Microsoft: .Net eases database offices

Company officials speaking at Federal Solutions Day say their XML-based system can help users tap into multiple large databases.

Applications based on Microsoft Corp.'s .Net framework would improve federal agencies' e-government services by giving employees a way to gather information from multiple large databases and Web sites and create an analytical view that in the past could only be done manually, according to managers in the software giant's federal unit.

Using the .Net structure, which is based on Extensible Markup Language (XML), government agencies could create Web services that make workers more efficient and give agencies access to massive databases they could not host themselves, said Mitra Azizirad, general manager for the federal government at Microsoft Corp. Azizirad spoke at the company's Federal Solutions Day Tuesday in Arlington, Va.

"The strategy and goal of Microsoft is to be in the enterprise," Azizirad said. XML, which is becoming the industry standard for Web-based data formats, is the foundation of Microsoft .Net, she said.

The Agriculture Department's National Resources Conservation Service has already proven that .Net can help create a Web service in a pilot project with Microsoft and Compaq. The USDA's Lighthouse portal, which started in January 2000 and began operation in mid-fall 2000, gives access to nine databases to conservation service workers who help farmers plan land use, said Steve Ekblad, Lighthouse project manager.

Included in those databases is Microsoft TerraServer, a 3 terabyte database of geospatial imagery that the company operates using U.S. Geological Survey aerial photography and topographic maps.

Typically, a USDA worker would query databases such as TerraServer and other USDA resources individually. Based on that data, the worker would piece together a map of soil conditions, for example. With Lighthouse, a worker can conduct geographic information system applications via the Web, Ekblad said. Lighthouse retrieves data from separate sources and produces an integrated map based on the characteristics the user desires.

The data does not necessarily all come from Microsoft-based platforms, and Azizirad said .Net is intended to help agencies use their legacy systems with Microsoft enterprise servers to get the maximum return on their investments.

"Integration should be a forethought rather than an afterthought," Azizirad said.

The USDA is one of a handful of early adopters of .Net, and its application is only a small sample of what can be done with the framework, she said.

New Web-based applications that can draw from independent databases also will help drive the market for handheld and wireless devices that will provide access to the services anytime or anywhere, Azizirad said. The two will go hand in hand to enable a mobile workforce, she said.