NET Tailors Web Communications

August 16, 2002
| By Katy Rent |
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GRAND RAPIDS — After learning the nuts and bolts of the .NET framework, the question no longer seems to be why would you use .NET, but why wouldn’t you?

After years of work, Microsoft has rolled out its .NET technology, which according to a local firm with the Microsoft network, is a set of development tools and enterprise class server products that can maximize communication while saving businesses time and money.

“It is about developing software technology solutions and it is a more cost-effective, more streamlined, more powerful, more sophisticated way of developing solutions,” said Keith Brophy, president and CEO of Sagestone.

“But in a way,” he added, “it is on the same track as what they have been doing in the past, which is developing software that can communicate over the Web, and when you start to get into that, you can get some pretty sophisticated business solutions.”

In the past, he explained, engineers built software programs by writing line upon line of code and then writing coding to link them and to get them to talk to each other.

He also said programming used to be a lot of nuts and bolts, lots of technology — and even more integration — to get all of the pieces working together and talking back and forth across the Web.

But now, he said, Microsoft has made that task easier through .NET by providing high-level building blocks.

For years, programmers have had to start each new job nearly from scratch. But with .NET, Brophy told the Business Journal, instead of having to build with hammer and nails, you can have pre-fabricated walls practically ready to e-snap into place.

Within the last year and a half, he said, Microsoft has begun rolling out its building blocks and tool sets with everything included — even the screws — to build an application to interface over the Web.

Programmers begin with addressing a business challenge and determining the problem to be solved and what each side needs. From there the basic pieces are assembled, the .NET framework is added and applications are built upon that, choosing from various servers, tools and Web services to make the program complete and fully functioning.

Developers choose among nine servers in developing a system, along with a Web service to communicate and a database to store information.

“You choose a server to solve a problem,” said Brophy. “While there are nine different servers, there are some that fit better with some solutions than others. As with the other two parts — tools and Web services — there are general applications and there are more specific servers to choose from.”

He explained that SQL, for example, is a server that would be useful for managing a database. On the other hand, when developing a solution for online commerce, he recommends a Microsoft building block called Commerce Service.

Similarly, for a firm needing to manage lots of Web content with approvals and flow, instead of having to develop that line-by-line from the ground up, Microsoft developed something called the Content Manager server. But customization is still necessary.

“All of these building blocks are very helpful but you can’t just plop them down and have them fill a business’s need; there is additional customization that goes around it,” Brophy said.

For that, Microsoft developed a kind of toolbox that programmers can use to link the blocks and pre-assembled walls together called Visual Studio.net (VS.net). Inside the toolbox are the devices one uses to perform tasks and customize the program, such as a tool to lay out a screen. The program is built from there.

This, he said, is where the .NET framework comes into play and leverages additional products and various elements, code and tasks, more pre-assembled pieces of software to be used, sometimes as glue. The .NET framework is a set of templates used throughout the process to make the development easier.

“The framework is the key, it is the essence,” said Brian Anderson, senior software architect for SageStone. “The .NET framework is all of the building blocks, all of the screws, everything you need to build this house, whatever you are trying to build.”

He explained that with this advancement pieces fit together more easily, whereas before more lines of code were needed to make it a perfect fit.  In the past a server, Web service and database would be put together and then lines of code would be written around to connect them. Now, with the framework acting as a sort of glue gun, pieces fit together and meld into one solid communication tool. Not only that but the program can read any computer language, then take it and dissect it and boil it down to Microsoft Intermediate Language (MSIL).

“We are beyond those stages of writing code,” Anderson said. “There may be bits and pieces here and there, but really it is now all about putting the right pieces together the right way to discover a system that can manage communications in the best way for that client.”

And all of this magic happens now in half the time and costing considerably less money. Brophy stated that there are several reasons for this, but primarily it is all about bolting the right pieces together and choosing the right nuts and bolts for the job. And there is also the fact that parts are just less expensive these days.

“The other thing that has happened with that is the maturity of the Internet and XML standard. That is something important to note about .NET, is it encompasses industry-wide standards, so it works with everything — Microsoft or not — something that makes it versatile from system to system.”

“Major cost efficiencies and developing software are key and, suddenly, when the cost is a third of what it was and there is less risk, all of a sudden all kinds of things are possible,” said Rob Busch, vice president of sales for SageStone.”

He explained that businesses now can pursue initiatives they never would have considered previously because it would have been very expensive to, say, link 50 plants.

“Suddenly it is cost-feasible and workable in many cases,” he said. “For example, imagine creating a washer and dryer that could communicate when a part was about to go bad, or could compute what type of clothing loads were put in, what type of detergent was being used and how often the machines were being used.”

Brophy said a concept like this one would have been unheard of five years ago, but with the .NET technology it really opens up a whole new world of interaction and possibility.

“It really does open it up to a world of possibilities and even makes it possible for most programmers to be able to write a rich, mature product for the customer,” said Gerry Miller, chief technology officer for the Microsoft Great Lakes office.

“The beauty of this is with the same tools and the same pre-fabricated walls, each application can be made its own and can turn out to be a highly cost-effective, time-saving venture with fairly obvious advantages.”

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