Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Windows 8 - WinRT - Motivation & History

Just when you thought .NET , WPF, Silverlight, C# formed a steady story, in comes WinRT, HTML 5 and JS seemingly shaking the whole foundation!
WinRT is the new API for the window operating system. Hey Wait! So is Win32 gone? No - It is still there! This is what you can call "the object oriented Windows API". Hey Wait! So is .NET gone? No -It is still there! It previously didnt cover the whole spectrum of the operating system services and we always had to fall back on the operating system's win 32 or COM API at times thru .NET callable wrappers for COM objects and PInvoke for Win32 API.

Now you dont need to do that - you can use WinRT from c#, c++ and js. From the days when MSFT thought of doing the whole OS in managed code (remember longhorn) to WinRT is quite a shift! Now to access operating system services and certain other utility services you have many basic routes - Win32, COM API , .NET, WinRT.

I have to digress here to put in perspective the various routes here.
  • First we had Win32 which was a C thingy

  •  Second we had some object oriented libraries like MFC which tried to wrap over the Win32 in various interesting ways to make it easier for people to access the underlying libraries. Similarly there are different libraries for different languages to access the underlying operating system services for instance one for VB and another for Fortran.

  • Third we thought there should be a common way to access system services from different languages and then came COM which provided that capability through a binary interface standard enabling components to be developed in any language and used using any language. Also COM objects were made automation compatible & self reflective through dispatch interface and type libraries. This enabled even dynamic languages like VBScript to use COM Objects. But still, inspite of COM and its noble efforts in leveling the field, C++ based apps continued to be the first citizens in accessing Windows services.

  •  Fourth came .NET inspired by Java which gave a common API to most languages and made those languages "almost" first citizens and also included garbage collection as one of its key services similar to Java. Reflection was also key component of the .NET framework where types are self describing as the metadata of the types are stored inside the assembly containing the types. This metadata can be queried through .NET reflection classes.
Now .NET was still only a wrapper to the underlying operating system services which were still primarily exposed as COM objects and Win32 C api. This means the WinDiv team develops the OS services and api and then releases to the DevDiv team which wraps that with .NET api. This means every time OS is released the .NET api lags behind the native OS api as they have to "write code" to do this wrapping. So it would mean that there was delay in release of the OS for .NET team to catch up or some OS api calls or objects werent wrapped in .NET and hence .NET libraries were always a subset of the Windows API.
So to solve this issue, MSFT thought we will write the entire OS in managed code using .NET and that way there is no wrapper. .NET is THE only native API. All know what happened to that effort (longhorn). Went down the drain to due to various real reasons.

Now that seemingly clean solution not attained, they are still faced with this old problem. That is when they thought of this new object oriented API called WinRT. WinRT is next best thing to writing the OS in .NET and some would argue infact even better. More importantly they have also made this new API accessible to all languages similar to .NET but they have gone one step beyond to make this api accessible to even dynamic languages like js. This way one of the key motivations of going towards .NET is addressed in the release of the new API. Infact some would argue C++ was being neglected in the C# world of .NET and with the advent of WinRT a certain sort of parity is restored. Some would argue that only now you could call all languages real first citizens.

Now still the question lingers in one's mind, as to how did they make one API consumable by all languages.
  • First as WinRT was developed in the lines of COM, every class (object) of WinRT has to implement Unknown which constitutes the same three methods QueryInterface , AddRef and Release.

  •  Second they introduced a new interface which needs to implemented which is called IInspectable which is the interface which provided the self describing reflective capabilities (runtime type information) which was previously achieved through IDispatch in COM.

  •  Then they constructed the API in form or interfaces similar to a COM Object - for instance a FileInformation class will implement interfaces IStorageItemInformation, IStorageItem, IStorageFile.

This was the underlying structure of WinRT. There are some patterns borrowed from COM but a lot of things have been written new. For instance the apartment system and the metadata system is different in WinRT compared to traditional COM.

Now this is a pretty standard structure and then over this structure they brought in something called language projections which were auto-generated apis for each language from this underlying structure & metadata. The reason that these projections are generated rather than coded like in .NET, helped to decrease the time lag between the time the base services are developed and the apis consumable by other languages are created. In fact the metadata format is similar to the format used for storing .NET metadata. And in a way WinRT has kind of used best of both worlds - .NET & COM to creates its underlying structure.

So now having ruminated abt the Windows API evolution history, the various APIs available to use and also a little bit on how WinRT is structured, we are told that that all apps dont get access to all APIs.
So what part of API is available for the different types of desktop applications is a question which needs more research & understanding.

  • NET Apps - Windows Services, Console, WinForms, WPF Apps
  • Unmanaged C++ based Non UI apps - Windows Services, Console
  • Win32 based native windowing Apps (using WndProc)
  • Silverlight Based Rich Client Apps
  • Metro Apps - Unmanaged C++, Managed C#, HTML5/JS 
The thinking would be except for Metro Apps all the apps (1-4) to work on Windows 8 need not be ported. To do that would be absurd. But still two things which developers need to look at now are:

  • How to develop Metro Apps, the new kind of App which has been introduced in Windows 8 which in turn use the WinRT in different languages (C#,VB,C++,JS)
  • How to use WinRT api in the non Metro Apps as there could be utility in using WinRT api if it exposes all of the underlying OS services in an object oriented easy manner in the language of your choice instead of using PInvoke and COM Wrappers.

