Microsoft WCF Go Live May Change ESB Game

Last week, Microsoft released the first Go Live versions of Windows Communications Foundation and Windows Workflow Foundation. And while Microsoft officials do not want WCF compared directly to an ESB, the technology may be setting the stage as a game-changer for the red-hot ESB sector.

Tags: Devs, WCF, ESB, Bixhorn, SOA, Microsoft, WinFX,

Last week, Microsoft released the first Go Live versions of Windows Communications Foundation (WCF) and Windows Workflow Foundation (WF), giving enterprise devs the OK to take their SOA plumbing and workflow code out of the cleanroom and into a live enterprise environment.

The "go live" availability of these server-side technologies are aimed at helping enterprises better test and tune their WCF/WF apps for scalability, Microsoft's Ari Bixhorn, Director of Web Services Strategy told IDN.

In the mix, the go live release may expand the battle for enterprise mindshare for SOA-driven upgrades between Microsoft and a widening range of Java-base ESB vendors. But, Microsoft officials are insistant that WCF should not be compared directly to ESBs.

"Microsoft hasn't really talked about an ESB offering because we believe WCF and BizTalk provides a significant superset over ESB vendors," Bixhorn said. That said, Bixhorn acknowledges that Microsoft's WCF and WF are coming into an SOA infrastructure sector that is increasingly being defined by commercially shipping Java-based ESB products.

"Time and time again when we talk to customers many ask us about what our ESB offering is," he told IDN. "There are certainly elements of ESBs that we think are important for SOA but we also think they [ESBs] need to go further. So, we do not ralk about WCF in terms of an ESB. Once we describe WCF and BizTalk capabilities, customers see we can provide those [ESB] capabilities, along with some not yet available" in many ESBs, Bixhorn added.

So, What Are Devs Getting, Building, Testing?
Devs have been receiving monthly updates to WinFX code since September 2005, under Microsoft's Community Technology Preview (CTP) program, but last week was the first time Microsoft gave "developers the OK…to test out their apps in a live environment," Bixhorn said.

"Our customers have told us the reason they want to test [WinFX] in a production environment is to understand and even push scalability limits. In back office application where customers may have hundreds - even thousands - of servers, scalability testing is now a priority before the final [WinFX[ release," he added.

The Go Live releases of WCF and WF come 2 years after the original announcement of WinFX (the suite of developer interface technologies to replace Win32 APIs, of which WCF and WF are a part).

So, what exactly are WinFX devs building and testing?

Bixhorn cites an early beta use at Ohio State Medical Center, where Bixhorn said, devs have "re-plumbed their entire infrastructure network across several hospitals." The project: Using WCF, devs are designing a system to send patient information to operating rooms, monitoring centers and even tablet PCs over private, secure and reliable connections. In fact, the design calls for data transfer in almost real-time to assist in assessing patient vital signs during examinations and emergencies, Bixhorn added.

Bixhorn says that while the focus on SOA "will certainly be an important theme in 2006," he also adds that many vendors' emphasis on the infrastructure issues have left application designers and developers out of the SOA conversation.

At the heart of this type of customer app, is Microsoft's 3-tier vision for SOA, and how developers need to be enabled to play a bigger role in apps design and workflows. "Beyond the basic SOA plumbing issues, there are also information and data flow issues that are not getting enough attention. We think about SOA process as a 3-stage process, which will provide a complete set of technologies to let customers integrate a whole set of information assets in an interoperable way, and are also resilient to change over time."

Not surprisingly, Bixhorn's 3-stage vision maps precisely to Microsoft's roadmap for dev server-side and presentation-layer tools:

1. WCF provides devs a server-side API programming layer to simplify the business of working with integration and interop of web services across multiple environments -
2. WF provides devs server-side APIs runtime and visual editors to more easily design, build and implement workflows across services to deliver a specific set of business-focused services/applications; and
3. Windows Presentation Foundation (not included in the Go Live release, but the third leg of WinFX) provides devs client-side tools and abstraction layered APIs to build rich-client access and interfaces beyond web browsers.

Empowering Devs for SOA Projects and Beyond
The overall goal of the WinFX CTP and Go Live releases for WCF and WF are about helping developers build software on the Microsoft Windows platform moving forward.

"[WinFX] goes beyond SOA," Bixhorn said. [As a superset of the Microsoft .NET Framework, WinFX combines the power of the .NET Framework 2.0 with new technologies for building applications that have visually compelling user experiences, seamless communication across technology boundaries, and the ability to support a wide range of business processes.]

In specific, WCF provides devs with access to a wide range of web services/SOA transaction specs, without requiring them to know how WS-* works under the covers. "The WCF programming model and under the covers we serialize everything in a standardized way," Bixhorn said. WCF supports all currently approved elements of the WS-* stack of web services specs. Among the current list are: , WS-Security, WS-Trust, WS-SecureConversation, WS-Policy, SecurityPolicy, WS-Addressing, MTOM, WS-ReliableMessaging, WS-AtomicTransaction, WS-Coordination, WS-MetadataExchange.

WF's Business Rules Designer enables devs to work with abstract constructs that align with business processes and make that as easy as building a Windows Form. Bixhorn describes BRD this way: "Through abstraction we want to allow devs to model basic business decisions using rules design," he said. Microsoft's BRD integrated with VisualStudio 2005 so devs have controls from the VisualStudio toolbox they can use, and "just as if they are building a Windows Forms [application], developers will now be able to build decision controls or policy controls in VisualStudio and simply drag and drop them into [BRD]."

And Attention to Interop
And, interop is also getting more attention from Microsoft. For example, to move over existing rules into WF, Microsoft supports BPEL 1.1. In fact, Microsoft's BRD will even let devs export their WF rules using BPEL 1.1 into our tools environments. For further interoperability, WF rules can be saved in XAML.

More on WinFX interop features are discussed at the MSDN blogs.