Last week, Microsoft announced the beta availability of WinFS, a new filesystem that bridges the gap between traditional file systems, unstructured data in formats such as email, and traditional databases. Of course, I know what WinFS is because its roots go back to the early days of SQL Server 2000, when Microsoft first started talking about something called SQLFS. Arguably, WinFS traces its conceptual roots to the earliest days of Windows NT (circa 1994), when Microsoft was planning an upgrade called Cairo (which never materialized) that would include an object-oriented file system. WinFS was slated to be part of Longhorn, but Microsoft pulled it from Longhorn release plans last year. Like many people, I assumed that Microsoft had relegated the WinFS to the vaporware backburners for the indefinite future.

I like to think I'm a bit of an insider for SQL Server-related news at Microsoft, so I was surprised to learn last week that WinFS Beta 1 is available to MSDN subscribers and will eventually be available for Vista and possibly Windows XP, as well as Longhorn. (Beta 1 bits work on Windows XP Service Pack 2--SP2--but Microsoft hasn't said what platforms WinFS will support at its release.) I've gotten my hopes up about WinFS; the potential for ground-breaking change in the way we interact with unstructured data through WinFS is so great that I can't help but get a tiny bit excited about a pending release. Microsoft says that WinFS will still be in beta when Vista ships, reciting the company mantra, "It will ship when it's ready."

WinFS is more than "just another new feature." The product truly has the potential to change the way we manage and interact with the vast amount of information that's not stored in a traditional database. A recent blog entry by Shishir Mehrotra, who runs the Microsoft WinFS product-planning team, provides an anecdotal story about how we might use WinFS in the real world. You can read the entire text of this blog entry at http://lists.sqlmag.com/t?ctl=13160:1036D . Mehrotra deftly describes how WinFS uses a query builder and an information model to make an employee's email inbox work more like a relational database--thus making it easier for the employee to efficiently manage her mail. The blog explains WinFS as a "relational filesystem" that lets applications store data that's more complex than a typical file.

Interested in learning more about WinFS? Check out the MSDN WinFS site at http://lists.sqlmag.com/t?ctl=1315E:1036D . MSDN subscribers can download the WinFS beta bits, the URL also offers links to great WinFS resources, including:

  • detailed Channel 9 video interviews with members of the WinFS development team
  • the WinFS team blog area
  • the WinFS newsgroup
  • WinFS creates the potential for entirely new classes of applications that would have been almost impossible to build from the ground up without the platform plumbing that Microsoft now provides.