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On the one hand, Microsoft maintains what it calls an "integrated stack" from the server and client operating systems, up through server applications and middleware to client apps. And for building/customizing apps, there's Visual Studio.
On the other hand, the company says there's plenty of room for third-party ISVs to add value, in terms of vertical capabilities and in filling in the "white space" above and within the stack itself. Such white space is key to Microsoft's ability to boast of a vibrant ecosystem of third-party developers.
Many ISVs in the Microsoft camp—no fools they—maintain the company has done a good job of balancing those two apparently conflicting goals.
Ask any of the VARs or solution providers in Microsoft's orbit what their favorite third-party tool is and they often will start with the default: "We use Microsoft tools." But they then reconsider and tick off a number of tools, utilities or foundation software they use to augment and supplement the Microsoft bits.
For George Brown, CEO of Database Solutions, Cherry Hill, N.J., go-to testing tools include those from big players Mercury Interactive (now part of Hewlett-Packard) and IBM's Rational group to XML Spy. The latter, an XML debugging tool by Altova, is a crowd-pleaser among many VARs interviewed.
The sentiment about XML Spy from independent tech consultant Mike Drips was: "I can't believe Microsoft doesn't just buy that and be done with it. It's so much better than what they have."
Other favorites in Brown's tool chest are SoftArtisan's Excel Writer, which bridges the world of Excel front ends and SQL Server databases and Infragistics' NetAdvantage for .Net that provides UI objects or controls that VARs can slap right onto the browser page without coding. "They do a lot of cool stuff with UI templates," Brown said. "It's much better to buy those bits than to code them."
Other fan favorites in the database and development realm are CA's Erwin and Quest Software's Toad. "There are a slew of database analyst tools that are very helpful, especially if you play in a mixed Oracle and SQL Server environment," said Richard Warren, CTO of Channel Blade Technologies, Virginia Beach, Va.
Bedrock Managed Services & Consulting, Neenah, Wis., uses Level Platforms, not Microsoft Operations Manager, to monitor client systems. "We also use VMware instead of Virtual Server because it's faster and better for production environments right now. We also use Quest tools to help migrate customers [from Novell or IBM Notes/Domino] to a Microsoft platform. And we use some of NetPro's software for [Active Directory] reporting/auditing," said Mark Bakken, CEO of the managed service provider.
Matt Mountain, managing director at Lucrum, a Cincinnati-based IT services firm, is a fan of Bluespring's new BPM Suite. These business process management tools work with Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) to streamline and automate more complex workflows in a way that SharePoint alone cannot, he noted.
"SharePoint is good at workflow as long as you stay within SharePoint. If I want to implement a time-sheet system, I fill it out in Excel and it notifies the next person that the sheet is ready for approval—well, SharePoint can do all that. But if I fill out the time sheet, it goes to you for approval and then you want that data to flow over to the payroll system—well, then, you need something more," Mountain explained.
Bluespring, Cincinnati, and K2, Redmond, Wash., both bring additional and more complex workflows to the SharePoint realm. Colligo, Vancouver, British Columbia, was cited by several VARs for its technology that brings offline capabilities to SharePoint.
Indeed, there is a whole ecosystem of ISVs around MOSS that can serve as a microcosm for the overall Microsoft universe.
Among VAR developers, there is still a loyal following for CodeGear (aka Borland) IDEs such as Delphi and JBuilder.
Jeff Swisher, director of consulting services at Dunn Solutions Group, Skokie, Ill., said the CodeGear IDEs preserve developer and user investment in tried-and-true technologies and the training investment that's been made to use them. "We need to find ways to preserve older code that works," he said. He's a big fan of both Delphi and JBuilder franchises. He said Dunn also uses a variety of third-party "code profilers" to check out code performance.
Robert Martinez, software architect at Boston-based Au Bon Pain, is a fan of tools from Telerik and Developer Express. The latter company's controls for Visual Studio, Martinez said, offer multiple user interface abilities such as drop-down calendars and list controls that the Microsoft grid does not.
Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS) partners say that even there, where Microsoft is building full ERP and CRM stacks, there is room for innovative tool providers. Yacov Wrocherinsky, CEO of Infinity Solutions, New York, said his company uses Qliqview from Qliqtech International to build dashboards atop Microsoft CRM that tap into a wide range of back-end data.
"It's a very good tool that adds a lot of functionality to Microsoft CRM in terms of dynamic dashboards, views into key performance indicators," Wrocherinsky said. Infinity uses it to glue together data streamed from disparate sources and consolidate it on screen.
"We often use Qliqview, SharePoint and Microsoft CRM with Qliqview providing most of the business intelligence," he noted. "It eliminates the need for reports; the interface is very intuitive and user-friendly."
Several other MBS partners also sited C360's add-on utilities for mail merge, report authoring and other functions as key to the success of their Microsoft CRM business. Several, who requested anonymity, said C360 actually made the early Microsoft CRM release—which they said was barely functional—usable. (In April, C360 was bought by CDC Software and is now part of that subsidiary of CDC Corp.)