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CTO says adding .NET doesn't mean dropping VB

At the recent LOMA Emerging Technology Conference, the CTO of Nationwide Insurance discussed his company's ongoing .NET implementation. Though he's learned many lessons, perhaps most important among them is that implementing .NET doesn't always mean abandoning Visual Basic.

BOSTON -- Many enterprises using technology from Microsoft Corp. have long feared that implementing Microsoft .NET, the software giant's next-generation development framework, would mean undergoing the lengthy and expensive process of retraining experienced Visual Basic developers.

But at the recent LOMA Emerging Technology Conference for insurance and financial services professionals, the chief technology officer for Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. said his company is successfully implementing .NET technology without abandoning VB.

Even though Microsoft is encouraging .NET adopters also to begin using C#, its newest development language, Nationwide's Tracy Smith told attendees that he was reluctant to do so, despite his company's $400 million IT budget. Most of Nationwide's 600 developers were already well versed in C++ or VB, and ultimately the company decided that those languages were more than adequate.

"If we had had no foundation in VB, I would have moved to C#," Smith said. "But given our experience, it made no sense to do that. We already had hundreds of people who knew VB."

Yet Smith said the move to .NET has had wide-ranging implications beyond the decision of whether to continue using VB. "The shift to .NET is not about the shift of languages," he said. "It forces you to change everything."

That "everything" refers to his company's entire development paradigm. Prior to beginning its .NET implementation in early 2001, Nationwide developed applications one by one. Developers didn't reuse components; programming teams built whatever they needed from scratch.

With .NET, all that changed. Nationwide devoted a small team of developers to building .NET shared components -- common user interface, business logic and data access elements -- that could be built once and used over and over in new applications.

"It was like having 21 teams of builders who all build custom houses with their own architects, and then having all of them build model homes from the same building plan," Smith said.

The new development method not only saved time, but it also enabled developers to customize applications with greater ease. By using standardized application components, they were able to focus more closely on customized features, essentially reducing the risk of building an application that fails to perform as intended.

But the new way to build applications -- assembling pre-built components instead of developing from the ground up -- isn't always easy for developers to adjust to. In fact, Smith said his developers had to learn not to do too much.

"It's critical that the applications are designed not to do certain things, so that certain tasks can be done by shared nodes," such as Web application servers or Web services, he said.

Mark Billian, an IT manager with National Life Insurance Co. in Montpelier, Vt., largely agreed with Smith, saying .NET is "an opportunity to change the way we think about development." He said his company, which is preparing to migrate to .NET next year, is looking forward to creating a reusable architecture in which layers are segregated and shared components make the development more efficient.


Read why VB faces an uncertain future in a .NET world

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