Picking Up on Web Services Tools

How fast will developers take up Microsoft's new Visual Studio .Net?

Wheres the gratitude? After complaining for the last 10 years about Microsoft Corp.s Visual Studio application development tool set, programmers this week will finally get what they asked for: Visual Studio .Net, a redesigned development environment that makes it easier for programmers to create Web services.

What is Microsofts reward for its trouble? Tentative enthusiasm. Microsoft, many said, so vastly improved its tool set that many programmers must face many hours of classroom time to avoid being left behind. Apparently, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

"Visual Studio .Net is not just some upgrade from Visual Studio 6.0," said Rex Fowler, CEO of custom software developer Fowler Software Design LLC, in Denver. Fowler, who has been using beta versions for almost a year now, said, "The product is beautiful, but there are some dramatic changes, and its been tough for some of my programmers."

Indeed, Visual Studio .Net represents a big learning load, especially for programmers with little or no object-oriented design and development experience, experts say. Some organizations with many object-oriented-impaired developers, in fact, are putting them through hundreds of hours of classroom time to learn Visual Studio .Net. And other IT managers, rather than pushing all programmers onto the new platform immediately, are accepting the fact that, for the foreseeable future, theyll need to develop a hybrid programming approach in which some programmers use Visual Studio 6.0 and others use Visual Studio .Net.

In the long run, however, its not a matter of if but when organizations developing on the Windows platform will move to Visual Studio .Net, experts say. In fact, Mark Driver, an analyst at Gartner Inc., in Minneapolis, said he expects that 95 percent or more of all new Microsoft-based applications will be made up of native .Net technologies and be developed in the Visual Studio .Net environment by 2005.

Visual Studio .Net, to be generally released during Microsofts Visual Studio developers conference, VSLive, in San Francisco Feb. 13, is said to be a key ingredient in the companys .Net Web services strategy and one for which many Microsoft users have been waiting. Almost 20 percent of organizations recently polled by Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., called limited tools the biggest obstacle that had to be overcome before Web services could be useful to their companies.

So whats the big deal about Visual Studio .Net? Like its predecessor, Visual Studio 6.0, Visual Studio .Net is an integrated development environment that includes languages and other services and tools needed to develop systems to run on Microsoft platforms. There are big changes, however, in Visual Studio .Net. Not only does the environment make it easier to mix languages within a single project and automate many processes that in the past required manual intervention, but also Visual Studio .Net is designed to make it easier to create applications that work as Web services. So Visual Studio .Net automatically creates the required XML and SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) structures required to turn an application into an XML-based Web service. Visual Studio .Net supports C#, Microsofts answer to Java, as well as Visual Basic .Net. And the new development environment includes .Net Framework SDK, a key ingredient for developers that plan to build Web services that will run on .Net platforms or deploy the services or do both. .Net Framework also includes the Framework classes, ASP .Net and Common Language Runtime. Those features, IT managers said, could halve the time developers need to build .Net-based applications—once theyve gotten up to speed on object-oriented development.

How Far, How Fast?

So how fast should managers move development teams to Visual Studio .Net? Experts say the schedule for moving developers to Visual Studio .Net should be determined by how aggressively an organization is moving forward with its Web services strategy. Companies should move some developers to the tool set to develop for XML, mobile and other e-business projects first. And as an organization begins to redesign internal applications around Web services technologies such as SOAP, it can move the remaining programmers onto the new environment. That kind of phased approach, experts say, will give programmers time to learn and Visual Studio .Net time to mature.

Microsoft, to its credit, has acknowledged the huge changes Visual Studio .Net will bring. The company even tweaked the product last April after programmers complained of the steep learning curve, making some programming conventions more consistent among Visual Studio .Net languages. Microsoft also launched last month a series of online training courses and materials for programmers on its MSDN (Microsoft Developers Network) to introduce users to the newer concepts of Visual Studio .Net. Through MSDN, developers can take advantage of an Online Concierge program where they can engage in live online chat sessions with Microsoft representatives. Message groups are also available for programmers to answer or ask questions of colleagues. And, Microsoft officials told eWeek, the company plans a Visual Studio .Net testing and certification program.

