Product review: .Net comes to WebSphere Portal

Mainsoft lets .Net developers build WebSphere portlets, and it allows WebSphere to talk to SharePoint, to boot

In the beginning, Mainsoft released Visual MainWin for Java EE, which compiled .Net CIL (Common Intermediate Language) code into Java bytecode. As technically fascinating as that was, on its own it provided limited traction. Much of Microsoft's attractiveness to the enterprise goes beyond its .Net languages and runtime frameworks. It is Microsoft's enterprise applications such as SharePoint and SQL Server that – for many enterprise programmers – make the .Net environment worth using. A tool that simply moves .Net code into Java moves that code out of reach of Microsoft's enterprise applications.

Now comes Mainsoft's Portal Edition and Mainsoft's SharePoint Federator for WebSphere Portal. Mainsoft's Portal Edition turns Visual Studio into a forge for hammering ASP.Net applications into WebSphere Portal portlets. The SharePoint Federator – via a pair of portlet building blocks installed in Visual Studio – endows WebSphere portlets with access to Microsoft SharePoint servers.

By way of example, here an ASP.Net application that reads stock quotes through a Web service is invisibly transformed into a WebSphere portlet. What was a C# application (in the background) executes as a Java portlet (in the foreground).

WebSphere Portal .Net
The overarching goal of Mainsoft Portal Edition is simple: turn an ASP.Net application into a WebSphere portlet. In practice, this amounts to turning an ASP.Net developer into a WebSphere portlet developer. Mainsoft achieves this with neither mental discomfort to the developer nor visual discomfort to the ultimate users of the resulting portlets. For the former, Mainsoft has so skillfully insinuated its portlet SDK into the Visual Studio IDE that developers are insulated from all but the entirely unavoidable technical details of building a WebSphere portlet. For the latter, Mainsoft's SDK fashions all the glue code and meta-information needed so that the final portlet – though hatched from Visual Studio – is visually and behaviorally identical to a portlet built from the get-go in Java.

Install Mainsoft's SDK into Visual Studio 2005, and when you open the IDE, you'll discover a new ASP.Net Portal Application in the project templates dialog. Select this for your project type, and the Mainsoft SDK builds a skeletal portal application – constructing a project folder view, instantiating required resource and configuration files, and building the portal equivalent of a default ASPX Web page – in much the same way that Visual Studio will create the skeletal structure of a new ASP.Net project.

The full content of Visual Studio's controls toolbox – standard controls like buttons and text boxes, data controls like grid views and data lists, and so on – are available as you build your ASP.Net-to-portlet application. To the standard control sets, Mainsoft adds IBM WebSphere Portal Web Forms. This set includes a single control, wpPerson, which is an implementation of the WebSphere Portal's Person tag. Put a wpPerson control into your portlet application, configure an associated user in the control's properties dialog, and at execution time an icon is displayed that corresponds to that person. Click on the icon, and a menu appears, allowing you to do things like determine if the person is online, initiate a chat with the person, send e-mail, and so on.

Once you've populated your portlet's frame with your intended controls, simply select Run from the IDE's menu. Visual Studio will compile your application, and Mainsoft's components will translate the CIL code to Java bytecode, package the results into a .war file, and deploy that to a WebSphere Portal application server for execution. (Another addition to the Visual Studio IDE is an entry on the options menu that allows you to configure the connection information to the target WebSphere Portal.)

And, yes, you can debug the portlet as it executes in WebSphere. Mainsoft instruments the generated bytecode so that lines of C# (or VB.Net) source are properly associated by the debugger to the corresponding Java bytecode. In other words, while you single-step through C# or VB.Net source, it's Java bytecode that's actually being executed. You have to be careful where you set break points. While I was testing this capability, I occasionally caused WebSphere to interpret the paused process as an unavailable portlet.

WebPoint ShareSphere
Where Mainsoft's Portal Edition connects ASP.Net to WebSphere, the SharePoint Federator brings Microsoft's SharePoint into the WebSphere tent. The Federator is more or less a pair of premade portlet templates that are added to the Visual Studio IDE when you install the Federator SDK. (Because the Federator SDK builds WebSphere portlets, to use it you must first install Mainsoft's Portal Edition.)

The two portlet templates are the SharePoint List Viewer portlet and the SharePoint Item Viewer portlet. Put the pair together, and you have what amounts to a database browsing kit, the database in this instance being a SharePoint site. The List Viewer portlet provides a WebDAV-style interface into a SharePoint site's data. It lets you navigate into SharePoint folders and subfolders, and select content within those folders in the same way you would do when normally connected to SharePoint.

Select an individual file – a text document, say – and the Item Viewer comes into play. Though it is called a viewer, it is not limited to simply reading or downloading documents, but operates with SharePoint's check-in/check-out protocols. You can configure the portlet to either download a selected document, or allow the user to work with that document directly on the SharePoint site.

The core engine of the two portlets is the SharePointDataControl. This is an ASP.Net control whose design-time wizard lets you configure the portlets' connection details to a SharePoint server. The wizard also lets you fine-tune how portlets query into the SharePoint data, including which rows and columns are fetched in response to a given user request.

Finally, a critical adjunct of the SharePoint portlets is Mainsoft's Credential Vault Web Control, which can capture a user's SharePoint login information and store it securely in WebSphere Portal's credential vault. Using the Credential Vault Control lets you create a single sign-on experience; when a user signs on to the WebSphere Portal, then activates one of the SharePoint viewer portlets, the user's SharePoint login information is invisibly fetched from the vault. The user is securely logged in to the SharePoint site with no overt action required.

WebSphere portlets, no Java
From the developer's perspective, Mainsoft's technology is attractive mainly because it is so transparent. An ASP.Net developer can create and deploy WebSphere portlets without having to lay so much as an eye on a single clause of Java. Better still, that developer has at his or her disposal all the Web controls that Visual Studio makes available to ordinary ASP.Net applications. Put another way, the developer's skills at ASP.Net are carried into the world of Java and WebSphere, and suffer no real loss in the transition.

Mainsoft is in the process of building a remarkable edifice atop its .Net-to-Java translation technology. The tight integration of Mainsoft's WebSphere Portal and SharePoint Federator tools with Visual Studio lets .Net developers code for entirely new targets, all the while making those new targets look comfortably familiar. As Mainsoft annexes more .Net real estate, it creates a toolset that developers interested in enterprise-wide mashups should acquaint themselves with.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Integration (25.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Portability (25.0%)
Ease of development (25.0%)
Documentation (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Mainsoft Portal Edition 2.1 and SharePoint Federator for WebSphere Portal 2.1 9.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 8.8
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