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Bringing .NET to Main Street

by David Longworth
April 29th, 2003

Even in the traditionally conservative midmarket tier of business software, many believe the current shift to web services will be as fundamental as the prior move from mainframe to client/server.

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Software vendors in the midmarket are united in porting to .NET but divided over how readily smaller businesses will embrace web services:
  • One vendor "cherry-picked" parts of .NET
  • Another is rewriting its entire suite as pluggable modules
  • Accountants see the merits of exchanging live data
  • But small businesses may lack the skills to deploy web services

Glossary terms: .NET, client-server, development, loose coupling, lookup tool

But different approaches are emerging among the software vendors who are starting to rewrite their applications in .NET. At one extreme, some plan to completely break down their software into XML-based components, in preparation for a distributed, loosely coupled architecture. Others are taking a more pragmatic approach and spurning some of .NET's more radical ideas as inappropriate for the business needs of their customers.

David Karlin, CTO of Sage, which owns US brands Peachtree and Best Software and claims more business customers than any other software vendor in the world, is just such a pragmatic technologist. At the launch of the latest upgrade to the company's flagship UK product, Line 100, he admitted Sage was better known for its ferocious pursuit of market share than technical innovation, joking: "For those who have watched Sage for a while, yes this is new."

Karlin has recently overseen the rewriting of the commercial modules of Line 100 for the .NET environment — sales order processing, purchase order processing, price book, stock control; everything except the core ledgers — and is now, unusually for Sage, claiming a technology first. It is, he says, the first major accounting and ledger vendor to have rewritten its software for the web services world.

Cherry-picking .NET
So much for the vision. The pragmatism is not far behind — Karlin's primary motivations for the rewrite are to reduce errors, improve the product and save on development time. "Our claim is not that this is the sexiest product around, but that it's the strongest set of accounting and financials of its kind," he says. "After 20 years of incorporating upgrade requirements, a package that starts small and elegant becomes functionally rich but is usually a tangled mess of spaghetti. We've kept the old stuff where it works, and brought in new stuff where we can improve it."

Since the core ledgers themselves were rewritten only last year in Visual Basic and C++, Sage decided to leave those and concentrate on the remaining 40 percent of the product. But Karlin also insisted that Sage should "cherry-pick" the best bits of the .NET environment. So for data access, Sage built its own object-to-relational mapper, instead of using Visual Studio's oft-maligned ADO.NET. "We didn't like the data access method, which is based on disconnected record sets. We believe it's very appropriate for building distributed web applications, but not for building what is essentially still a client-server application in a web environment."

The method of data access in .NET has been a long-running debate for the developer community, but Karlin's point is that developers should not feel bound to follow it. Karlin believes this could become an issue for developers of other business applications but says Microsoft was helpful and adds that such tools are actually relatively easy to build in a standard environment, while still insulating users from changes.

Ground-up rewrite
Others are more gung-ho about the move to web services and the benefits it will bring for their users. Epicor — one of the first vendors to introduce a Windows-based client-server accounting product back in the 1980s, when the company was known as Platinum Software — is rewriting its entire applications suite in the .NET environment. "We've always been technology leaders and we had a new product for the client-server world. We see this as just as important as the client-server revolution," says Matt Muldoon, EMEA product strategy manager.

It has already finished its CRM product, Clientele.NET, which is already in use at a number of sites, including a division of Boeing in the US. It is now starting to work on its e-business suite, beginning with a new project management application, codenamed Tahoe, and then moving on to existing modules. It believes the whole suite will be reworked from the ground up by 2005.

Muldoon stresses the importance of developing from the ground up: "The key thing is how you architect it. A lot of people are just putting web services wrappers around their existing products, but it's still the old application development environment and application logic." This won't provide the flexibility of a native web services architecture, he says. "All the logic needs to be in the web services layer and it needs to be broken down into modules so you can pick and choose whether you will use a module."

Web services means that companies can choose to subscribe to some capabilities from external services, he says. He gives several examples, from tax calculations — the UK government already offers a web service for VAT calculations — to carrier calculation rates. Based on his experience of lecturing on this topic at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, he says that if practising accountants can see the benefits of getting fast and accurate access to data, then anyone can.

Mission critical
But Karlin is not so sure that such arguments apply at the lower end of the mid-market, which is where Sage operates. In parallel with the .NET rewrite, the company will soon produce an adapter for its Line 100 product to consume purchase order and invoice documents that conform to eBIS-XML, the standard for exchanging financial data developed by members of BASDA (British Application Software Developers Association). It has also introduced Transaction e-mail, a mechanism for communicating between separate Sage installations, marketed as T e-mail. But while Karlin is wholly in favour of reducing rekeying, he is not convinced mid-sized and smaller businesses will want to set up full-scale services, and believes an alternative may be for them to come through a Sage hub which offers such services to its SME (small and mid-sized enterprise) customers.

"It is possible to create services, and with the structure of our product now — and T e-mail to send messages — we've got the product to do it. In fact, we're working on a set of platforms for developers who want to do that. But it probably needs a bit more in terms of skills than the average SME IT department has."

Offering automated online services raises issues of computer security, availability and robustness that most smaller businesses have never had to deal with, he points out. "The complexity level is high particularly when it involves money. It's not just something that you throw together, it has to be mission critical and 24x7 reliable."

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