Architecture + Strategy

Musings from David Chou - Architect, Microsoft

  • Architecture + Strategy

    Microsoft Implementing Software Plus Services

    • 4 Comments

    Microsoft has been talking about "Software + Services" (S+S) as its vision of the future for a while now (see related posts on S+S: Microsoft Platform Overview & Talking about Software Plus Services). People like Bill Gates and Ray Ozzie often talk about the applicable patterns and trends that exemplify this concept, even though they don't always mention the moniker.

    And Microsoft's execution on this direction is quite visible too. From continued investments on the desktop and enterprise software, to the latest and still growing cloud platform that brings many of the traditional capabilities into the Web.

    Slide23

    For example, many of the enterprise servers - Exchange, SharePoint, Office Communications, and eventually Biztalk and SQL Server as well, are all being implemented as services in the cloud that users can use directly, without investing in their own physical infrastructures to host and manage them. There are also a lot of progress being made in the consumer space in the form of Windows Live services.

    However, a major value proposition in S+S is the ability to integrate traditional software with distributed services, and bring the best of both worlds together. What has Microsoft done so far to implement that S+S vision?

    Basically, many efforts are happening across the board. Some of the more visible ones include:

    Exchange - it supports multiple delivery means (hosted on-premise, outsourced hosting/management by a partner, and cloud-based service from Microsoft), it supports many clients (Outlook, OWA, Outlook Mobile, Outlook Voice Access), multiple licensing models - traditional perpetual and subscription; plus itself can be a consumer of attached services such as Forefront spam/filtering services

    Slide10

    Office System - Office clients combined with SharePoint server represents a business productivity platform (client-server interaction and leveraging the many valuable enterprise services in SharePoint such as enterprise search, content management, business data catalog, business intelligence, etc.). Excel spreadsheets can be published into SharePoint and then provisioned as web services, InfoPath forms, stored as part of SharePoint’s InfoPath services, can be rendered on InfoPath clients but can also be rendered directly from SharePoint as forms services. Office clients themselves can also be extended with .NET to connect to back-end systems whether directly or via SharePoint or Biztalk. For example, Office Live Workspaces which is a cloud-based SharePoint service for consumers, SharePoint Online for businesses, etc.

    Slide28

    SharePoint - SharePoint Server itself can be deployed on-premise, outsourced hosting, or accessed as a subscription service from Microsoft (SharePoint Online). It also has many other flavors such as Office Live, Office Live Workspaces that live in the cloud as services for consumers to use

    Windows Live - known as a set of cloud-based services, but Microsoft has also delivered a set of client-side software (Mail, Messenger, PhotoGallery, Toolbar, Writer) to improve the user experience, in addition to the browser-based interfaces. Also many of the services offer API’s for people to build applications with.

    Slide24

    Office Communications Server - similar to Exchange, it now also has a cloud-based service for people to use (Office Communications Online), plus API's for developers to build specific branding and user experiences

    Duet - a product that integrates Microsoft Office with SAP. Basically users can use the Office clients as the UI to SAP services

    Xbox - Xbox Live is one of the first examples of S+S

    Dynamics - similar model to Exchange - multiple deployment/delivery models, licensing models, and client access channels

    Windows - Windows Update is a componentized client and cloud-based service interaction model; similar is OneCare

    These examples all demonstrate the fundamental principles of S+S:

    Slide4

    One recent offering that is particularly interesting, is Windows Live Workspaces (http://workspace.officelive.com). This service offering, in a way, is Microsoft's response to Google Apps. Instead of converting the Office client software suite (Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Groove, OneNote, Visio, InfoPath, Access, etc.) into browser-based solutions to compete head-on with Google Apps, Windows Live Workspaces was delivered to offer the sharing and collaborating capabilities that have been cited as the biggest shortcoming when using the Office clients.

    Now Microsoft actually has been delivering SharePoint services for a number of years now to provide that file sharing and collaboration scenarios for workgroups and enterprises. But there was a gap for consumers and inter-organizational scenarios that traditional SharePoint deployments (inside the firewalls) don't address very well.

    Thus Windows Live Workspaces is still built on SharePoint, but has been designed specifically to support consumer and end-user collaboration. It provides capabilities for fine-grained document-level access control, ubiquitous access, cloud-based storage, and client-side add-on's that integrate directly into the Office clients. So users can create/open/save documents into Windows Live Workspace directly from Word or Excel, for example. And of course, user always have the option to save documents locally until they're ready to share with other people.

