Compliance with new technologies being rolled into the mammoth Windows NT Server 5.0 operating system upgrade due early next year tops the list of added requirements for an enhanced Microsoft BackOffice certification program to be unveiled next week at a company developer conference.
The guidelines, to be detailed at next week's TechEd conference in New Orleans, are intended to offer a road map for developers, also known as independent software vendors (ISVs), for building applications that run on Windows NT Server or act in concert with other software that runs on top of the operating system.
But like much of what comes out of Redmond, Washington, these days, the three-phased approach that will extend into the new millennium is sure to engender scrutiny from skeptical competitors, since the main thrust of the effort is targeted at support for new technologies such as Microsoft's Active Directory services and Microsoft Management Console (MMC).
Any time Planet Microsoft thrusts its will on the software industry these days, the specter of the Justice Department and the company's current antitrust woes--however fair--also percolate below the surface.
Microsoft executives insist their goal is not to subvert the investments developers have made in other vendors' products. The goal is to provide a process so that third-party applications can appropriately take advantage of the various software products Microsoft provides, executives said.
"We're not attempting to push people in a direction," said Bob O'Brien, lead product manager for BackOffice. "This has to be a joint effort between the ISV community and Microsoft."
To alleviate the competitive concerns of third parties, Microsoft has commissioned VeriTest, an outside testing firm, to perform testing for logo certification.
BackOffice is the name for a suite of server-side software products from Microsoft that run on top of Windows NT Server, much like the Office suite of tools is positioned to take advantage of the Windows 95, forthcoming 98, and Windows NT Workstation client operating systems.
BackOffice consists of the Exchange server messaging system, SQL Server database, Proxy Server, Site Server, SNA Server, and Systems Management Server (SMS) administration tools.
The first phase of BackOffice logo compliance essentially echoes current requirements and goes into effect in November. For example, a third-party application must be tested so that it is "fully functional" in a "stressed" Windows NT server environment, according to Microsoft documentation.
A second phase, to be rolled out when Windows NT Server 5.0 ships, includes a requirement to adhere to Microsoft's updated security model, which uses a standard protocol set called Kerberos.
On the management side, Microsoft is requiring third parties to build a snap-in--if they offer administration tools with their applications--so that the third-party application can fit into Microsoft's MMC, essentially a framework for third-party management software. Adherence to the Web-Based Enterprise Management (WBEM) schema is also required, something that most firms are already doing with their tools.
In addition, Microsoft is requiring ISVs to take advantage of its forthcoming Active Directory services via tie-ins with a homegrown protocol or the popular LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol), at a minimum.
With these new technologies, Microsoft is offering developers a base way to tie into what the company is doing, but executives are clearly hoping developers will take advantage of advanced integration with new features, such as the directory. "The prime directive is for the customer to have a great experience on the Windows platform," O'Brien said.
In the third phase, due to be implemented sometime after NT 5.0 ships, Microsoft clearly is hoping to take advantage of internal technologies by requiring developers writing applications intended for IBM-based systems to use Microsoft's SNA Server as a gateway and by requiring compliance with OLE DB as a data access interface. OLE DB is a superset of the ubiquitous ODBC database access interface that allows access to a wide range of databases and applications.
To a certain extent, Microsoft is throwing out new requirements to see if they stick. "One thing we'll be looking for is, do ISVs agree with these requirements and these dates?" O'Brien asked.
Another outcome of the new certification push is that the company's programs have been centralized so that an Office-compatible logo is now part of the BackOffice program, essentially a subset of the overarching validation process. Other technologies, such as Microsoft's Transaction Server, are also treated as part of more advanced integration.
Some software providers are less than enthusiastic about writing to first-generation technologies such as Microsoft's Active Directory service, based on a March CNET NEWS.COM article.
Software companies with competing products, such as Novell, have always had problems with Microsoft's logo intentions. "In the past, Microsoft has used the logo to shunt ISVs in the direction it wanted to go," said Dwight Davis, an analyst with Summit Strategies.
Novell has shipped a directory service component for its operating system for several years and recently introduced a management console concept similar to Microsoft's MMC. Novell is not currently BackOffice certified.
"The reality, despite what Microsoft thinks, is that customers have multiple platforms today, and they always will," said Michael Simpson, director of marketing for Novell's network services division. "ISVs will continue to write applications that run on the most popular platforms and that use the most popular directories. They require, for the marketability of their application, that they are consistent across all platforms."
"Microsoft still doesn't get it," Simpson continued. "Developers and customers cannot be coerced into developing to and deploying only one platform. They need the best product for the job, and with tools like [ours], Microsoft's claim that a single vendor environment is more cost-effective is thrown out the window."
Some third parties find that the logo program allows them to adhere closely to a series of Microsoft technologies that are being adopted by companies at a rapid pace. Development tool provider Synon includes a "generator" in its software that automatically insures BackOffice compliance for the application being developed.
"The BackOffice certification and logo are pretty important to Synon," said Andrew Lev, director of global alliances for the company. "The fact that the rules are becoming even more stringent is not a bad thing for us."
Analysts note that Microsoft has always made clear its intentions to build software that offers companies a common software base with which to work. That is essentially the heart of the company's "Digital Nervous System" mantra.
"Microsoft has made it clear as the platform evolves they want to make it a common infrastructure," Davis noted. "Microsoft has the right to define their logo program in any way it sees fit and ISVs have a choice if they want to comply."
There are now about 620 BackOffice-certified applications from 400 companies due to the three-year-old program, according to Microsoft data, with a 300 percent increase in BackOffice-certified software in the past 12 months.