In the beginning, there was Microsoft's BackOffice. It was a clearly defined, well-focused suite of server-based programs designed to deliver critical IS functions: file-and-print services (Windows NT Server), database handling (SQL Server), systems management (Systems Management Server--SMS), electronic mail (Mail), and System Network Architecture connectivity (SNA Server). At BackOffice's inception, no other server-based suites were on the market, nor were serious NT-based competitors available for any of the suite's individual products. Microsoft looked at BackOffice, looked at the market, and said, "This is good."

Of course, the definition of the BackOffice suite drifted out of focus almost as soon as it was released. One critical component--Exchange--did not get into the early suite packaging and was grafted onto BackOffice later. Then, just as the suite's outlines sharpened, the Internet craze hit the industry, and suddenly the market demanded Web solutions. In response, Microsoft developed Internet Information Server (IIS) and jammed it into the bulging frame of the BackOffice suite.

When demand for Internet/intranet technology increased, Microsoft responded by developing even more Internet/intranet solutions. As a result, the BackOffice suite continues to grow, so it can encompass Web-based technology such as full-text searching, indexing, Web page replication, and proxy serving. Even as you read this, Microsoft is continuing to pump out Internet/intranet products that inevitably end up in--that's right, you guessed it--the BackOffice suite.

You can draw several conclusions from this history of the BackOffice suite. For example, you can conclude that Microsoft has been quick to adapt to and address the demands of the computer industry. You can also conclude that the contents of the BackOffice suite have been a moving target since day one and will likely remain a moving target for the foreseeable future. More interestingly, you can conclude that BackOffice has moved from being simply a set of traditional IS services to being a set of Internet/intranet services that happen to include traditional IS services. This shift is fairly significant over a relatively short time.

The Netscape View
Now let's look at Netscape SuiteSpot, a suite that headed in the other direction--from the Internet/intranet environment to the traditional IS environment. The cornerstone of Netscape's suite is its highly respectable, highly reliable Web server product, Enterprise Server. So whereas Microsoft built its initial suite around NT Server, Netscape built its suite around Enterprise Server, adding the capabilities of server-side programming (LiveWire Pro), electronic mail (Mail Server), newsgroup handling (News Server), proxy and replication services (Proxy Server), and full-text indexing and searching (Catalog Server). Although Netscape's suite does not provide a separate, standalone database product (like SQL Server), SuiteSpot does include the Informix Online database and hooks to interface with Oracle, Sybase, and Illustra databases.

SuiteSpot reached the market in the summer of 1996, and since then Netscape has continued to revise the suite's contents, just as Microsoft has continued to revise the contents of BackOffice. The most recent additions to SuiteSpot are the Directory Server and Certificate Server. The Directory Server implements an online database of company and personal information (names, phone numbers, email addresses, contact information, etc.). The Certificate Server lets you create, issue, and manage public-key certificates for improved security. So in many ways, SuiteSpot is as much a moving target as BackOffice.

Netscape is planning additional enhancements to SuiteSpot in 1997. Both the Enterprise Server and Proxy Server are undergoing revision, and as you might suspect, Netscape is adding new modules to the suite. At present, Netscape plans to introduce Messaging Server, for standards-based messaging, Collabra Server, for workgroup-based discussion and information sharing, Calendar Server, for managing meetings and calendars online, and Media Server, for delivering high-quality audio. As you can see from this trend, Netscape is trying to push the suite in the direction of corporate-oriented Internet/intranet technology.

In fact, if you step back and look at the Netscape and Microsoft suites from a distance, you can see that Netscape started with the Internet/intranet functions that Microsoft is striving to develop and release today. Microsoft started with traditional IS functions that Netscape is now trying to inject into its suite. Both suites are running from opposite ends of the same track, probably destined for a head-on collision in the market sometime in 1997.

Point of Entry
Although I could fill page after page arguing how both BackOffice and SuiteSpot are similar in intent and can address the same set of data processing problems, the simple fact is that your view of these suites is very much colored by your own orientation. If you come from a traditional IS environment, you probably see BackOffice as a friendly, familiar suite of tools and programs. Conversely, if you come from the Internet/intranet environment, you probably find comfort in Netscape's Internet-proven approach to computing.

Over time, you can expect your perspective to change. One influence will be the growing overlap between the Microsoft and Netscape suites as they continue to pick up similar functions. Sooner or later, differentiating the two suites will be really difficult. Another significant influence will be the stories you'll hear of companies deploying exciting and successful solutions based on each suite. The bottom line is that NT is a fast-paced evolving market, and all you can count on is change. No wonder both suites are such moving targets.