Microsoft places bet on Whitehorse

The software maker seeks to gain an edge on competitors by launching a tool that can make software based on Windows easier to build.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
7 min read
Microsoft this year will seek to distance itself from Java rivals with tools designed to streamline how Windows-based business software is built and used.

Around the middle of the year, the company will introduce a test version of a new tool, code-named Whitehorse, that it says can help programmers design and create more reliable Windows applications in a shorter amount of time than with current tools, Prashant Sridharan, lead product manager in Microsoft's developer division, told CNET News.com.

Whitehorse will be part of the forthcoming edition of Microsoft's Visual Studio.Net development tool package, code-named Whidbey, due to launch later this year.


What's new:
Microsoft is looking to gain an edge on competitors with Whitehorse, a tool designed to make software based on Windows easier to build.

Bottom line:
Analysts say Whitehorse has the potential either to revolutionize Windows software development or to be remembered as a colossal flop.

More stories on this topic

Sridharan said Whitehorse will give software programmers a visual representation, similar to a blueprint, for constructing software. Such "modeling" tools aren't new. But, to date, they haven't been used extensively by Windows programmers. Whitehorse will "let you drop services onto a form, connect them, and apply protocols like transactions and security," Sridharan said.

While the tool may sound esoteric, it's actually an important cornerstone of Microsoft's software development strategy. Whitehorse will help developers knit together entire applications using Web services, an important technology underlying Microsoft's product lines, and will complement Longhorn, the company's forthcoming update to Windows.

Along with the ability to design and build more complex software using Web services, Whitehorse could help Microsoft land larger deals, allowing the company to go head-to-head with Java rivals, such as IBM, Sun Microsystems and Oracle, to supply software to the most demanding customers.

No less important are Microsoft's plans to use Whitehorse internally to make its own products--which have suffered from security and quality problems--more reliable.

"This is a huge undertaking, and getting all of the various teams coordinated in this fashion is unprecedented for Microsoft," said Thomas Murphy, an analyst at the Meta Group.

Microsoft said that modeling tools like Whitehorse make it more likely that the programs built by developers will match the requirements of business users and be successfully implemented. Often, communication between programmers in information technology departments and the system administrators that maintain finished applications is fragmented, which can cause delays or derail a new project altogether, according to Microsoft executives.

"I can't tell you how many times a beautiful piece of software fails to make it into production because the two camps never talked in the design phase," said Tim Huckaby, CEO of InterKnowlogy, a consulting firm that uses Microsoft software.

Huckaby said that he expects software developers and architects will be "overjoyed" when they get their hands on Whitehorse. The challenge for Microsoft is raising awareness and adoption among technology infrastructure specialists, such as network designers or server administrators, areas where the company does not enjoy the same good relations as it does with developers, he said.

Given the scope and complexity of the project--and the millions of developers it will affect--analysts said Whitehorse has the potential to revolutionize Windows software development--or to be remembered as a colossal flop. "Either the product will set new levels of quality for Microsoft or it will crash and burn," Murphy said.

This year's model
Interest in modeling and design is growing, as corporate customers grapple with increasingly complex computing systems. Microsoft competitors, such as IBM and Borland Software, also have invested substantially in modeling. As the competition from Java software suppliers heats up, Microsoft is taking an original tack on the decades-old technology.

Whitehorse is intended to ease the process of building applications using prebuilt "services," or application components that can be combined to complete a business process.

Typically, modeling tools save time with better upfront analysis of a development project. Software architects create a picture of an application's structure and requirements, which is then given to programmers who write the appropriate code. Once written and tested, applications are sent to corporate data centers, which house the back-end gear that runs business applications. Specialists, such as database and network administrators, operate and maintain the actual physical infrastructure that applications run on.

