Las Vegas Bound - Impressions of WCF

I’m catching a flight early tomorrow morning to Vegas for VS Connections and am really looking forward to it. VS Connections in particular, and DevConnections in general (the overall conference event) is well run, in great locations, and always has a lot of great content that I can benefit from as well.

I’ve been spending most of my recent prep time fine tuning the demos for my two WCF sessions, Build Event Driven Applications with Indigo and Connecting Smart Client Applications with Indigo. The more I work with Windows Communications Foundation (aka “Indigo”), I am struck by a number of things:

  • I am impressed by how capable Indigo is.
  • I am awed by how elegant and simple solutions are to complex aspects like security, transactions, queuing, callbacks, and so on.
  • I am dumbfounded by how hard it is to figure out how to get to those elegant and simple solutions.

The last bullet is not really a criticism of what they have come up with, it is just the nature of the beast. I would draw on an analogy from my flying days to explain why this is so. Imagine the cockpit of a WW I fighter aircraft. You probably have half a dozen or less simple dials and gauges, and a stick and throttle. Imagine trying to use that set of controls on an aircraft that can fly at high subsonic speeds at high altitude carrying hundreds of passengers for 12 hour transoceanic flights. Not going to work too well. This is basically where you were at with past technologies to build complex, distributed, heterogenous, connectedenterprise systems. It could be done, but the end result was not going to be pretty and it was going to take you a long time to get there.

Now with WCF, it is more like climbing into the cockpit of a 777. There is a technological elegance to everything that is there. But there are still hundreds (if not thousands) of individual switches, controls, displays, electronic gages and dials, menu driven control panels, etc. A great deal of human engineering has gone into everything that is in there so that for any given common task, there are only a couple of relevant controls that you have to touch and put into place to get the job done. The challenge is in knowing which one of those hundreds of knobs and dials to tweak.

The same is true for WCF. Microsoft has created an incredibly powerful and technologically advanced platform that is well adapted to building large distributed enterprise systems. In order to do that, there needs to be hundreds of switches and knobs that you can throw to address different scenarios. The downside to that is bullet number three above – you have to learn which switches and knobs are relevant for a given task, and in what order to throw them.

This is somewhat aggravated right now in that we are only at Beta 1 of WinFx (and its parts WCF, WPF, and WinWF), and the names, shapes, and locations of all the knobs and switches is constantly changing as they work on that human engineering task of trying to make it easier to use. Meanwhile the documentation and samples are seriously lagging, so working with it right now is a little like stepping into that 777 cockpit without any labels on the controls. When you say to yourself, “I just need transactions and certificate based security”, it is kind of like saying “I just need to call the flight attendant at the second aft flight station”. Simple to describe, but God help you in figuring out which switches and knobs to throw. At least there are not really any destructive ones that you can throw by accident. If you get it wrong, your app may not work, but you would have to go out of your way to write some code that would do bad things when WCF fails to let you communicate.

I’m looking forward to continuing to work with this technology and learn what all those knobs and buttons are for. Learning all the controls of the aft cockpit of the F-14 to run the weapons system, navigation systems, communications systems, and other tasks was one of the funnest things I have done in my life. The fact that we got to do that while strapped to a couple of 50K lb + of thrust zorching through the sky pulling G’s and landing on the carrier certainly helped make it interesting. Sitting at a computer leaves a little to be desired in that department, but the learning challenge is still just as fun.