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Internet Friendly Microsoft unveils WebMatrix Web development suite
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Microsoft unveils WebMatrix Web development suite

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Over the course of last week, Scott Guthrie, vice president of Microsoft's Developer Division, showcased a range of new web development tools that the company is working on. These were a prelude to today's introduction of WebMatrix, a new free web development suite, now available in public beta.

The new product is intended to provide a simple, all-in-one solution for building websites on Windows. It comes with all the parts needed for developing dynamic sites: a web server, a database, a web framework, and a development environment, in a small, streamlined package.

WebMatrix combines the three products revealed last week—IIS Developer Express, SQL Server Compact Edition, and ASP.NET "Razor"—with a new lightweight development environment. The new tool integrates support for these products, to provide streamlined deployment to the development web server, database management, and page creation. To this it adds built-in support for publishing to a range of hosting providers, libraries to automate common tasks, and a repository of open-source web applications that can be downloaded and incorporated into a project automatically.

IIS Developer Express gives developers a standalone version of the IIS 7.5 web server that ships with Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7. Traditionally, ASP.NET developers have had to choose between the convenience of Visual Studio's ASP.NET Development Server, which runs as a regular user account and has easy deployment integration with Visual Studio, but which lacks the full range of IIS's features, or the version of IIS that ships with their version of Windows. For developers on Windows XP this is particularly problematic, as the version that ships with that operating system does not correspond to any "real" server version. With IIS Developer Express, developers can develop against, and test on, a web server that's fully compatible with the full IIS 7.5 server, but which retains the ease of use and convenience of the ASP.NET Development Service.

SQL Server Compact Edition 4 provides a SQL Server-compatible database that requires no installation and which uses regular files to store its data. The database engine itself within the web application; when that is stopped, so is the database. Just as with IIS Developer Edition, this enables development without the use of Administrator accounts or the administrative burden of using "real" SQL Server. Both versions promise the ability to migrate to their respective "regular" versions with no code changes necessary. SQL Server Compact Edition has been around for some years; version 4 marks the first release that's suitable for use in multithreaded server applications.

ASP.NET "Razor" is a new templating language for ASP.NET, designed to be simpler and more streamlined than traditional ASP.NET development. The first release of WebMatrix does not include Razor; it will ship in an update in the coming months.

The WebMatrix development environment ties these things together. Pages can be written using ASP.NET (or, when released, Razor), then deployed to IIS Development Express for testing. WebMatrix can be used to inspect and alter database tables and data. When ready, the project can be deployed using FTP or Microsoft's Web Deploy infrastructure to a production environment or third-party hosting.

This is not the first time Microsoft has used the WebMatrix name; long ago, the company had a similar product named ASP.NET Web Matrix, that offered similar capabilities: back then it was ASP.NET 1.1 and Access databases, but the broad premise was the same. ASP.NET Web Matrix was replaced by Visual Web Developer 2005 Express, a free variant of Visual Studio for web development. Visual Web Developer Express still exists (now up to version 2010), and it is still free. Microsoft is promoting Visual Web Developer Express as more suitable for professional developers and more complex projects—though it can use IIS Developer Express and SQL Server Compact Edition, it doesn't come as a simple, all-in-one package the way WebMatrix does.

The bundle is a neat offering; though aimed at the lower end of the complexity spectrum, it provides all the key pieces that are needed to start web development without any unwanted complexity. Professionals are more likely to be interested in the individual components; IIS Developer Express should be particularly welcome for any developers still stuck on Windows XP, and with SQL Server Compact Edition, developers should now have a robust, embeddable database that is up the task of powering web applications.

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