With Whitehorse, Microsoft is looking to streamline both the development and implementation phases of an application. The tool provides a common XML (Extensible Markup Language)-based language, called System Definition Model, for sharing information, such as an application's hardware requirements and the constraints that network designers put on their physical infrastructure. For example, a designer can test whether the security settings on an application under development match the security requirements of a particular server, as specified by the network administrator.

Smoothing out that phase of an application's "life cycle" is a critical goal for Microsoft, part of the company's multiyear Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI). While the company has a long history of creating tools to make programmers more productive, DSI focuses on cutting costs out of operations--the labor required to keep business applications up and running.

Microsoft's expanded push into modeling will face competition from entrenched suppliers such as IBM, Borland, Compuware and Computer Associates International, which have beefed up their development tool lines over the past two years with modeling capabilities to speed up development and generate higher-quality code.

In late 2002, IBM acquired Rational Software, a pioneer in modeling and central to the development of the unified modeling language (UML) commonly used in design tools. Last year, IBM introduced Rational Rapid Developer, a tool intended to speed up the development of Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) applications by relying heavily on models and automatic code generation.

IBM's Rational division also is trying to extend its reach beyond application architects and testers to include systems administrators. Big Blue plans to incorporate Rational's modeling technology throughout its software line, including business process analysis and systems management.

In a project still under development, Rational is working with IBM's Tivoli systems management division to use its modeling tools to smooth out the deployment of applications and ensure that performance meets expectations, said Alan Brown, a distinguished engineer at IBM's Rational division.

But, Brown noted, "we can't do all of this in one big go. It will take a while for customers to do this in a sensible way."

Next stop: SOAs
One of the most immediate concerns development tool companies have is preparing corporate customers for building service-oriented architectures (SOAs), which analysts and vendors say result in more flexible, cost-effective software. Microsoft, IBM and others are trying to give corporate developers modeling tools to be productive and help companies transition to this newer technical architecture.

Modern services-oriented architectures rely on Web services, or application components that share data by sending messages using XML-based protocols and documents. An SOA, for example, would allow an e-commerce site to perform a complex transaction involving different business partners by linking together several Web services, rather than having to hard-wire connections to partners.

Microsoft is eschewing UML, generally used in object-oriented tools, in favor of a proprietary approach to rapidly connect prewritten Web services. Whitehorse extends the "drag and drop" metaphor popularized with Microsoft's Visual Basic development tool to "drag, drop and connect," Sridharan said. He said Microsoft has built Whitehorse so that it can be extended via a software developer's kit. The company expects to work with partners to create an add-on that would allow a programmer to work with UML in Whitehorse. The company also anticipates modeling languages tailored to specific industries such as aerospace, Sridharan said.

Financial software maker Corillian, for example, said Microsoft's services-oriented approach with Whitehorse and the close synchronization between application models and the code that corresponds to them will yield higher-quality code and help development teams stick to an application's original design, said Corillian chief architect Scott Hanselman.

"You want to fix bugs in design. The closer you get to the go-live date, the more expensive a bug is," Hanselman said.

Whitehorse should also help developers create software more quickly, he said. The combination of the tool's Web services assembly approach and the prewritten chunks of code that Microsoft provides "gives me bigger and bigger Lego blocks than I've ever had to play with before," Hanselman said.

Microsoft's plans to created a better connected process among programmers, designers and testers reflects a similar approach by IBM with its Rational tool suite and Borland's combination of development, design and testing tools, noted Meta Group's Murphy. But Microsoft's plans to bring programmers and experts in IT operations onto the same page as well sets the company apart from the competition, he said.

"This is going to take some time to fully unfold, (but) I would say Microsoft is going in the right direction," Murphy said.

InterKnowlogy's Huckaby said that Whitehorse will have broad ramifications. When he first saw a demonstration of Whitehorse, his immediate thought was that Microsoft's design effort would set the bar for all competing tools.

"The Whitehorse team has ambitious plans," Huckaby said. "But if they pull it off they will change the way applications are designed, built and delivered."