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Microsoft Repurposes WinFS for Future Products

Microsoft quietly announced Friday that its long-promised next-generation universal file system is either dead or just emerging from its pupa to take wing as a butterfly.

The second beta of the long-promised universal, unified file store has been cancelled and the results of years of development will be incorporated into other products, most notably the next versions of Microsoft's SQL Server database and its Visual Studio developer tool suite.

Officially known as WinFS (for Windows Future Storage), the technology was meant to give users easy, consistent access to all available information, no matter what it is -- whether structured or unstructured -- where it is located or in what format, directly from within Windows. Indeed, WinFS was slated to ship with Vista, but was pulled from the feature list in August 2004 when the company first acknowledged that what was then code-named "Longhorn" would be late and need to have features dropped to meet a new shipping schedule.

Now, from Microsoft's point of view, much of the work that has gone into WinFS has reached maturity. But instead of delivering it in the operating system, as had been the plan for many years, mature pieces of the technologies will be incorporated into different products as appropriate.

"We made the choice to not have it be just about WinFS but make it more general purpose," said WinFS program manager Quentin Clark in a post on the team's WinFS weblog last Friday.

Instead of delivering the code as a product, it will be split out and will be included in a future version of SQL Server -- code-named "Katmai" -- as well as in a version of ADO.NET (Active Data Objects) for Orcas, which is the code name for the next major release of Visual Studio.

"The real change I am addressing today is in the packaging strategy," Clark's post continued.

Some observers think it's no surprise how or when Microsoft divulged the news of WinFS's demise -- by a blog post at the end of the day on a Friday -- a news-stifling ploy common in political news circles.

And it's not the first time recently that Microsoft dribbled out significant news late on a Friday, coming just two weeks after Microsoft quietly announced it was renaming another key Vista technology, originally dubbed WinFX, to .NET Framework 3.0.

"No one should view Friday as a slow news day anymore, with respect to Microsoft," said Joe Wilcox, senior analyst for operating systems at JupiterResearch, who called the announcement "huge...[The] way I read today's blog from the WinFS team, WinFS is dead."

The ironies seem to abound for WinFS. Its genesis dates back to 1992 when Microsoft first announced a future (back then) release of a Windows server operating system it called "Cairo," which was to have as its major new feature an object file system, or OFS.

However, Microsoft later re-characterized Cairo as just a set of technologies not meant to be a product release per se. But the vision at least was clear: a file system that would provide searchable access to both structured (e.g., data in databases) and unstructured data (such as documents and e-mails) on computer systems and networks.

That vision was reborn when Microsoft discovered XML (eXtensible Markup Language) and forged its .NET initiative in 2001. Beginning at that time, the company championed an upcoming unified file system, which some referred to as Cairo resurrected.

Microsoft released Beta 1 of WinFS without warning last summer, a year after it was jerked out of Vista. And as recently as the company's Tech Ed conference in Boston earlier this month, the company was still touting it.

Now, say analysts and other Microsoft observers, WinFS seems to have met the same fate as OFS, nee Cairo. That is, while Microsoft claims WinFS is alive and well in the parts of the project that the company calls "mature," it is no longer slated for release as a product per se. Perhaps even more ironically, originally portions of WinFS were scheduled to ship in SQL Server 2005.

Microsoft, however, has put a slightly different spin on the story, saying that pulling WinFS from the operating system was more in line with the company's "data platform vision."

"We are choosing now to take the unstructured data support and auto-admin work and deliver it in the next release of MS SQL Server, code-named ‘Katmai,'" Clark's post added. "We will continue working the innovations, and as things mature they will find their way into the right product experiences -- Windows and otherwise."

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.

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