    This approach illustrates the S+S approach by leveraging best of both worlds. Rich client-side software (criticized as bloatware sometimes but it can also be perceived as having the capabilities ready-to-use regardless of where a user is; having internet access or not) that fully leverages the power of the client device platform to maximize individual productivity, while leveraging cloud-based platforms for sharing and collaborating with others to maximize group productivity.

  • Architecture + Strategy

    Popfly as a Web Platform

    • 9 Comments

    popfly-small-logo

    Primer

    Microsoft Popfly (www.popfly.com), currently in beta since October 2007, is a web site and tool to help people create and share web sites, mashups, and other kinds of experiences.

    This service, in my opinion, is a really interesting and innovative product Microsoft has delivered this year. From an architect's perspective, Popfly can be considered as a Web platform, along with the many other interesting ones created this year, such as the Facebook Platform.

    Many people also saw Popfly's potential as a Web platform. For example, Mary Jo Foley correlated it to Yahoo! Pipes, Tom Foremski described how easy it is to build a Facebook app with Popfly, John Mullinax provided a business perspective on how to leverage Popfly, and Denny Boynton with some architectural thoughts.

    A Web Platform

    In an earlier blog post I talked about "Web as a Platform" (in Web 2.0's context) and briefly described a layered and componentized perspective in looking at the Web platform in general. Popfly fits in that perspective very well, and can be categorized into a composition tools layer that doesn't seem to have received a lot of attention from the general Web 2.0 community. Specifically, in the programmable Web aspect of Web 2.0, the focus has been on creating the APIs, frameworks, runtime environments, standards, etc. to facilitate the various kinds of applications and social interactions. But the tasks of developing these applications still rely on traditional code-based environments. Popfly represents a major innovation on the composition tool side, and does it in an elegant way that transformed the bootstrapping requirements of various kinds of services and APIs available in the cloud, into, literally, building blocks that people without any technical background can piece together (like LEGO!) and create all kinds of composite applications (or mashups). It also offers a provisioning and syndication system so these applications can be deployed (or embedded into web pages) anywhere on the Web (and coined the term "mashout").

    Popfly has been compared to Yahoo! Pipes, which provides a very elegant composition tool for aggregating and manipulating syndicated content (and a wickedly cool implementation of JavaScript in its development environment). It is a very powerful platform in terms of programmability in the context of mashing up data. Another is Google Mashup Editor, which is also a very powerful tool that helps people quickly create mashup applications. Without turning this into a comparison of the three tools, in general I think each provides a distinct value and meet different needs. For example, Yahoo! Pipes provides a graphical drag-and-drop development model in using syndicated data, and Google Mashup Editor provides a code environment particularly targeted for utilizing Google services and products; though the target audience for both of them tend to be developers.

    Popfly differs in its approach to democratize development by raising the level of abstraction and narrowing down options in block configurations. This greatly simplifies the process of piecing together building blocks, and it is this simplicity that offers Popfly's greatest advantage at making development social, and potentially more appealing to a wider audience.

    The public beta provides many kinds of building blocks - display, fun & games, images & video (media), local information, maps, news & RSS, shopping, social networks, tools (programming utilities such as RegExp), and others. These building blocks represent configurable components that map to many different kinds of cloud-based service APIs, such as Flickr, Facebook, Live Search, AOL Video Search, Yahoo! Videos, Virtual Earth, Yahoo! Traffic, Digg, Yahoo! News, Twitter, Technorati, etc.; the list goes on. The rich collection (and growing) of building blocks allows not just the mashup of functions and data, but also adding an interchangeable visualization and interaction layer to the applications.

    Popfly boostrapped these cloud-based service APIs, and exposed their methods, input parameters, and results as configurable elements in each building block. In addition, Popfly also pre-defines and maintains compatible relationships between these APIs so in many cases, default configurations are sufficient for creating a mashup without requiring the user to perform any configuration changes. Simply drag and drop, and connect the dots will do.

    Popfly itself is implemented using a combination of traditional Web application technologies (ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, HTML, etc.) hosted in a highly available server infrastructure, and a Silverlight implementation of the in-browser development environment.

    The challenge for Popfly is reaching critical mass in adoption. Just like the Facebook Platform, which is really a software distribution platform, harnesses its power from the lively communities in Facebook. Popfly can achieve similar goals if its adoption can be turned into a self-propelling virtuous cycle, when a healthy growth in adoption can be facilitated.

