REDMOND, Wash., Feb. 19, 2002 — Following last week’s release of Microsoft Visual Studio .NET, customers report that developers are successfully using this new tool and its technology to build superior Web-enabled business solutions. One customer in particular — the United States Army Intelligence and Security Command — figures on saving as much as US$10 million a year with a new online system created using Visual Studio .NET.
Organizations as diverse as the U.S. Army and Mary Kay Inc. offer proof that Microsoft is delivering on its commitment to provide tools and technologies that help organizations capitalize on the Internet as a business platform. Chief among these offerings is Visual Studio .NET, Microsoft’s new rapid application development (RAD) toolkit for building next-generation Web applications and XML Web services. Visual Studio .NET enables developers to quickly and easily design Web applications for any device and any platform.
Alain Gentilhomme, director for the Developer and Platform Evangelism Division at Microsoft, notes that Visual Studio .NET addresses three customer imperatives.
“One, customers want the ability to integrate not only their internal applications, but also to integrate with external customers and other partners,” Gentilhomme says. “Two, they want to do more with less. They need to cut costs, especially in today’s weakened economy, so they are looking for ways to create new types of applications, reach new kinds of businesses and be more productive in building new applications. Three, customers want operational excellence. They need a system that runs 24x7x365, and one that is reliable, scalable and easy to maintain. These are what we are delivering with Visual Studio .NET.”
Visual Studio .NET fully integrates with the .NET Framework, providing support for multiple programming languages and automatically handling many common programming tasks. .NET is Microsoft’s platform — based on industry standards such as XML, SOAP and WSDL- for building and deploying XML Web services. XML Web services enable customers to integrate islands of information by enabling applications to communicate and share data over the Internet, regardless of operating system and programming language.
.NET Security Solution Expected to Save Army Millions per Year
Few organizations are more vested in security than military intelligence. Consider, for example, the Contractor Support Element (CSE) of the U.S. Army’s Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM), which is charged with ensuring that outside contractors have the appropriate security clearances when they support military intelligence efforts.
In the past, when CSE used a manual system based on faxes and other paper documents, the security-clearance process typically proved lengthy. Studies showed that the wait time between hiring a contractor (with a valid clearance on file) and his or her arrival in a designated workplace averaged 49 days.
INSCOM’s CIO recognized that an online system could streamline this business process, saving the Army time and money by producing gains in productivity and efficiency. A key piece of CSE’s technology initiative called for developing a Web-based solution that could capture security-clearance data at the earliest possible point of entry and make that information easily accessible to the Army’s workforce and contract companies via the Internet. INSCOM’s CIO elected to create the solution using Microsoft Visual Studio .NET and the Microsoft .NET Framework.
“The capabilities within Microsoft .NET provided a good fit for our strategy,” says Bob Fecteau, INSCOM’s chief information officer.
CSE’s Web client accesses a Microsoft SQL Server 2000 database that stores information on contractor security clearances and runs on Microsoft Windows 2000 Server. The new Web-enabled integrated data structure has resulted in a highly automated security workflow process. INSCOM originally aimed to cut the contractor security clearance waiting period by 50 percent down to 20 days or so achieving a savings of about $6 million a year. But projections now run even higher.
“We really believe the system will allow us to reduce the wait-state to the seven-to-nine-day range, which would produce annual savings of $8 to $10 million a year,” Fecteau says.
Data integrity a key element in maintaining security is also being addressed to CSE’s satisfaction.
“There were huge data integrity concerns when we started converting the existing system,” Fecteau explains. “We had to make sure the data appeared in the formats and structures we wanted to best do our business. The Web forms created using ASP.NET enable us to enforce integrity of all data entered, which was very important when we transferred the previous databases.”
.NET Solution Positions Cosmetics Giant for the Future
Although Mary Kay Inc., one of the country’s largest direct sellers of skin care and cosmetic products, faced an entirely different business challenge, but the $1.3 billion company built its next-generation solution on the same technology. Mary Kay sought to centralize order entry for its 850,000 independent sales consultants, who operate in 33 countries worldwide. Order entry, a mission-critical application for Mary Kay, had bred four independent systems over the years — one each for orders taken by telephone, by mail, via sales consultants’ PCs and online.
Mary Kay chose the Microsoft .NET Framework as its platform for implementing a centralized ordering system. James Whatley, the technical consultant who heads the project, notes that several factors won Mary Kay over to Microsoft .NET.
“First, the development tools in Visual Studio .NET go above and beyond any other set of developer tools,” Whatley explains. “We also saw good XML integration, which fits in with our strategy. Using XML Web services to wrap our third-party COM objects for tax and credit-card processing let us preserve some of our investment from existing systems. And finally, the performance numbers for ASP.NET looked very promising.”
Mary Kay’s .NET project includes three phases. Phase 1 implemented an intranet system for entering orders submitted by mail. In Phase 2, developers will rewrite telephone and online order-entry systems in ASP.NET. Phase 3 will deploy 10-20 auxiliary order-entry systems. For efficiency, Phases 2 and 3 will reuse the business logic components and XML Web services of the Phase 1 system.
With its new .NET-based intranet solution in place, the company will successfully process more than 200,000 orders per month, the bulk of them in the last few days of each month.
In addition to centralizing Mary Kay’s business rules, the solution simplifies the job of data-entry clerks and provides scalable performance for the company’s Web site. Whatley notes that the combination of .NET technologies and XML Web services effectively resolves the problems Mary Kay faces today and provides the company with “a foundation for the future.
“What we were able to sell to the business unit was the idea that we had an opportunity to move forward with a new phase of development and applications,” Whatley says. “In our view, any choice other than Microsoft .NET would have been tantamount to building a legacy application.”
The Business Value of Microsoft .NET
A solution like the one implemented by Mary Kay demonstrates the business value of Microsoft .NET, Gentilhomme observes. By capitalizing on XML Web services, Mary Kay can integrate its disparate systems — and its islands of information — into a single system, achieving valuable insight into the status of order-taking.
The Visual Studio .NET development tools, meanwhile, enable Mary Kay’s programmers to write code quickly, boosting productivity. And, through the extensive use of ASP.NET, the company is seeing additional gains, not only in terms of productivity, but also in terms of application reliability and scalability.
Gentilhomme notes that Visual Studio .NET is a key milestone in Microsoft’s .NET vision because it provides the tools to build that vision. These tools empower developers to build next-generation solutions in record time, raising the bar on performance and productivity.
“Depending on the company and the kind of application that its developers create, we have seen customers increase their productivity from 50 to 200 percent,” Gentilhomme says.