The IT crowd descending upon next week's Microsoft TechEd 2009 conference will be smaller than in the past -- exhibitors have been told to expect 5,000 people (vs. last year's official count of 9,500) -- but those who are making the trip have big questions.
For many IT shops Windows Vista is now officially dead, despite attempts by Microsoft to cajole business users into adopting Vista before moving to Windows 7.
Windows 7: The hot topic at TechEd
Richard Warren, principal with North Carolina Technologies in Wilsons Mills, N.C., agreed Windows 7 success is critical for Microsoft.
"The organizational desktop has to evolve quickly," he said. "This is make or break for Microsoft, and it looks like the [Windows 7] experience will be positive."
An IT manager for a New York-area publishing company has been following the Windows 7 pre-releases.
"I am interested in doing the testing since, like most places, we skipped Vista," he said. "Win Server 2008 is also important, but there's not a huge rush to jump to it."
TechEd keynoter Bill Veghte, senior vice president of Microsoft's Windows business, is slated to talk about the upcoming server and client operating system tandem, Exchange 14, and the need for IT to deliver more "connected services" -- one of Microsoft's pet phrases.
But Microsoft's problem is many IT shops are due for hardware-driven technology refreshes, and even many in Windows-centric companies see faster, lighter alternatives to parts of Microsoft's stack.
In a tough economy, it's evident that corporate upgrades and migrations no longer occur on any vendor's timetable.
"[Vista] only took hold with home users that wanted to try it or were forced to get it when it was pre-installed on their new PCs for home -- usually the second scenario," said Rick Weigand, an IT professional based near New York. "There is big interest in Windows 7 as an XP replacement, since most of the new hardware will not support XP anymore. Corporate IT groups need to make a change and are waiting for a good alternative. Vista was not it."
The hope is Windows 7 will live up to expectations and be a leaner, faster-starting, more nimble release with fewer driver and compatibility issues than Vista. Windows is expected to it run not only full-featured desktops and notebooks but also small netbooks, the hottest-selling class of PCs. Google is making a play for these netbooks -- typically used to connect to and surf the Web. Microsoft, with its full-featured Windows and Office, is at a disadvantage in that area.
Developers seek Visual Studio 2010 details
Some professionals on the Microsoft developer front will be looking to the TechEd 2009 conference for more on Visual Studio 2010. Andrew Brust, chief of new technology for consulting firm Twentysix New York, cannot attend this year but said he will be watching for news on the "hugely revamped 'Cider' designer in VS 2010 for [Windows Presentation Framework] and Silverlight.".
"It apparently provides much better tooling and also provides support for line-of-business data-binding apps that's near or at parity with the Windows Forms designer's capabilities in that area," Brust said. "The Team System/Team Foundation Server stuff is a big improvement as well, especially around testing. Doesn't sound so sexy, but it's quite important."
Silverlight is a Microsoft tool for developing multimedia apps that run across browsers and platforms.
At the framework level, support for REST in Microsoft's Windows Communications Foundation (WCF) and changes from Windows Workflow Foundation 3.5 to 4.0 will also be hot topics for developers, Brust said.
SQL Server 2010, Hyper-V R2 to be highlighted
For DBAs and other database aficionados, there will be at least one session on SQL Server 2010. The next-gen database, aka Kilimanjaro, will focus on "managed self service" with new reporting tools.
Microsoft promised a SQL Server 2010 community technical preview (CTP) for this year back in October, so it could be delivered at the TechEd conference. According to the course description, Kilimanjaro will make it easier for users to find, manage and monitor multiple SQL Server instances, easing overall database management and resource optimization.
For Web types, there will be sessions on Dublin, a bulked-up Windows Server with extended Internet Information Services (IIS) for hosting workflow and communications applications. And for enterprise developers there will be an Oslo session by Microsoft distinguished engineer Don Box. Oslo is the code name for tools to help enterprise developers build model-driven applications and services.
And on the virtualization front, as Microsoft is bound and determined to steal market share from VMware, the company is offering dozens of sessions on Hyper-V R2, System Center Virtual Machine Manager R2 and other products at TechEd.
Other hot topics will be green IT and cloud computing.
Microsoft takes on Amazon, Google
Forward-thinking IT sorts will look into the sessions on Microsoft's Azure cloud deployment platform to see how it stacks up with the on-demand infrastructure capabilities offered by Amazon and Google.
Many Microsoft shops are intrigued by Azure, but some see it as too proprietary.
"If you go with Azure, you're locked in," said a New England commerce site developer. "If I want to set up a brand new app in the cloud for less than the cost of electricity, I can use Oracle Express, the free database for up to four gigabytes of data -- pretty good size -- and pay Amazon for all the other infrastructure I need. Java ain't perfect, but the tools are getting better, and it's less expensive to build on than Microsoft .Net."
It is this type of customer that Microsoft really needs to worry about going forward. And Microsoft's TechEd 2009 session catalog demonstrates another area of concern. The company has always been long on code names and razzle dazzle, but has been slammed for delivering products that were late and underwhelming.
Perhaps more importantly, with Office and Windows Microsoft kept cramming in more features that confused users. Google's spare (or at least less busy) interfaces come as a relief to newer computer users.
A good example of this issue is the Office 2007 ribbon, which was meant to streamline user interaction but ended up confusing and irritating users of earlier Office versions. Microsoft even released videos on how to use the ribbon and how to find frequently used features.
"Microsoft is so bloated," said a Boston-area Microsoft consultant and integrator. "It's too big and too ponderous. There are too many parts, although many of them are well architected. I've spent a lot of time lately with iPhone developers. They do simple, small but elegant things. Nothing extreme. Google is the same. They don't cram their stuff full of features. Microsoft says having a million ways to do the same thing is freedom, but it's really just confusing."