By Matthew Southwell
Microsoft’s .Net development platform is beginning to gain ground in the Middle East. Despite this, the dominance of J2EE looks set to continue.
I|~||~||~|Since its launch, a number of local developers have accepted Microsoft’s .Net as a credible alternative to J2EE (Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition) and rolled out a number of applications based on the platform. Furthermore, these apps have entered the local marketplace and are being used by some of the Middle East’s highest profile businesses.For instance, Mashreqbank’s IT services spin off, Mindscape, migrated the finance house’s software stack to .Net and is now repackaging its applications for resale to the rest of the region’s banking community. Elsewhere, Aramex has implemented a .Net based global tracking system, while Saudi’s Savola Group has worked with Jordanian development house, Estarta, to build an Advanced Work-Life Alignment (AWLA) tool that binds its workforce more closely with its business objectives.“We have started to feel a growth in .Net demand in the Middle East. Most of the clients we meet are demanding .Net solutions and we are seeing more and more interest in the platform,” says Moataz Aby Ghazaleh, technology consultant with Estarta Solutions.
A number have factors have contributed to the emergence of .Net as an alternative to J2EE. The first is Microsoft’s installed base, which has upgraded to .Net from previous technologies as the vendor pursues its technology roadmap. “There are a lot of software developers that have committed to Microsoft. For those guys the next evolutionary step is to move to .Net,” confirms Massimo Pezzini, vice president & research director at Gartner Group. Evolution was a key factor in Mashreqbank’s move to .Net, as it had been using Microsoft software for a number of years. In 1997 it deployed a COM based solution within its call centre, which proved so successful that the bank migrated its entire middleware environment from a Unix based solution to Microsoft.“Since then, our middleware has been very reliable and has been put into more and more critical roles within the organisation, to a point where Microsoft middleware has become our nerve centre… When we decided to spin [Mindscape] off from Mashreqbank, it was only natural for us to see how we could leverage our knowledge and experience of using Microsoft technology in building a middleware platform for running mission critical applications,” explains Faizal Eledath, director of information technology solutions at Mindscape.Like many IT shops in the region, Mindscape has a ready supply of Microsoft skills. This made the move to .Net a relatively simple one. “There is little difficulty getting the skill set for .Net. We had to do some retraining, but this was a natural evolution rather than a total shift,” says Eledath.Ghazaleh confirms that the shift is a simple one and says Estarta has been able to quickly gather a pool of .Net developers. “.Net is potentially our favourite platform because we already have a wealth of developers with Microsoft experience. This meant that upgrading our experience to .Net was simple for us,” he says. “At the same time, Microsoft eases the transition because whenever they release a new development tool there is a huge amount of marketing and learning material, sample code and other information. This means developers have all the information they need to upgrade their skills,” he adds.Ihab Foudeh, technology manager at Microsoft Gulf & Eastern Mediterranean, says a large number of local developers are keen to upgrade their skills for the .Net platform. He points not only to the large number of boot camps and seminars the vendor has run, but also the experiences of local training companies.“New Horizons, for instance, recently ran a boot camp for .Net in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and it was their fourth of the year. They have also had to add another new trainer for .Net due to the demand… The momentum is there and we are running specialised training for enterprise customers and the classes are full,” he says.Foudeh contends that so many developers are buying into .Net due to its framework like nature, which simplifies development. “There is a simplicity to the IDE [integrated development environment] that means developers can develop for the desktop, for mobile solutions, or server side solutions within a single framework. They [the developers] don’t have to learn a different framework for each type of application because there is one tool and one framework,” he explains. “Adoption of .Net is also growing because of a lot of the new capabilities the platform offers. For example, developers can now control a lot of the security measures for an application,” he adds.One of the biggest benefits of .Net framework, compared to previous Microsoft development platforms, is that it provides a clear structure that enables developers to reuse chunks of code. “When Visual Basic came out everyone started creating piles of applications because it was a very easy code [to use]. However, it had very little structure, so there wasn’t a modular, reusable approach… .Net puts more of a structure around the development framework so developers can get to that reusable model,” explains Doug Lynn, vice president at Meta Group.The improved framework of .Net also accelerates development times, which means it is particularly well suited to what Gartner calls opportunistic applications — those that are developed to solve a specific business requirement, but are unlikely to be supported after a year or so of use. “.Net is quicker to develop on — something that takes six months to develop on Java is two thirds quicker on .Net because of the additional native support,” explains Foudeh.A final factor that has contributed to .Net’s apparent popularity within the marketplace is Microsoft’s towering marketing budgets. Although no details are available on just how much the vendors has spent promoting the platform, Microsoft has been heavily marketing .Net in the region. “There is always marketing funds… [because] we need to gather the troops and win the developers back,” says Foudeh.