MS Explains WinFS, Releases Beta 1

Microsoft on Monday surprised MSDN subscribers with an unexpected download: WinFS Beta 1. The company also clarified its plans for the future relational file system technology, which has been the subject of much confusion since the feature was crossed off the list of additions to Windows Vista.

WinFS takes a SQL engine and marries it with NTFS, creating a "file system and relational database in one consistent storage engine," Quentin Clark, Director of Program Management for WinFS, explained to BetaNews. The technology stores metadata for all files on a system to facilitate organization and searching, as well as structured data such as contacts, calendars and more.

WinFS is not built directly on the SQL Server 2005 engine, but does utilize a subset of the same technology, which was then custom tailored for file storage.

The idea, says Clark, is to create a "sea of data" that abolishes the need for the standard file and folder hierarchy. For example, no longer would documents need to be stored in My Documents or images in My Pictures; instead, Windows would simply display the files associated with a particular request on demand.

But such a fundamental change to the structure of Windows requires much preparation, and Microsoft officials admit they bit off more than they could chew when announcing WinFS in 2003.

"We want to take longer to develop this technology," said Clark. "[WinFS] changes the developer platform forever, and we have to be careful about this."

The first beta release of WinFS was designed with that concern in mind. The bits only run on Windows XP in order to get the broadest developer audience possible. Microsoft wants to see developers start building applications and play with the WinFS storage model.

At this early stage, feedback is critical, says Clark. Although the long-term goals for WinFS will remain intact, the technology will be tweaked based on how developers respond. Microsoft plans to offer Windows schemas for storing all sorts of data types, along with synchronization and rich APIs. And those things will likely undergo the most modification as development progresses.

As expected, WinFS Beta 1 will be included in DVDs distributed to attendees at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference next month. "Strong developer feedback is how we get the technology right," said Clark.

Microsoft also confirmed that WinFS will still be in beta when Windows Vista ships in late 2006 and thus will not be built into the operating system. However, because WinFS is scheduled between major Windows releases, the technology will initially be distributed as an add-on - much like the .NET Framework is today.

That means Vista users -- and those still running XP -- can begin taking advantage of WinFS before the next major update to Windows. Clark says a unified data store like WinFS would eventually be an integral part of Windows, but Microsoft feels it is import to deliver the technology as soon as possible.

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