    Thus Popfly really is a platform in the Web 2.0 world. It provides an environment where people without a significant technical background can build stuff in, and hides the complexities in the underlying infrastructure. It also articulates many of the Web 2.0 principles, such as enabling participation and harnessing collective intelligence, leveraging the long tail, lightweight development models, rich user experiences, etc. For businesses and organizations looking to open up their data and services, or to interact with the user communities, participating in the Popfly ecosystem could be a simple way to enable viral adoption in the distribution channel (and for some, utilizing the monetization methods).

    A 1-Minute Mashup Application

    To illustrate Popfly's simplistic elegance, I created a mashup between a Flickr picture set and a visualization block that uses Silverlight. A snapshot of the application in edit mode is shown below.

    Popfly-ITARCPresoFlickrPhotoTiles

    Without going into a detailed step-by-step replay, all I did was drag/drop the Flickr block, configure it with the Flickr set ID that contains the pictures I want to use, drag/drop the Carousel block, then drag/drop a connector from the Flickr block to the Carousel block. Hooking up the output from Flickr with input parameters in Carousel was done automatically and seamless. That's it! And the application is now ready to be deployed across the Web.

    The resulting mashup application is embedded below. I picked a presentation block that uses Silverlight, but there are blocks that are pure HTML and JavaScript too.

     

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  • Architecture + Strategy

    Silverlight at Break.com

    • 1 Comments

    Break.com, a popular online video destination (August 2007 stats were approximately 500M video clips, 17M unique users/month, and 1.3M unique users/day who consume 15M videos/day), best characterized as a channel catered to guys aged 18-35, worked with BLITZ agency to launch a "spatial search" application built using Silverlight 1.0. It is an interesting visualization of search results and related hits in a "non-linear" presentation.

    SpatialSearch

    The spatial search application provides a next-generation user experience for search, adding to the traditional HTML list-based search results display. The idea came from an observation that it is difficult to effectively distinguish direct hits and related hits in the traditional one-dimensional search results list type of presentation. There are many different ways of visualizing these data relationships today, such as popular ones to draw out three-dimensional representations of connections, (like ThinkMap's VisualThesaurus). The project team here decided to use a remarkably different approach which elegantly enhances the video preview experience by not presenting the user with too many choices, while at the same time simplifying the technical requirements on loading the amount of results to be displayed. The resulting application is intuitive and easy to use, and adds to the "fun" factor.

    The project team used Expression Blend to create the user interface and the interactive design elements (animations, timelines, transitions, etc.), and Expression Encoder to handle the large-volume video transcoding jobs. The technical implementation was actually remarkably simple - a combination of XAML generated by Blend, JavaScript code, some HTML integration, and some static images. The deployment did not require Break to make any changes in the server infrastructure, other than publishing the applications and videos as new content released on the website.

    In addition to the spatial search application, the project team also built a full-featured video player using Silverlight.

    Player  Player2

    It allows the user to resize the player dynamically (dragging the lower right corner), find other content while watching the same video clip, as well as many other neat features. Here the project team took a different direction on user experience design - more functional than "next-gen".

    The project team released a video describing the application sand their development process (hosted in the new Silverlight player). Also check out BLITZ at www.blitzagency.com and their blogs at http://labs.blitzagency.com

    A few more interesting live Silverlight applications:

  • Architecture + Strategy

    Active Directory and BizTalk in the Cloud?

    • 5 Comments

    A colleague pointed me to an interesting blog post – Two products Microsoft should set free into Cloud, which ended with this question:

    So Microsoft – here is a market that is begging to be served and yours to lose. While you still have work to do to make your to Azure Platform, Business Applications, Office Suite widely adopted in Cloud, BizTalk and Active Directory are the need of the hour and are ready to go. So waste no more time – let them free and watch them soar in Cloud.

    Now, if cloud computing is simply outsourced hosting, then Microsoft could just start selling Active Directory and BizTalk as a SaaS offering today. But I tend to think that cloud computing represents a new paradigm (basically, more distributed computing than utility computing), and more value can be gained by leveraging cloud as a new paradigm.

    Below is the rather lengthy comment I left on that blog.

    Active Directory and BizTalk not being part of the Microsoft cloud platform today (either in SaaS or PaaS model) doesn’t mean Microsoft doesn’t want to “set them free into cloud”. In fact, our long-term roadmap has been to make all of our software products and platforms available in the cloud in some form.

    So then why haven’t we? Shouldn’t it be pretty simple to deploy instances of Active Directory and BizTalk in Microsoft data centers and let customers use them, a-la-SaaS-style? The answer lies in the fundamental question – is cloud computing simply server hosting in other people’s data centers, or is it a new paradigm we can leverage to do things differently?