||**||II|~||~||~|Despite these marketing efforts, however, it seems unlikely that the software giant will convert many Java developers. Industry pundits confirm this and suggest that .Net is still very much second to J2EE in both the global and local markets. Evidence of this comes from a recent Gartner Group survey, which shows that while 24% of developers worldwide use .Net, a massive 76% use Java.“Java is predominately the platform of choice in the Middle East region,” confirms Jyoti Lalchandani, manager, software & consulting CEMA region, IDC. A number of factors have contributed to the dominance of J2EE over .Net in the Middle East, including the length of time it has been in the market. The older J2EE has been widely tested and the technology has matured, while .Net has only been available for just over a year.“.Net has been around for just over 12 months while Java has been here for between four and five years. If you look at products like WebSphere then you have products in their fourth or fifth release,” says Gartner’s Pezzini.“This means they have been through several cycles of improvement already and are better products in terms of scalability, performance and manageability than .Net offerings,” he explains.Even committed .Net users, such as Aramex, are aware of the problems a lack of maturity brings to the Microsoft platform. “The .Net technologies are new and there are certain areas where we finding the maturity an issue,” admits Samer Awajan, the logistics’ giant’s chief technical architect.The maturity of J2EE also means that it has been seen as a safer option for large enterprises that require a high quality, scalable and durable platform on which to build their mission critical applications. “Large enterprises do not trust the Microsoft platform too much and not many banks, for instance, have implemented Microsoft technology,” comments André Zein, e-business director of Newtek, a regional development company that specialises in Java development. “The examples of where Microsoft has been used in large enterprise are more the exception than the norm,” adds Meta Group’s Lynn.This trend stems from the different development approaches of J2EE companies and Microsoft. Whereas the latter has, typically, developed from the client side backwards, Java has come from the server end forwards.“Microsoft’s orientation has been more from the client going towards the application server. However, once you start getting into the back end integration server and highly scalable mission critical applications this is where we see Java, as the vendors supporting those back end infrastructure components are all supporting the Java standards,” explains Lynn. ||**||III|~||~||~|This breadth of vendor support also brings a level of openness to J2EE that appeals to enterprise companies, as it allows them to develop applications that run on a range of different operating systems, hardware solutions and infrastructure components.“When Java was introduced the key message was that it enabled any programme to run on any platform. That was the aim then and it still is today. It allows the IT industry to develop any kind of programme and run the same service regardless of the platform. The cross platform nature of Java is what sets it a part and where it brings a value proposition to the customer,” says Ahmad El Dandachi, regional sales manager for Sun Microsystems in the Middle East.This openness also gives users greater control and provides them with more choice in terms of what they can build into their computing environment. “Interoperability is a critical component when developing an environment because the number and range of devices being used in businesses is expanding all the time. Almost every new device that gets introduced to the market runs Java, so this is a big consideration,” comments Hari Padmanabhan, president of ICICI Infotech, Middle East & Africa.A key element in the control debate is the operating system. Whereas .Net runs primarily on Windows, J2EE developed applications can work across multiple operating systems, whether they are Unix, Linux, AS/400, Windows or anything else. Bashar Kilani, software group manager of IBM Middle East and North/West Africa, says this is particularly relevant in the local market where most companies have some sort of legacy or inhouse applications that they need to keep running. “Although I’m seeing a lot of marketing done around the .Net platform and people are starting to think about it, I am yet to see people making any commitment to it. One of the main reasons for this is because it locks them to PC servers, to one operating system and one vendor. For enterprise that have Unix, mainframe or AS/400, Sun, HP and so on in the computing environment it [.Net] is not going to be a viable option,” he explains. While J2EE is currently the development platform of choice for the region’s enterprises, Microsoft is confident that it can break down Java’s pre-eminence. Foudeh says the vendor is doing this through a number of initiatives. For instance, in addition to its vast marketing budgets, the vendor is attempting to turn those developers with Microsoft skills already within the enterprise into .Net champions.“In every enterprise account there are Microsoft developers… we are working on these accounts to promote .Net and show users that we don’t just give a programming model we offer a complete platform,” he explains.However, if .Net is to gain any real ground in the enterprise space, it will have to go through a number of changes. According to Gartner’s Pezzini, these include better definition of the platform and more integration between it and the vendor’s other technologies.“There is a long way to go before .Net becomes the pervasive architecture Microsoft is talking about. As it is today, .Net is just a thin layer that sits on top of what already exists and does not really take advantage of .Net. This means that .Net has to go through several evolutionary steps in terms of the tools, the underlying technology and its integration into other Microsoft technologies in the coming years,” he says.Even if this happens though, others are not convinced that .Net will ever overhaul J2EE and instead suggest that it will simply cannibalise existing Microsoft technologies or take market share from older, less well-supported platforms. Meta Group’s Lynn, for instance, says that the analyst house “doesn’t expect .Net to make any sort of significant presence on non-Microsoft platforms.”||**||