REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 22, 2001 — When a company plans to add new technology systems and services, two questions tend to arise. The executive team asks, “Will it work?” The development team asks, “Is it easy to make it work?”
Both questions are becoming easier to answer, even when the initiative involves something as complex as the seamless operation of an enterprise’s disparate systems. Industry standards such as eXtensible Markup Language (XML) and the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) enable Internet-based interoperability, regardless of the computing platform or programming language used. Enterprises can use these standards to bring together the various applications that run their business, leveraging the speed and scalability of the Internet.
In the past, incorporating such functionality put a big coding burden on a company’s developers. But for a growing number of companies, including Pacific Life Insurance Co. and Toshiba TEC, the Microsoft .NET Framework reduces this burden by combining easy interoperability with sophisticated developer tools.
The .NET Framework, and examples of early customer successes, are being showcased this week at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles. Microsoft officials say the .NET Framework reflects Microsoft’s commitment to help developers be successful today by delivering more tools and technology to developers than any other company.
Develop Applications in Half the Time
.NET is Microsoft’s platform — built on XML and Internet standards — for building and deploying XML Web services. XML Web services allow applications to communicate and share data over the Internet, regardless of the operating system or programming language used by the developer.
Pursuing a similar goal in the retail industry is Toshiba TEC, a US$2.3 billion manufacturer of sophisticated retail- and package-delivery systems and other electronic systems and components. The division of Japan-based electronics giant Toshiba is creating a middleware called WX.NET, a development tool and execution environment built on the .NET Framework. WX.NET will allow retailers to link existing functions and services — such as transaction- or inventory-data tracking, promotion scheduling and accounting functions — over the Internet, using the XML Web services.
With WX.NET, a retailer’s point-of-sale terminal, for example, is integrated with services such as its Internet catalogue service, delivery system and finance system. This creates efficiencies for the retailer and a more compelling experience for the customer, by enhancing and broadening the customer service available at the terminal. Other solutions enabled by WX.NET can range from an electronic order application via Pocket PCs to Internet-based tracking systems and high-end central merchandise management systems, says Toshiba TEC marketing manager Kazunori Hirano.
“We’ve developed Windows-based applications for many years, but it was necessary to review our applications in the context of the enterprise in the Internet era,” Hirano says. “The .NET Framework was the best alternative we found to support and leverage the Internet while utilizing existing, conventional software assets.”
To accelerate customization and integration, WX.NET relies on Microsoft Visual Studio .NET, the next generation of Microsoft’s suite of developer tools, allowing programmers to quickly develop applications using their choice of more than 20 languages.
Hirano says that both the multi-language capability and object-based development enabled programmers to focus on objectives, not the code. “The tools enabled by the .NET Framework allow developers to concentrate on business logic to develop applications,” he says. “It therefore enables developers to build a stable system very quickly. We figure that developers can develop an application based on the .NET Framework in less than half the time with WX.NET.”
Toshiba TEC plans to develop and sell its next-generation retail applications on the WX.NET system, as well as partner with third-party software developers on complementary applications to help build market presence.
Alain Gentilhomme, director of evangelism for the .NET Framework and Visual Studio at Microsoft, said rapid application development has long been a target of Microsoft’s systems and tools. “.NET facilitates such amazing productivity,” he says. “We’ve had enterprise customers tell us incredible stories of how even the most complicated of projects have been built in just days.”
The Future of Data Exchange
The Life Insurance Division of Pacific Life turned to the .NET Framework to enhance the flexibility of its online services, both internally and to external audiences. The Pacific Life family of companies manages more than $335 billion in assets, making it one of the largest financial institutions in America, and currently counts 81 of the 100 largest U.S. companies as clients. Brad Sherrell, assistant vice president of IT for the firm’s Life Insurance Division, says its customers, in particular the corporate clients with substantial investment holdings tied to their policies, want more information than just a regular statement.
“In life insurance now you’re seeing a lot of data exchange with partners,” Sherrell says. “There are a lot of customers for whom getting a flat file e-mailed to them every night is not good enough. They want to go in further and see more detail about their policies, how their investment is performing and about their holdings.”
To that end, the Life Insurance Division of Pacific Life has made significant modifications to three areas of its online customer resources. Among other improvements, these modifications enhance interfaces, facilitate population of Web-based forms from databases, and support emerging technologies such as XML, while still leveraging existing applications. Sherrell says the Life Insurance Division of Pacific Life was most interested in using the .NET Framework for XML Web services, which offer a direct means for applications to interact with other applications. Applications hosted internally, as well as on remote systems, can communicate via the Internet by using SOAP messages.
“Integration is a cornerstone to the .NET technologies,” says Microsoft’s Gentilhomme. “With XML Web Services our customers can connect disparate IT systems with ease.”
Says Sherrell, “We think XML Web services are the future of how data will be exchanged among business partners. One of our modifications involved XML Web services we built from the ground up. On another one we used a feature that lets you talk to existing (Visual Basic) objects. That did prove to us that .NET lets you leverage your existing environment and interoperate with existing code.”
Virtually all programming languages run on the .NET platform, Gentilhomme notes. “So companies can save an enormous amount of money by not having to retrain their people on new technologies. The learning curve with .NET is incredible.”
Leverage existing language expertise
The versatility of the .NET Framework gives companies many business opportunities, and its tools give developers easy ways to build those opportunities, Gentilhomme adds.
“The ability to create XML Web services is one of the things customers really like about the .NET Framework,” he says. “But the .NET Framework includes much more than XML and SOAP. You can use it to build rich client-based applications, to build Web applications, and for building apps that access databases, plus it enables you to build a Web site that is accessible by any device. You can build rich client applications not only for PCs, but for any device, including PocketPCs.
“You can build any kind of application, in virtually any language. It has the ability to support more than 20 programming languages, and we’re working with third parties to integrate other languages into the .NET Framework. If you’ve used a language for years, why learn a new one to take advantage of emerging technologies?”