    Microsoft’s approach to cloud computing is exactly that – provide the right solutions for cloud computing to effectively support the new paradigm. For example, as today you can see that in Microsoft’s SaaS offerings, there are both single-tenant and multi-tenant versions of Exchange, SharePoint, Office Communications Online suites; and in the PaaS offerings, SQL Azure is a fully multi-tenant relational database service and not simply hosted SQL Server, and Windows Azure’s native roles are provided via a higher abstraction, container-like model, and not simply hosted Windows Server.

    So then the question is, what’s the right cloud model for Active Directory? That is still under consideration, but my personal opinion is that we still need to carefully evaluate a couple of factors:

    • Do customers really want to outsource their identity management solution? Is there really a lot of demand for hosted enterprise identity management services?
    • What are the true benefits of hosting the identity management solution elsewhere? Just some cost savings from managing your own servers? That might be the case for smaller companies but larger organizations prefer the private cloud approach
    • For example, the identity management solution is essential in managing access control across an IT architecture. Wouldn’t it work better if it’s maintained closer, in terms of proximity, to the assets it’s intended to manage? Keep in mind that most “pure cloud” vendors who advocate otherwise, use their own identity management infrastructure hosted in their own data centers
    • And from an external, hybrid cloud, and B2B integration perspective, identity federation works pretty well to enable single sign-on across resources deployed in separate data centers and security domains
    • Lastly, what’s the right model for cloud-based identity management solution? Is it making the online identity metasystem more “enterprise-like”, such as adding some of the fine-grained management capabilities to the Live ID infrastructure, or developing a multi-tenant version of Active Directory that can better address some of the consumer identity scenarios?

    Similarly for BizTalk, many of the above points apply as well for its cloud aspirations, plus a few specific ones (again just my personal opinion):

    • Process and data integration between organizations (such as traditional B2B scenarios) and different cloud-based services operated by separate organizations, is a lot different from traditional enterprise integration scenarios where enterprise service bus type of solutions fit in today. It has a lot more to do with service management, tracking, and orchestration in an increasingly more service-oriented manner; as opposed to having system and application-specific adapters to enable communication
    • Also, EAI and ESB type of integration places the center of gravity in terms of context and entity definition within one enterprise. Cloud-based integration, such as outsourced process management, multi-enterprise integration, etc.; shifts the center of gravity into the cloud and in a much more shared/federated manner
    • Question then is, what is the right type of integration-as-a-service solution that would work well for cloud-based integration scenarios? We have many integration hub service offerings today, many grew from their EDI/VAN, managed FTP, B2B, supply chain management, e-commerce, and RosettaNet, ebXML, HL7 roots. The landscape for external integration is vastly more diverse and generic (in each vertical) than any one organization’s way of managing processes
    • Some initial direction can be observed in Windows Azure AppFabric today, with the Service Bus offering. It works as an Internet service bus to help facilitate communication regardless of network topologies. It advocates a federated application model in a distributed environment, where processes and data are integrated in a service-oriented manner. It’s a much more dynamic environment (changes are more frequent and preferred) than a more static environment in an on-premise systems integration scenario
    • Thus is it correct to simply have BizTalk hosted and sell it as a cloud-based integration solution? Will an on-premise systems integration approach effectively handle integration scenarios in a more dynamic environment?

    Pure cloud pundits often ask “why not cloud?” But I think it’s also fair to counter that question with “why?” Not all IT functions and workloads are ideally suited for external deployment. A prudent architect should carefully consider what are the right things to move into the cloud, and what are the right things to still keep on-premise, instead of doing external cloud deployment just for the sake of doing so. There’s a big difference between “can” and “should”.

    One way of looking at finding the right balance between what should move into the cloud, is where the users are. Applications that are consumed by users on the Web, are excellent candidates to move into public clouds. Internal business applications that support a back-office operation, often are still better maintained on-premise; closer to an organization’s workforce. It’s also a nice general approach of balancing trade-offs between security and control, scalability and availability.

    Thus eventually Microsoft will have some form of enterprise-level identity management solution, and multi-enterprise integration solution, available as cloud-based services. But these don’t necessarily have to be hosted Active Directory and BizTalk Server as we know them today. :)

  • Architecture + Strategy

    LineRider with Silverlight 2 and Windows Live Services

    • 1 Comments

    image Last week InXile Entertainment launched a new version of the Line Rider game, built using Silverlight 2, and integrated Windows Live services (ID and Messenger). This is one of the projects me and my Microsoft team were directly involved with, by partnering with InXile Entertainment and Cynergy Systems. And we are quite excited with the results.

