Microsoft Orcas Still Taking Shape As Due Date Nears

As Microsoft heads into next week's TechEd conference, developers will be staying tuned for details on Microsoft's upcoming platform trifecta of new versions of Visual Studio (Orcas), SQL Server (Katmai) and Windows Server (Longhorn).

While all three are due for release within the next year, their contents and delivery dates remain in flux. Katmai is slated for its first community technology preview (CTP) release any day now, and Orcas recently advanced to its first beta release, but its feature set isn't locked down.

Last month, Microsoft quietly cut one significant planned advance, announcing in a blog that it will pull the ADO.NET Entity Framework out of Orcas and ship it as a separate, later update.

The ADO.NET Entity Framework (EF) is a remnant of WinFS, the ill-fated next-generation file management system Microsoft more or less buried last June.

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An object-relational mapping technology intended to help developers access data more flexibly, ADO.NET EF first shipped as a preview in August and was included in Orcas' recent beta 1. However, users protested its rough state and lack of design tools.

That feedback influenced Microsoft's decision to hold off on ADO.NET EF's release, which will now happen "during the first half of 2008" as an update to Orcas, according to Microsoft data programmability architect Mike Pizzo.

Developers had mixed reactions to news of ADO.NET EF's delay. "Deja Vu all over again," the title of a post OakLeaf Systems developer and consultant Roger Jennings wrote for his blog, was one common response.

"Sounds to me like WinFS all over again," noted software developer Alex Feldstein, a Microsoft MVP, which is the company's recognition program for technical community volunteers and activists.

CRM developer Dovetail Software scrapped its attempts to use ADO.NET EF after trying out the preview version.

"There are some really well-known and well-accepted architectural patterns for building these kinds of frameworks, and the Entity Framework itself doesn't really express those patterns," said Dovetail software designer Scott Bellware, also a Microsoft MVP. "There's a community of people who have put years into using these frameworks, and we kind of looked at the framework and said, 'It doesn't match up with what our experience has shown that we need.'"

Bellware switched to NHibernate, and says the Entity Framework's delay is turning out to be a blessing in disguise. He hopes the more modular development schedule will give Microsoft's developers the time and space they need to build a better tool.

Dovetail is one of a number of partners closely tied to the Orcas road map: It's developing a project that uses C# 3.0, a component of the .Net 3.5 release that will ship concurrently with Orcas. But Microsoft is staying away from publicly committing to an Orcas release date.

"We will ship Orcas Beta 2 later this summer and based on customer feedback set the RTM date," Prashant Sridharan, Microsoft's senior product manager for Visual Studio, said via e-mail.

Other pieces of Microsoft's platform wave have firmer targets. Microsoft committed last month to getting Windows Server 2008 (a.k.a. Longhorn) to manufacturing release by the end of the year, but soon after postponed the software's planned "Viridian" virtualization hypervisor.

Company insiders say Microsoft may hold back Longhorn and even Orcas to sync their release with Katmai as part of a platform push, but Sridharan dismissed the idea of coordinated ship dates.

"Release of the actual products are not exclusively tied to [Microsoft's launch event], and may be at different times precede it based on their individual release schedule," Sridharan said.

Whether the products will ship on a staggered timeframe or all at once, Microsoft is positioning them as a linked platform wave.

Last week, it announced the surprise cancellation of its planned Professional Developer Conference this fall, saying the event's timing didn't fit with its Katmai/Orcas/Longhorn road map, as the technologies will "already be in developers' hands and approaching launch."

Dovetail's Bellware, for one, would like to see a piecemeal release. Microsoft would do well to learn from the continuous-rollout development practices of Web software providers like Google and stop trying to cram massive updates into multi-product "Big Bang" releases, he said.

"When you're at the center of the Big Bang, it's comfortable place to be," Bellware said. "But if you're at the fringes of the Big Bang, you're likely to have some fingers and toes blown off."