself, the release of Commerce Server will not make its public debut until after the launch of Windows 2000.

--Alicia Costanza, Scott Bekker, Brian Ploskina, Isaac Slepner, and Stephen Swoyer contributed to this report.

For more on BackOffice 2000, please see: