Microsoft cautions against quick move to .Net

Developers working on the front lines of Microsoft Corp.’s lofty Web-based initiative are cautioning IT managers not to upgrade their existing applications to .Net unless they’re sure they can obtain a clear business benefit from it.

“Upgrading is not free, and it isn’t painless,” said Ed Robinson, program manager with Microsoft’s Visual Basic.Net team, who delivered a presentation Thursday at the VSLive! developer conference in San Francisco.

With the final release of Microsoft’s Visual Studio .Net development suite Wednesday, Microsoft has handed programmers a comprehensive set of tools for building applications to run on its emerging Web-based computing platform. But the widespread release of the tools doesn’t mean that the bulk of Microsoft’s customers will make an instant migration to .Net, experts said here.

“I can think of several scenarios where it would make perfect sense to migrate an application to .Net, and I can think of scenarios where it makes no sense at all,” said Daniel Appleman, president of IT consulting services company Desaware Inc., in Campbell, Calif., who attended the conference here.

“Generally speaking, porting an application to .Net is not going to be economical,” Appleman said. “You really should have a sound economic reason to do so.”

Microsoft developers agree with Appleman despite the fact that the company is putting millions of dollars in marketing and research into moving its customers to its emerging development platform. The company announced Friday a US$200 million marketing campaign to dangle .Net in front of enterprise customers.

Bringing an existing application to .Net could be more trouble than it’s worth, Robinson said. The only reason to move an application to .Net would be to take advantage of new features in the development environment, such as added security, stability and the ability to deliver those applications across the Web, Robinson said. But as the adage goes, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.

For those who do take the migration plunge, there is a lot of work to be done, according to Robinson, who detailed many of the pros and cons of migration during a session at VSLive!. He was joined in the presentation by Federico Zoufaly, chief technology officer of migration services company Artinsoft SA, whose company is responsible for developing tools to simplify the upgrade process.

“You should practice upgrading,” Robinson said. “Start with something small. Practice with a one-form or two-form application. Upgrade one component at a time.”

Another suggestion Microsoft and other programmers here offered was to do test runs of the migration process and to not always count on the first effort being a successful one.

Applications designed in Microsoft’s popular Visual Basic programming language will make an easier transition to .Net compared to those developed in other programming languages. While Visual Basic 6 applications aren’t compatible with the new development environment, Microsoft has included an upgrade wizard with Visual Studio .Net that is designed to automatically turn an application developed in that language to .Net.

Developed by Artinsoft, which is based in San Jose, Costa Rica, the wizard converts Visual Basic 6.0 code into Visual Basic .Net code. For portions of an application that can’t be automatically ported into Microsoft’s new .Net code, the wizard produces a report that details all of the lines of code that couldn’t be upgraded and help tips for how to upgrade those portions manually.

Microsoft and Artinsoft are developing a similar tool for porting applications written in Java to .Net. Released in a test version earlier this month, the Java Language Conversion Assistant (JLCA) will automatically convert basic Java source code into C# (C-sharp), a language developed by Microsoft and designed to build Web-based applications. An enterprise version of that tool for large Java applications is due out later this year.

Using the Visual Basic upgrade wizard, Artinsoft said it has been able to upgrade about 7,000 to 10,000 lines of code per week from Visual Basic 6.0 to Visual Basic .Net. Comparatively, developers could only write about 100 to 200 lines of code per week if they tried the same task manually, Zoufaly said.

However, Visual Basic and Java are the only programming languages that can be migrated to .Net using an automated tool. It was unclear whether Microsoft planned to build migration tools for other languages supported in .Net, such as COBOL and Fortran, according to Artinsoft.

“It is definitely in our best interest to create more tools for migration,” Zoufaly said. “Right now we are just looking at the market. For us to build the tools we have to see a clear market need.”

The migration process may be too daunting for enterprise developers however even with help tools.

“It’s not worth rewriting an application for .Net,” said Matthew McLaughlin, principal developer with SCI Consulting who develops Visual Basic applications for the Nevada Depart of Engineering. After watching a demonstration of the Visual Basic upgrade wizard at VSLive!, McLaughlin said he would considering using such a tool, but is not yet convinced.

Attending a Microsoft-sponsored launch event in the Netherlands Wednesday, Ron Tolido, chief technology officer for Cap Gemini Ernst & Young LLP in the Netherlands, said his company is finding it a challenge to convince customers to upgrade existing applications to .Net. While those applications will become safer, more expandable, easier to maintain and Web-enabled, according to Microsoft’s claims for .Net, few of Cap Gemini’s Netherlands customers have identified business reasons to make the change, Tolido said.

“They give us an application, we recode it for them, and they basically get the same application back,” Tolido said. While the application would gain new capabilities, such as the ability to be delivered over the Internet as a service, many customers have yet to identify how they will use the new features.

“For us, as a consultancy firm this means more work,” he said. “(Migration) is something that is tough to explain to our customers.”

(Joris Evers, an IDG News Service correspondent based in the Netherlands, contributed to this report.)

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