Microsoft Releases AppFabric RC

Microsoft has issued a release candidate of AppFabric, a services platform capable of automating the addition of key features in .Net applications.

AppFabric is designed to ease development problems in future Windows .Net applications. It will become generally available in June, and at some point will become a standard feature of Windows Server 2008.

AppFabric is slowly gaining power and potential use among Windows developers as Microsoft builds out its capabilities. Microsoft first aired a set of goals for AppFabric, whether applications are running on premises or in the Microsoft Azure cloud, at the Professional Developers Conference in L.A. last November.

Now as a release candidate, it's close to being a product capable of standing on its own two feet. By the time it's part of Windows Server at an unspecified date, many developers will already be familiar with its capabilities.

Customizing apps can result in code sprawl, architectural chaos and brittle systems

Another point in its favor is that AppFabric has been more thoroughly tied into Microsoft's integration server, BizTalk Server 2010, which is scheduled to be to become generally available in the third quarter. Thus Microsoft is pushing ahead with increasing integration capabilities between its technologies as it tries to command the high ground of future application development.

A new generation of applications will soon be built to run not only in the traditional data center but in cloud computing environments as well. Microsoft knows it will face a new round of competition with Java as it also achieves new levels of integration in the Spring Framework, now part of VMware, and Eclipse-based tools. "The role of application infrastructure has become a mission-critical function in all types of businesses today, which creates demand for high-performing, connected systems," said Abhay Parasnis, general manager of the Business Platform Division at Microsoft, in the May 20 announcement.

Burley Kawasaki, director of developer platform management, including BizTalk, said if a major shift in technology is underway toward cloud computing, then it's important for Microsoft to tie BizTalk and AppFabric more tightly together. "Every time there is a generational shift (such as mainframe to client/server), middleware plays a key role," he observed in an interview. Middleware tackles aligning services for end users and resolving scalability issues in ways that application programmers find difficult to address. BizTalk and AppFabric reinforcing each other will be one way that Microsoft moves Windows developers toward cloud computing. Instead of being a Visual Studio application programmer or a BizTalk integration specialist, the distinctions will start to fade away and developers will find familiar, ready-made services available in the Visual Studio/Windows Server AppFabric combination.

With the upcoming version of BizTalk 2010, now available in a beta version, "You can take the services previously only found in BizTalk server and they show up as services inside the Visual Studio toolbox," Kawasaki noted. That means a Visual Studio developer who formerly lacked BizTalk specialized skills will be able to find and manipulate the adapters and connectors that make up BizTalk's integration arsenal.

Likewise, AppFabric services that are found in Windows Communication Foundation and Windows Workflow Foundation will be put at the disposal of Visual Studio developers. Developers can drag a Workflow Foundation activity to the Visual Studio toolbox and drop it in there, where they can work with it.

That means a Visual Studio developer can take order entry data out of a backend SAP application and use it to create a notification to an Oracle Siebel Systems CRM application, then convert the data to be used in some new step in a standard workflow.

The application developer in the future "won't need to learn a new programming model" to build complex workflows or composite applications, Kawasaki said.

In addition, AppFabric will take responsibility for managing distributed caching for an application. Distributed caching manages the memory of a server cluster as a single pool, and spreads data and application functions across it, coordinating the activity of many cluster nodes. The distribution makes the application scale up to a far greater number of users than it could without the distributed cache.

Holders of Windows Server 2008 or Windows Server 2008 Release 2 licenses will be eligible to receive the AppFabric product for free. Eventually, purchasers of Windows Server will get AppFabric as a feature of the operating system.

Kawasaki said BizTalk and Visual Studio previously worked together, provided a developer knew a lot about how each worked independently. "It took different skills to build a BizTalk application than it did a Visual Studio application," he said. Now knowing Visual Studio will be enough to get BizTalk integration services. The next release this fall "makes it much more intuitive for the Visual Studio developer," he said.

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