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WinFS Questions Persist

A year after pulling the "WinFS" storage subsystem from the Windows "Longhorn" (now Vista) client operating system, Microsoft posted a surprise early beta of the technology for developers on MSDN, once again opening up questions about the product's future.

When WinFS was pulled out of Longhorn a year ago, Jim Allchin, Microsoft group vice president of platforms, cited customer requests for a combined client-server infrastructure as the reason. The just-released beta, however, is strictly the client-side of the equation. For now, Microsoft has little to say about server integration plans.

And while Microsoft has committed only to delivering a beta of WinFS when Vista becomes generally available in late 2006, it has evidently been working steadily on the promising technology and revealed lots of new detail about how WinFS will work on the client side. WinFS, which stands for Windows Future Storage, is an integrated data storage subsystem of the Windows operating system. Microsoft aims to bridge the gap between traditional OS file systems and relational databases by bringing the flexibility, organizational and querying capabilities of databases to the file system.

Microsoft's implementation centers on the idea of reorganizing file storage around "items," which fall into certain standard and extensible "types" such as a person, calendar, contact, document and photo. The approach opens the data within a traditional file for use by other applications, without data transformation or other interim steps.

For example, a user could create a mailing list in a Word document that pulls 50 contacts out of a CRM application and another 100 out of Outlook. Relationships between data maintained in different applications can also persist in WinFS, making it possible to use standing queries to retrieve the most up-to-date information. In that case, a Word document might pull from a CRM application to list the Top 10 customers by revenue. Changes in the CRM application would automatically update in the Word document.

Despite the earlier-than-promised beta, Quentin Clark, director of program management for WinFS, says Microsoft's schedule for WinFS hasn't really changed. "We have more betas coming," Clark said. "Our delivery timeframe hasn't changed. It will still be in beta when Windows Vista ships."

In many ways, WinFS looks like one more pipe in the plumbing that Microsoft provides for developers. With .NET and Visual Studio, Microsoft lets developers spend less time worrying about things like writing secure code and more time on what they actually want the applications to do. With WinFS, Microsoft seems to be aiming to help developers spend no time thinking about questions like, "What should a contact look like, and how should I store it?" Instead, developers can focus on what the application will do with the contact information. The upside for Microsoft is an even deeper reliance among developers on Microsoft's infrastructure.

Architecturally, WinFS holds files in two ways. A stream view is similar to the way files are currently stored and to the way the file appears on disk. A logical view presents the properties and components of files as entities that can be individually queried.

In addition to the file system, the beta includes developer APIs, a language for defining new types and schemas and a query language for retrieving information from the WinFS store.

Clark maintains the underlying themes and functionality of WinFS remain the same since the storage subsystem was disconnected from Longhorn a year ago, but he says Microsoft will emphasize different uses for WinFS because of subsequent work in Windows Vista. Improvements in Windows indexing technology promise improved search and better organization and navigation of folders and files in Windows Vista—both are functions WinFS was expected to support.

"We emphasize WinFS being a data platform," Clark says in reference to the developer possibilities of accessing data across applications. A data platform on the client side only is nice but it's of limited usefulness in an enterprise setting, customers told Jim Allchin a year ago. Until Microsoft has more to say about the server side of WinFS, the industry will remain in a holding pattern on this technology.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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