.NET finds a home on the range
When does it make sense to take a chance with beta technology? For the
Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), the opportunity came when it was time
to develop a new application to track wild elk herds in the Rockies. In this
case, the technology was Web services, and the opportunity was the need to
develop an application that could also be deployed outside the department to
other state agencies. Until recently, the data had been stored through a
Macintosh HyperCard application and Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.
The elk herd application was in many ways typical of the application
environment that CIO John Picanso had discovered when he first joined the
department back in 1998. ''We had an inventory of roughly 80 separate
applications, most of which were written in Visual Basic, but none of which were
integrated,'' he noted. ''One of the first decisions was to start integrating
the data and reuse the code to capitalize on all the work that we had already
Consequently, deciding on the path to a new Web services architecture came
after a virtual gauntlet of decisions ruled out conventional options. It began
with the easiest decision: deciding to expose data as XML.
The next piece of the puzzle was determining how to open the data up to users
outside the department. Admittedly, the path of least resistance would have been
to develop a standard intranet architecture that presented the data on a
standard HTML Web page. ''We ruled that out because we wanted to enable other
[state] agencies to consume data in the way they wanted it, whether it was in a
spreadsheet, a database or another application,'' said Manish Sharma, principal
consultant at Compuware Professional Services, which worked with CDA to develop
Because the department was already a Microsoft shop, the next logical choice
would have been to develop a DCOM application. But again, because the user base
would be outside the department, firewalls, along with the reality that other
departments might not have Microsoft platforms, eliminated the DCOM option.
At that point, the team decided to embrace a Web services architecture.
Although it was extremely new, the team was pretty confident about adopting
SOAP. ''We didn't consider using SOAP a risk because we felt the standard would
be here to stay,'' said Sharma. And with the decision to adopt Web services, the
team decided to test out the new VB.NET language because of its Web services
The development team, which included Sharma and a couple of internal VB
developers who were trained on the new .NET tools, used several pieces of the
emerging Microsoft .NET framework, including ADO.NET for data representation,
and ASP.NET for consuming the Web services and generating SOAP messages.
Although the application was written using .NET technology, it interacted with
existing COM+ components.
In developing the application, Sharma compared .NET development to older
approaches. For instance, in designing the back end, Sharma compared several
methods for generating XML data formats. Of the options -- using conventional
DOM objects, custom XML schema and ADO.NET's data sets -- the ADO.NET approach
performed just as well as the alternatives and proved far simpler to develop and
maintain. A minor drawback, Sharma noted, was that ADO.NET's data sets use
function arguments that might not always be understood by third-party tools.
For the front end, the development team initially decided to use ASP.NET over
more conventional approaches, such as generating HTML pages using pre-.NET ASP
technology or deploying traditional VB Windows clients. Since the application
has gone live, however, a few conventional HTML pages have been added to reduce
network traffic for several general-purpose pages that do not have the same
degree of interactivity as the ASP.NET pages.
As for the new .NET technology, CDA's Picanso gives it a realistic few thumbs
up. For instance, his staff of VB developers is approaching the object-oriented
design practices required by the .NET framework cautiously. On the other hand,
they took to XML ''like ducks to water,'' something, he notes, that required a
new approach to data modeling. ''People need to think about how to make their
XML schemas generic enough for outside consumption,'' he added.
In driving the transition to .NET, Picanso realizes that developers might
prefer returning to their old tried-and-true methods. He admits that he does not
know how well VB developers will adapt to VB.NET. But CDA is not looking back.
''We're examining an application where they might rather go back to their
comfort zone, but I'm not letting them go there,'' he said.
See main story, ''Early .NET returns: So far,
Tony Baer is principal with onStrategies, a New York-based consulting firm, and editor of Computer Finance, a monthly journal on IT economics. He can be reached via
e-mail at email@example.com.