Parsing PDC

From Windows Azure to Silverlight, the 2009 Microsoft Professional Developers Conference provided plenty of concrete guidance for .NET developers looking ahead to 2010 and beyond.

The 2009 Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC09) struck a decidedly different tone than previous PDC events, focusing less on far-reaching new initiatives and instead delivering concrete value for developers looking to Windows Azure and other Microsoft platforms.

"This was the year that the 'P' in 'PDC' stood for practical," said Andrew Brust, chief, new technology, for consultancy twentysix New York and a Microsoft MVP and regional director who also pens the Redmond Review column for Visual Studio Magazine. "Microsoft presented evolutionary developments and plans to the audience, proved Azure was ready to launch, innovated with things like OData and Dallas, and beefed up the Silverlight story by revealing deep Windows client capabilities in Silverlight 4."

Windows Azure served as the focal point of the three-day confab, attended by more than 4,000 developers at the Los Angeles Convention Center in November. Microsoft's cloud operating system was announced last year at PDC 2008, but emerged 12 months later at PDC09 in a more refined and defined form, with key changes to the underlying data layer to better align it with SQL Server.

Windows Azure Refocused
Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie during the opening keynote announced that Windows Azure was to go into formal production on Jan. 1, with a one-month trial period ensuing before customers would be billed for services starting on Feb. 1. With Windows Azure already deep into its beta cycle, most developers at PDC09 were well aware of the platform's technical merits and content, said Roger Jennings, author of the OakLeaf Systems blog and the book "Cloud Computing with the Windows Azure Platform" (Wrox, 2009).

"The Azure team made much ado about their response to .NET developers' lukewarm reception of SQL Server Data Services' entity-attribute-value data model by giving them what they wanted all along-a fully relational 'SQL Server in the cloud,'" Jennings said.

He praised Microsoft for introducing the Event Tracing for Windows (ETW) listener for Azure diagnostics, as well as for promoting the StorageClient sample class to a member of the Windows Azure namespace. But he said Microsoft still needs to do a lot more. "What's lacking today is concrete guidance for delivery of high-value features that enable conformance to security and privacy standards, such as Transparent Data Encryption (TDE), to prevent unauthorized access to confidential data in SQL Azure databases," Jennings said.

Microsoft at PDC09 also announced the first beta of AppFabric for Windows Server and the planned 2010 CTP of AppFabric for Windows Azure. An abstraction layer that includes the Dublin app server extensions and Velocity distributed caching engine, AppFabric on Azure (known previously as .NET Services) will play a key role in enabling Microsoft's promise of hybrid on-premises and cloud-based applications, according to Burley Kawasaki, director of Microsoft's Connected System Division.

"We really see AppFabric as being the next layer that we add to move up the stack, so we can provide a developer with truly symmetrical sets of services, application-level services that you can take advantage of, regardless of whether you're targeting on-premises or cloud platforms," Kawasaki said. "This is an additional level of abstraction that is built into the system model, just like SQL-as an example-uses T-SQL as a common model, whether or not you're on the cloud."

The Deal on 'Dallas'
Also revealed at PDC09 was the Dallas project, a data-centric initiative that aims to radically reduce the friction involved in discovering, manipulating and analyzing data culled from multiple public and private data sources via the cloud. Microsoft Technical Fellow Dave Campbell said Microsoft has been working with information owners to establish a licensing mechanism that makes it possible for individuals to readily mix public and proprietary data.

At the core of Dallas' potential success, Campbell said, is the fact that Visual Studio developers will have a standards-based way to access, manipulate and deliver data. He said the Open Data Protocol (OData), announced at PDC09 and released as an open specification under Microsoft's Open Specification Promise, "is the protocol that powers this." A component of WCF Data Services (formerly known as ADO.NET Data Services), OData will make it simple for developers to create a service to produce and consume data, Campbell said.

"Dallas has a consistent set of APIs. It's a service interface and a REST-based interface. It produces data in ATOM pub right now. And we've encoded structured data elements within the ATOM pub items so they can be consumed directly by applications," Campbell explained in an interview after the keynote.

