Best Practice Ezine #66 – WinFS is Back On Track

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WinFS – Back on Track

WinFS (Windows Future Storage) is having a roller-coaster ride.  It was with a heavy heart that I wrote back in the spring that WinFS had been delayed indefinitely, so I am cheered, even excited that WinFS is back on track.  The latest news from Microsoft is that a Beta version of WinFS will be released in September 2005.  This Beta 1 version is aimed at developers, and at the moment, only works on XP.  Unfortunately, WinFS will not work on Vista Beta 1.

Talking of developers, I heard a Microsoft person admit that the developers will be able to do more with WinFS than the team who created it.  This is not as bad as it sounds, more like the situation where Marconi invented the wireless, but it took developers like Nokia to produce the mobile phone.

Looking to the future, Vista and Longhorn’s new Aero Graphics are OK.  The Sidebars turned out to be all smoke and mirrors with little substance, but WinFS is the real deal – the future of file storage.

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What is WinFS like?

What is WinFS like?  Think of a filing cabinet.  Think of how computer files are stored at present with Windows Explorer.  Now open your mind to how you could view those computer files in different way, for example by creating a virtual folder for all pictures.  WinFS turns this vision into reality by adding a relational database to query any aspect of your files.  Naturally, the resulting views are displayed in a flashy, information rich GUI.

Microsoft’s Vision is for WinFS to unify and organize data.  Not just text files, but also pictures and even emails.  The other factor is to innovate the way we explore files.  If you think of Windows Explorer as two-dimensional then WinFS is three-dimensional and that is what makes it so exciting.

Benefits of Vista’s WinFS

WinFS liberates the way you group and display data in then new Windows Explorer.  While the storage hierarchy is controlled by the schema, you generate database queries which return logical views.  For example, names, titles or even document thumbnails if you prefer.  I also glimpsed a feature where one picture could represent hundreds of similar pictures.  You would have to try WinFS before you can appreciate the flexibility.  I have to say that while Vista does not, repeat not, have WinFS, you can glimpse the future with the richer information displayed by the new Windows Explorer.

Rather like the change of mindset which came when web-centric thinking replaced file-centric thinking.  Those who have created mount points in Windows 200x will have a head start with WinFS.

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WinFS Technology.

What we have with WinFS is a storage engine built on NTFS, but integrated with a relational database. WinFS is built on Microsoft’s Yukon – SQL 2003 latest version.  NTFS queries SQL which then returns metadata (XML) and (XAML) Extensible application mark-up language).  Databases are great at querying data, we the users can type in search criteria, WinFS responds with a view of that data.  The process is very similar to the ways that relational databases produce views of the underlying rows of data. 

The virtual folders in Vista and Longhorn are precursors of the query results that you see in WinFS.  Naturally, you can save the search / query, and naturally, it refreshes as data is added that meets the criteria.  Yet one more powerful metaphor is the filter.  The WinFS views filter the masses of data to provide just what you need for a particular task.

What will prevent Microsoft ditching drive letters are legacy applications.  If old programs cannot access, C: or D:\ then they would not work, therefore, Microsoft is committed to WinFS supporting those old familiar drive letters.

WinFS in Action

Mad Mick’s memory is bad.  He needs to know whom he is supposed to be visiting today.  Fortunately, all these requests for his services arrive by email and have the date of the proposed meeting.  It would also be useful if the query could find any pictures of his victims, sorry customer.  Mad Mick also needs to retrieve any documents authored by these customers.

To WinFS this task is straight-forward, Mad Mick issues a query that says "visits today"<person> and then WinFS adds a database join statement to search for pictures <person>.  Next, he could extend the query to documents whose <author> = <person>.

The secret is that WinFS stores more than just files. WinFS enables you to define new "item types". Thus in Mick’s example, WinFS creates and stores the item types – mail, contacts, pictures.   Another way of looking at WinFS is as a new Transactional File System layer between the User Interface and NTFS.  Storage engine winfs.exe uses 20MB, a tiny clue to its power and complexity.

WinFS Summary

Simply stated, WinFS is the relational storage subsystem of the future.  When data is stored in this new file system, a user can organize data with a greater flexibility: they can group data according to common characteristics; they can make logical associations between one piece of data and another; or they can create a containment hierarchy to hold data.

When you search for information stored in WinFS, the flexible data organization translates into a richer user experience   Users look for data based on whichever attributes they think of, storage location or by associations with other data. For example, they can search for a document by keyword, author, or title. They can also find documents related to the organizer of a particular symposium. In addition, users can act on the stored data as they see fit. These qualities of WinFS are quantum leap forward compared with the present Windows Explorer storage system.

I only wish that WinFS would work with Vista Beta 1.  Let us hope that WinFS Beta 2 will be ready in Vista Beta 2.

See more on Vista Here

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