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New BackOffice on the way

The real bid to push Windows NT into the highest levels of Fortune 500 companies starts next month with a revamped version of Microsoft's BackOffice server bundle.

    Forget about Scalability Day, Microsoft's (MSFT) much-hyped one-day event last May intended to stake out its claim on big-time corporate computing.

    The real bid to push Windows NT into the highest levels of Fortune 500 companies will start next month with a revamped version of the company's BackOffice server bundle, and it will continue throughout 1998.

    The new version of BackOffice, an upgrade to the current BackOffice 2.5, will include new versions of Proxy Server and Exchange Server, along with easier to use installation tools, and sample intranet code, Craig Fiebig, a product manager at Microsoft, said. "We're including installation options that map to ways that people are most likely installing BackOffice, so that it requires minimal learning on the part of the installer," he said.

    Fiebig said the BackOffice update will include "better integration between applications" although he did not detail how Microsoft plans to accomplish that.

    The release may also include networking tools, code-named BaseCamp, used to build VPNs (virtual private networks).

    BackOffice currently includes Windows NT server, the SQL Server database, Exchange Server messaging software, Systems Management Server administration tools, and SNA Server host connectivity software.

    With the release, Microsoft is also laying the groundwork for the real fireworks: future versions of BackOffice, expected to debut in the middle of next year, built around major new releases of key applications.

    The company plans to release Windows NT 5.0, SQL Server 7.0, and a new version of Exchange code-named Platinum, in mid-1998.

    The next major version of BackOffice, due sometime after NT 5.0's debut, will streamline internal communications between applications and make management of applications more integrated--and more appealing to corporate buyers, the company hopes.

    Since its introduction several years ago, BackOffice has been a "bundle" in the loosest terms. There is little real integration between applications. In a major upgrade slated for next year, Microsoft will use the new Active Directory features of NT 5.0 and the company's OLE DB data access API (application programming interface) to greatly ease user management, resource administration, and data management, sources said.

    For instance, using NT 5.0's User Manager, administrators will be able to add users to an NT domain and give them access to individual applications included in BackOffice. That means users will be able to log on once and enter all BackOffice resources instead of having to log onto each application separately, as they do now.

    Microsoft will, for the first time, use its Active Data Objects (ADO) interface to OLE DB to streamline the internal connections between BackOffice applications. ADO is a language-independent interface to OLE DB that provides fast access to data. The upshot for end users and programmers is that data will move faster between BackOffice applications, so users will spend less time waiting for work to be processed.

    The ADO interface should also make it easier for third-party and in-house corporate developers to build custom software that is tightly integrated with NT and BackOffice applications.

    Microsoft's overall strategy is to use BackOffice as a sort of Trojan horse in order to get Windows NT into as many users' hands as possible. The company introduced a Small Business Server version of BackOffice earlier this year aimed at organizations of 25 or fewer users.

    The company also plans to launch an Enterprise Edition of BackOffice next year, but it appears that the exact timing of the launch is in flux. A Microsoft representative said a launch date has not been set, even though the company announced the enterprise bundle in May of this year.

    The Enterprise Edition delay may be due to some fine-tuning of Microsoft's plan, and a rethinking of the high-end version's packaging. Analysts speculate that there may be limited demand among enterprise-level customers for a shrink-wrapped bundle of applications. A Microsoft representative said the company is still honing the packaging details, since users are more likely to buy "two copies of SQL Server, or three copies of Exchange" instead of a complete bundle.

    Despite glitches on the high end, analysts said Microsoft is scoring big sales of BackOffice among small-business and departmental users. And the company is succeeding in its goal of making NT a ubiquitous operating system, according to Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst with International Data Corporation. "What is surprising is how broad the adoption has been. NT is being adopted at all levels at companies, except the highest levels, where mainframes and other big systems still rule," he said.

    It will be some time before NT replaces Unix, mainframes, and other high end systems, Kusnetzky said. "Microsoft has made some significant strides in getting NT adopted. It's starting at the small server level and is nibbling up the food chain. But it has not reached the enterprise level, in our surveys," he said.

    "NT has been available since 1992. Some of the systems it is trying to replace have been around for 25 or 30 years. It will take a long time and a lot of trust before users replace those systems with NT. Microsoft is doing a lot to earn that trust, but they have not earned it yet," Kusnetzky said.