"We build a service proxy. Part of the magic of Dallas is that it's powered by an underlying service model. So when you go up and start to explore data sets there are actual fields you can restrict on, if you want to filter it one way or the other," Campbell continued. "We'll produce a service proxy that you can include in your .NET application to make it very, very easy to consume the data."

Putting the Shine on Silverlight
On the second day of PDC09, Microsoft Corporate Vice President of the .NET Developer Platform Scott Guthrie dropped something of a bombshell when he announced that the first beta of Silverlight 4 was available for download. The latest update to Microsoft's rich Internet application (RIA) platform introduces a host of welcome features, including out-of-browser execution, local file system access, native printer support and the ability to use the system clipboard. The new version adds formal support for the Google Chrome browser, as well.

Brian Randell, senior consultant with MCW Technologies LLC and a Microsoft MVP and presenter at PDC09, said Silverlight 4 was a highlight of the event. "I am continually amazed at how Microsoft keeps pushing what one can do with it."

In addition to drag-and-drop support, and drop-target support to enable streaming of selected files, Silverlight 4 allows developers to host HTML as a control within applications, providing the ability to interact with HTML elements. Guthrie also touted significantly improved performance, as Silverlight takes full advantage of the just in time (JIT) Common Language Runtime (CLR) compiler in .NET. Improved application optimization and streamlined Silverlight runtime startup will also boost responsiveness, Guthrie said.

Stephen Chapman, a longtime Microsoft watcher and author of the Microsoft Kitchen blog (formerly UX Evangelist), called the Silverlight 4 announcement "huge." He singled out Guthrie's promise that .NET developers could compile a single code base to both .NET 4 and Silverlight 4 with a single click, and noted that the developers he spoke with were quite excited about this capability.

"[That was] genius on Microsoft's behalf to make this possible. When this came up, I had two good dev friends of mine comment on how incredibly excited they were about this feature."

Planning for 2010
Internet Explorer 9 (IE9), the next version of Microsoft's Web browser, was presented briefly on the second day by Microsoft President of Windows and Windows Live Steven Sinofsky. He said his team is committed to standards compliance with IE9, citing efforts to improve CSS3 and ACID3 test performance. He also noted that IE9 will employ an accelerated JavaScript rendering engine for heightened performance.

Significantly, IE9 will tap into the accelerated graphics hardware features of Windows 7 PCs, via DirectX. Sinofsky during his keynote demonstrated hardware-enhanced rendering of text and animation under IE9, as well as smoother scrolling. The capabilities, Sinofsky emphasized, require no changes to published Web sites. IE9 is still very early in development. "We are about three weeks into the Internet Explorer 9 project, as we just shipped Windows 7," he told attendees and gave no specific timeline for IE9 delivery.

Microsoft failed to make a significant mobile announcement at the three-day event. "I thought the fact that the Windows Mobile 7 announcement was merely that they would have an announcement next year at MIX was pathetic, frankly," said twentysix New York's Andrew Brust. "There's so much riding on Windows Mobile 7 that it seems like it's being set up to be a disappointment, and its delays are colossal."

Microsoft did touch on some previously revealed products and technologies, including Windows 7 and the company's aggressive plans for SharePoint development. SharePoint Server 2010, expected to ship in the first half of 2010, was the focus of the SharePoint Conference 2009 event in October. Windows 7 was heavily evangelized by Ray Ozzie during his keynote, but it was the PDC09 laptop give-away-each attendee received a multi-touch enabled netbook-that made an impression on many developers who had yet to play with Microsoft's Touch UI technology.

Ending on a High Note
Ultimately, said Brust, Microsoft did a good job delivering actionable guidance to .NET developers anxious to tap the features and capabilities of new platforms like Windows Azure, the Microsoft .NET Framework 4 and Silverlight 4.

"The overall story was a good one, and very right for these economically lean times," Brust said. "Keep your nose down, do good work and build on your successes, like Windows 7. I hope Microsoft maintains this focus."

About the Author

Michael Desmond is an editor and writer for 1105 Media's Enterprise Computing Group.

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