The thinking would be except for Metro Apps all the apps (1-4) to work on Windows 8 need not be ported. To do that would be absurd. But still two things which developers need to look at now are:

  • How to develop Metro Apps, the new kind of App which has been introduced in Windows 8 which in turn use the WinRT in different languages (C#,VB,C++,JS)
  • How to use WinRT api in the non Metro Apps as there could be utility in using WinRT api if it exposes all of the underlying OS services in an object oriented easy manner in the language of your choice instead of using PInvoke and COM Wrappers.
Some questions crop up like what happens when .NET and WinRT projections provide the same functionality - what do you use? Do you have a choice?
We will further dwell on these topics in a later blog.

Please visits  our Windows 8 application development page

Incident tracking and management

Public sector organizations including state, local, tribal, federal agencies, or NGOs face increasing challenges in identifying, tracking, managing, and closing ever-growing incidents. Manual incident management process with no systematic approach for incident prioritization, assignment, resolution and remediation is not ideal for a critical process such as Incident management. Critical decision making is affected with no established process and effectively higher amounts of time and effort required to manually capture, allocate, manage, track and analyze an incident.

Regardless of the domain, the workflow associated with the Incident lifecycle is pretty standard:
  •     Alarm generation and capture (which can be automated through BPA and BPI) is typically the    beginning of the life cycle of an Incident
  •     This is followed by the creation of the Incident Trouble report (creation of this itself can be  automated as well)
  •     Multiple or Multilevel tickets are created (if necessary) for each of the Incident trouble Reports
  •     Assigning tickets/incidents to field force (can be automated as well)
  •     Dispatching field personnel
  •     Personnel tracking if necessary (location tracking, routing suggestions, etc)
  •     Status tracking and updates of the Incident
  •     Resolution and Closure                                                                                                                    
Having an effective software solution/application to automate and handle Incident management is nothing short of a mandate. This solution effective needs to address Incident Management, Tracking, and Resolution needs including but not limited to the above life cycle, Resource management, online and field tools, automated workflows, trends analysis, communications management, information management and security, task assignments and tracking, escalations, BI, trends analysis based on connected data, etc. There are certain Incident Management standards such as the National Incident Management System (NIMS) policies and guidelines that these Incident Management solutions are highly recommended to adhere to.

Proper processes and SOPs along with an effective software application is the key to tracking incidents in any domain efficiently and consequently reduce the loss of life, property and any harm to the environment.

Please visit our Incident Management Solution page


Microsoft’s gone Modern! – Windows 8 and “Modern” UI Style

Microsoft is getting a full make over! We had been hearing from Microsoft that the “Metro”, which is now called the “Modern” UI Style is going to be defining UI style through the bold use of color, typography, and motionstyle creating a brand new, live and fresh experience across all of Microsoft products. But over the last few months we started realizing that it’s a change in Microsoft’s DNA. Everything that’s published by Microsoft follows this UI Scheme, even Microsoft banners, handouts all are following the same theme. Microsoft changed its logo this morning – something that had not happened since 1987, but did you take a look at the new logo – here it is.

You can see that it’s all part of the same make over. You better believe it – Microsoft is super serious about the Modern user experience!

Stay tuned! I’ll write more about best practices of Windows 8 application development and Modern UI Application Development.


Windows 8 – The right choice for field auditor applications

The new Windows 8 platform is an excellent choice for field auditor based applications. Field auditors, in the field I am most familiar with which is Environmental Compliance, have a need for a “more than smart phone” interface need for them to perform their day to day duties on the field. It is also not feasible for them to carry a laptop along with them all the time. They are tasked with tracking standards like Code of Federal Regulations (40 CFRs, 29 CFRs, etc) set by the EPA and other governing agencies at various facilities on any given day. Their tasks include walking up hills, going into water bodies, walking through dense vegetation to take pictures, videos, collect samples and so on. A handy device like the new Windows Surface on Windows RT is a great solution to the problem. Windows also gives them a good connected platform to the rest of the firm’s auditors and managers keeping the machine on the network’s Active Directory with no additional software installs. This is highly applicable in the Government space as well with the right CONs given that Windows 8 devices can handle CAC authentication too. This creates a secure and collaborative environment for the entire audit team along with the managers in the central office location. The modern UI based application paradigm in WinRT is a very intuitive no nonsense interface into what the auditors want. I am watching this place very closely to see what else pops up in the new Windows 8 Marketplace with this use case.

Folks who are interested in taking parts of their auditors suite to create based handheld applications must read more about Windows 8, the security features Windows 8 has as against Apple’s iPad, Modern UI and Windows 8 apps marketplace and on the best practices around Windows 8 application development. Here are some useful links to follow –

iLink Systems – A Windows 8 Go-to Partner!

Windows 8, the most awaited Windows operating system from Microsoft, is all set for a grand release later this year, and we can’t wait anymore. Windows 8 Consumer Preview version that was made available to the market sometime back and Windows 8 RTM release for subscribers of its MSDN and TechNet services, created a huge buzz among the business communities and techies. Industry experts have already termed Windows 8 as the revolutionary operating system and given a clear thumbs up!

iLink has already delivered 10+ key industry-specific applications and solutions on Windows 8 Platform for web, mobile and slate, to verticals like Health and Life Sciences, Public Sector, Technology, Education, Entertainment, Financial and ISVs. iLink has a well-equipped team that has undergone rigorous trainings and workshops on Windows 8, HTML 5/XAML and Modern UI.

As part of a joint effort, iLink and Microsoft are conducting an exclusive series of Windows 8 events in cities like Austin TX, Los Angeles, CA, Houston TX and Washington DC. At these events, audience will learn about Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 release, the Modern UI and how it can help them realize the promise of truly secure mobility. The event will also showcase some of iLink’s cool Windows 8 Frameworks and how these can be used to tackle current business challenges and quick start on your own app development efforts . If you would like more info on our events and our Windows 8 expertise, please visit our windows 8 application development page and also visit our windows 8 apps page