Let’s jump in.
Q: Lately you’ve been evangelizing Windows Server AppFabric, WF and other new or updated technologies. What are the common questions you get from people, and when do you suspect that adoption of this newer crop of app plat technologies will really take hold?
A: I think our space has seen two major disruptions over the last couple of years. The first is the shift in Microsoft’s middleware strategy, most tangibly around new investments in Windows Server AppFabric and Azure AppFabric as a compliment to BizTalk Server and the second is the public availability of Windows Azure, making their PaaS offering a reality in a truly integrated manner.
I think that business leaders are trying to understand how cloud can really help them, so there is a lot of education around the possibilities and helping customers find the right chemistry and psychology for taking advantage of Platform as a Service offerings from providers like Microsoft and Amazon. At the same time, developers and architects I talk to are most interested in learning about what the capabilities and workloads are within AppFabric (which I define as a unified platform for building composite apps on-premise and in the cloud as opposed to focusing too much on Server versus Azure) how they differ from BizTalk, where the overlap is, etc. BizTalk has always been somewhat of a niche product, and BizTalk developers very deeply understand modeling and messaging so the transition to AppFabric/WCF/WF is very natural.
On the other hand, WCF has been publically available since late 2006, but it’s really only in the last two years or so that I’ve seen developers really embracing it. I still see a lot of non-WCF services out there. WCF and WF both somewhat overshot the market which is common with new technologies that provide far more capabilities that current customers can fully digest or put to use. Value added investments like WCF Data Services, RIA Services, exemplary support for REST and a much more robust Workflow Services story not only showcase what WCF is capable of but have gone a long way in getting this tremendous technology into developer hands who previously may have only scratched the surface or been somewhat intimidated by it in the past. With WF written from the ground up, I think it has much more potential, but the adoption of model-driven development in general, outside of the CSD community is still slow.
In terms of adoption, I think that Microsoft learned a lot about the space from BizTalk and by really listening to customers. The middleware space is so much different a decade later. The primary objective of Server AppFabric is developer and ops productivity and bringing WCF and WF Services into the mainstream as part of a unified app plat/middleware platform that remains committed to model-driven development, be it declarative or graphical in nature. A big part of that strategy is the simplification of things like hosting, monitoring and persistence while making tremendous strides in modeling technologies like WF and Entity Framework. I get a lot of “Oh wow!” moments when I show how easy it is to package a WF service from Visual Studio, import it into Server AppFabric and set up persistence and tracking with a few simple clicks. It gets even better when ops folks see how easily they can manage and troubleshoot Server AppFabric apps post deployment.
It’s still early, but I remember how exciting it was when Windows Server 2003 and Vista shipped natively with .NET (as opposed to a separate install), and that was really an inflection point for .NET adoption. I suspect the same will be true when Server AppFabric just ships as a feature you turn on in Windows Server.
Q: SOA was dead, now it’s back. How do you think that the most recent MS products (e.g. WF, WCF, Server AppFabric, Windows Azure) support SOA key concepts and help organization become more service oriented? in what cases are any of these products LESS supportive of true SOA?
A: You read that report too, huh?
In my opinion, the intersection of the two disruptions I mentioned earlier is the enablement of hybrid composite solutions that blur the lines between the traditional on-prem data center and the cloud. Microsoft’s commitment to SOA and model-driven development via the Oslo vision manifested itself into many of the shipping vehicles discussed above and I think that collectively, they allow us to really challenge the way we think about on-premise versus cloud. As a result I think that Microsoft customers today have a unique opportunity to really take a look at what assets are running on premise and/or traditional hosting providers and extend their enterprise presence by identifying the right, high value sweet spots and moving those workloads to Azure Compute, Data or SQL Azure.
In order to enable these kinds of hybrid solutions, companies need to have a certain level of maturity in how they think about application design and service composition, and SOA is the lynchpin. Ironically, Gartner recently published a report entitled “The Lazerus Effect” which posits that SOA is very much alive. With budgets slowly resuming pre-survival-mode levels, organizations are again funding SOA initiatives, but the demand for agility and quicker time-to-value is going to require a more iterative approach which I think positions the current stack very well.
To the last part of the question, SOA requires discipline, and I think that often the simplicity of the tooling can be a liability. We’ve seen this in JBOWS un-architectures where web services are scattered across the enterprise with virtually no discoverability, governance or reuse (because they are effortless to create) resulting in highly complex and fragile systems, but this is more of an educational dilemma than a gap in the platform. I also think that how we think about service-orientation has changed somewhat by the proliferation of REST. The fact that you can expose an entity model as an OData service with a single declaration certainly challenges some of the percepts of SOA but makes up for that with amazing agility and time-to-value.
Q: What’s on your personal learning plan for 2011? Where do you think the focus of a “connected systems” technologist should be?
A: I think this is a really exciting time for connected systems because there has never been a more comprehensive, unified platform for building distributed application and the ability to really choose the right tool for the job at hand. I see the connected systems technologist as a “generalizing specialist”, broad across the stack, including BizTalk, and AppFabric (WCF/WF Services/Service Bus) while wisely choosing the right areas to go deep and iterating as the market demands. Everyone’s “T” shape will be different, but I think building that breadth across the crest will be key.
I also think that understanding and getting hands on with cloud offerings from Microsoft and Amazon should be added to the mix with an eye on hybrid architectures.
Personally, I’m very interested in CEP and StreamInsight and plan on diving deep (your book is on my reading list) this year as well as continuing to grow my WF and AppFabric skills. The new BizTalk Adapter Pack is also on my list as I really consider it a flagship extension to AppFabric.
I’ve also started studying Ruby as a hobby as its been too long since I’ve learned a new language.
Q [stupid question]: I find it amusing when people start off a sentence with a counter-productive or downright scary disclaimer. For instance, if someone at work starts off with “This will probably be the stupidest thing anyone has ever said, but …” you can guess that nothing brilliant will follow. Other examples include “Now, I’m not a racist, but …” or “I would never eat my own children, however …” or “I don’t condone punching horses, but that said …”. Tell us some terrible ways to start a sentence that would put your audience in a state of unrest.
A: When I hear someone say “I know this isn’t the cleanest way to do it but…” I usually cringe.
Thanks Rick! Hopefully the upcoming MVP Summit gives us all some additional motivation to crank out interesting blog posts on connected systems topics.