    The original version of Line Rider, launched September 2006, is a Flash-based game that has been cited by a number of publications (i.e., New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time, CNET, GameZone, etc.), and was one of Yahoo’s top 10 search words in late 2006. Existing momentum includes over 36,000 videos posted on Youtube (with more than 5 million views), ~10 million page views per month with ~1.7 million unique visitors.

    With this release, we ported the Flash-based version to Silverlight.

    We used Expression Blend to create the game layout and controls, used Visual Studio 2008 and C# for the game logic and physics engine implementation, and built on top of the Silverlight 2 beta 2 SDK.

    So what's the big deal? Take a look at this video of one of the sample games.


    Video: Jagged Peak Adventure by Unconed

    Loved the snappy Cowboy Bebop music theme they used in this video. More amazing video clips available at http://linerider.com/en/movies and on Youtube.

    Basically, users draw lines that make up the tracks, and little Line Rider bobsleds through the tracks as driven by gravity (while holding on for dear life). Very simple game mechanics, but quite an addictive cycle drainer if you get into it. :) There is already a large volume of video content showing all kinds of complex and intricate designs created by the existing community.

    Flash to Silverlight

    So why did we convert from Flash to Silverlight? Undoubtedly the change introduced inconveniences for existing users, plus the perceptions brought along by Microsoft's reputation (good and bad).

    Now I have a tremendous amount of respect for Flash and the community it has generated. There are some pretty impressive applications built on Flash today, and the rich ecosystem consisting both proprietary and open-source tools and solutions. And based on my understanding, most things done on either Silverlight or Flash, can also be accomplished on the other platform today.

    Of course, we tend to think that leveraging the .NET development platform provides a level of productivity improvement and sophistication, but it really wasn't about the technical merits of either Silverlight or Flash platforms. We were just there at the right place and the right time, and provided an effective partnership to help ensure project success.

    At the time, InXile Entertainment was looking for ways to enhance the existing experience and bring it up a level. Specifically, to be able to share more effectively, integrate social aspects, and to be able to create a community around Line Rider. The previous Flash-based version provided excellent single-player experiences. But to share the tracks (i.e., to show others the masterpieces one has created), users resorted to their own means such as using their own video-capture software, media editing software, video hosting service, and had to find online storage or email Flash-based SOL binary files directly to each other, etc.

    Thus we worked to tackle these needs for the Silverlight-based version. A couple of major things we did that added value to the project:

    • Saving tracks in XML format instead of the Flash-based binary SOL format. This allows for simpler cloud-based storage and sharing, plus eventual cross-platform porting of tracks (with the upcoming console-based versions)
    • Integrating Live Messenger and Live ID as part of the authoring and playback environment, which is intended to add a level of social interaction between users
    • Associating tracks with music playback to provide an experience similar to video capture/playback when shared

    Basically, the intention is to make it easier for users to share and build a more integrated community.

    Again, these can be done on Flash too, but we added the partnership to make sure that the resulting product met InXile's expectations. Plus from a long-term planning perspective, we felt that investing on the Microsoft platform has value beyond just the Web-based RIA platform aspect. The .NET skillsets can be reused to build and integrate cloud-based services, expand the community and social aspects, as well as reaching connected device platforms, for next-generation experiences.

    What's Next?

    InXile is working on console-based versions of the game (Xbox 360, Wii, PS3, Nintendo DS, Windows Mobile), called "Line Rider 2 Unbound", which at the moment looks just amazing. Take a look at these videos (part 1, part 2, part 3) for a quick preview of the enhancements they're making to the game.

    Looking forward to, at some point, work with these guys again to port the Web-based Silverlight version to include the new Line Rider 2 features.

    About InXile Entertainment

    clip_image002

    Located in Newport Beach, California, inXile entertainment is a game development company that focuses on both licensed and original intellectual properties. Formed in late 2002, inXile entertainment develops for personal computers and the major console platforms including the Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS, Playstation 3, and Xbox 360. Their products include The Bard's Tale and Line Rider.

    Read InXile Entertainment's press release regarding this project.

    About Cynergy Systems

    clip_image004

    Cynergy is a leader in the design and development of Rich Internet Applications (RIA) specializing in Microsoft Silverlight and WPF as well as Adobe Flex and AIR.
    Cynergy is privately held and headquartered in Washington, D.C.; the Company's U.S. field operations include Rochester, N.Y., Grand Rapids, Mich., and San Diego, Calif. Cynergy's European operation is based in London, United Kingdom and Copenhagen, Denmark and its Asia Pacific operations are located in Taipei, Taiwan and Sydney, Australia.

    Read Cynergy's press release regarding this project.

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