Microsoft's software pipeline set to burst

Microsoft's product pipeline will force corporate IT to plan how it wants to deal with the onslaught

If there was one revelation at this week's Microsoft TechEd conference it was that the company's product pipeline is stuffed with new software timed for release in the next seven to 12 months that will force corporate IT to deftly plan and strategize how it wants to deal with the onslaught.

Four of Microsoft's major platforms are queued up to be released near the end of 2009 or early 2010.

Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 R2 and Exchange 2010 are all slated to ship by year-end, as is the company's new identity federation platform, Geneva.

On the heels of all that is another granddaddy Microsoft platform -- Office 2010, which is slated to ship early in 2010 and includes the wildly popular SharePoint Server under the Office product family banner.

Behind that heavy-hitter lineup of software, each one individually capable of providing IT with an upgrade cycle that extends well past 12 months, is a new version of SQL Server and an appliance version of the database for massively parallel processing that will come in the first half of 2010

Users trying to make sense of it all can add to the mix a handful of code-named projects that includes new Application Server technology for Internet Information Server (Dublin); a client console for Forefront security software (Stirling); a distributed cache system for clustering technology (Velocity); and a componentized version of Windows Embedded for devices (Quebec). All that software will be available in late 2009 and throughout 2010.

This week's TechEd agenda was jammed with sessions centered on no fewer than 10 code-named future products.

"In the tech sector there is a lot of planning and strategy going on," says Karen Hobert, principal analyst at Top Dog consulting. "When the dust settles, people may strategize around all this and figure out how to balance cost with operational innovation."

Hobert says the economy is forcing CIOs to take a collective inhale and a wait-and-see attitude. She says IT is doing more strategy and planning these days because gaffes are difficult to overcome.

The Department of Labor's February jobs report statistics show some evidence of that thinking. Technical consulting jobs were up nearly 3% in February 2009 as compared with the same month in 2008.

Other evidence is coming directly, and loudly, from Microsoft, which is offering planning advice that has never been clearer.

At TechEd, keynote presenter Bill Veghte, senior vice president for the Windows business, said companies testing Vista should stop and move to testing Windows 7. The same advice was repeated for users who have not yet moved to Exchange 2007; they were told to skip it and wait for 2010.

The advice is a marked change from Microsoft's typical straddling act in which users are rarely publicly encouraged to abandon one upgrade plan for the impending release of the new version of a product.

"[Microsoft] is being brutally honest," Top Dog's Hobert says.

Users who have sifted through the haze say a strong focus in needed going forward.

John Ritter, IT manager in the School of Business at the University of Vermont, says the school is actively testing Windows 7 in its lab.

"We want to leverage XP Mode for a financial services app we have that doesn't run on Vista," he says, noting that Windows 7 solves a need the school has now.

Ritter says the department has a high tolerance for trying new technology, but that attitude doesn't eliminate strategy.There are also plans to roll out Windows Server 2008 R2 to take advantage of new group policy features that will help with power management and cost cutting. And he says Exchange 2010 is under the microscope because users won't have a migration option and will be forced to do more difficult upgrades when moving from Exchange 2007.

The same issue was on the top of the list for another IT manager from a state government agency who asked that his name not be used.

"We are going to have to carefully plan out the upgrade because we don't have any budget to get another machine, which we would need," he says.

Clearly, with all the software released by Microsoft in the next year, choices will have to be made and the clearest indication of what those choices are could come in July when Microsoft reports its earnings, including the depth of corporate renewals on Enterprise Agreement (EA) contracts. Those volume licensing agreements run for three years and give users licenses for software, most notably Windows and Office. And a significant portion of those contracts historically expire in Microsoft's fiscal fourth (April to June).

With Windows 7 shipping in the next seven months, volume-licensing customers will likely renew EA contracts, which would give users the rights to the new client operating system.

In addition, generally favorable user reviews coming out of TechEd on Windows Server 2008 R2 could lead companies to cover Core Client Access Licenses on their EA contracts. With those client access rights, users would be inclined to look at the new version of Exchange and SharePoint Server 2010.

The results could either be a perfect storm for Microsoft with major product releases carefully planned to coincide with an important milestone in the IT buyer's upgrade cycle, or a roar that falls on nearly deaf ears and severely deflated corporate wallets.

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