"We understand that there is a balance between innovation and compatibility," said Walid Abu-Hadba, general manager of product support services at Microsoft, in Redmond, Wash. "With the introduction of a new language, C#, and then the migration from Visual Basic 6.0 to Visual Basic .Net, our suggestion is that programmers in the middle of a project look at the product and determine what they are capable of before migrating."

At YouKnowBest.com Inc., in Celebration, Fla., the lead software engineer, Tim Tryzbiak, is more concerned about the maturity of the initial release of Visual Studio .Net than about the learning curve. Still, the company is accelerating its transition to the new environment based on early productivity gains using beta versions of the product. The companys developers began testing with a beta version of Visual Studio .Net in September to get a feel for the products languages and the changes in Visual Basic.

YouKnowBest.com, which provides businesses and manufacturers of consumer goods with pricing and shipping data, is using Microsofts .Net Framework and Passport services to deliver product pricing and information to its customers through its consumer shopping service, MyList.com. As a result, migrating to Visual Studio .Net sooner rather than later is part of the companys strategy, Tryzbiak said.

So far, using Visual Studio .Net for new e-business initiatives and applications has reduced the time it takes to program Web services-oriented applications by half, Tryzbiak said. This return on investment has encouraged the company to accelerate its migration from Visual Studio 6.0. After Visual Studio .Net is officially released, all developers at YouKnowBest.com will begin using ASP .Net next month. There are also plans to use Visual Studio .Net to provide Web services for manufacturers beginning this summer. For now, however, YouKnowBest.com is programming in a hybrid model, slowly rewriting non-mission-critical applications using Visual Studio .Net while continuing to program for applications to be released to the public using languages and tools developers have mastered.

Companies such as YouKnowBest. com said training and tools will not be a problem in migrating to Visual Studio .Net, but experts say programmers lacking experience in formal object-oriented programming may face problems making a smooth transition. They say not all enterprises will want to move to the new tool set next year. Developers experienced with C++ should move easily to C# and should be able to use self-paced training programs offered by Microsoft to pick up new skills. Programmers less fluent in Visual Basic and in C programming can continue to code those mission-critical applications that do not rely heavily on .Net technology while learning the new tool set, said Gartners Driver.

While some IT managers are confident their developers can make the transition to Visual Studio .Net without trauma, others are preparing for a long learning experience.

Fowler Software, which designs custom applications for manufacturing and construction projects, has been testing Visual Studio .Net since the first beta was released in November 2000. So far, none of the companys 15 programmers, most of whom are COBOL or FoxPro developers, are using Visual Studio .Net to code. Instead, 20 percent of each developers work week is spent in mandatory training classes to learn about Visual Basic .Net, FoxPro 7.0 and Interactive Software Engineering Inc.s EiffelStudio, an object-oriented software platform that works within .Net Framework.

During the training sessions, programmers go through self-paced courses that familiarize them with object-oriented programming and .Net Framework. Each training session ends with a 1-hour lecture. Fowler said he expects training to take a year. "Weve gotten on the bandwagon earlier than others in terms of training because we know theres a learning curve," he said.

Fowler programmers who show competency in Visual Studio .Net will be required to go on an internal internship in which they will write code using Visual Studio .Net and EiffelStudio under the supervision of a quality manager.

Eventually, experts say, enterprises developing on the Windows platform will need to have programmers moved to Visual Studio .Net. But in the short term, there is not much urgency unless products specifically for Web services are required.

"Were looking at all the tools out there, but with the amount of force behind Visual Studio .Net, resistance could really be futile right now," said YouKnowBests Tryzbiak. "But well use whats best for our business and until the product proves mature, well err on the side of caution."