Microsoft's 2010 task: Make the cloud clear

articulate to corporate IT pros just how and why they want to live in a cloud

For Microsoft, 2010 is a platform building and marketing year with no less than the future success of its cloud strategy hanging in the balance, according to observers.

Experts say Microsoft's charge is not only to begin developing and delivering technology that will define its external, internal and hybrid cloud environments, but to clearly articulate to an overwhelming majority of corporate IT pros just how and why they want to live in a cloud.

In addition, there will have to be answers to questions around such issues as security, compliance and performance from those very users.

"In terms of the cloud, it is important for Microsoft to be on the right trajectory, it's not necessarily important to their business from a revenue standpoint to capture lots of revenue out of cloud in the next 24 months," says Al Gillen, program vice president for system software at IDC. "But if they don't get in line to compete, they put themselves at a significant risk of being not there when real money starts to get spent in this space."

Lining up that trajectory will dominate 2010, as Microsoft clearly has work to do across its product line to define the cloud as part of its software-plus-services and three-screens-and-a-cloud strategies.

"Our initial focus was to make it as easy for the new applications coming in [to the cloud]," said Amitabh Srivastava, senior vice president of Microsoft's new Server and Cloud division, referring to the work he has overseen on the Azure cloud platform. Srivastava, who spoke to Network World at Microsoft's November PDC conference said, "The shift you are seeing now is where our head is going. And one place is to go after legacy apps, we have to move those to the cloud."

It is there, experts say, where the major building project will get tough.

"We are talking about a large shift across the product line," says Frank Gillett, vice president and principal analyst with Forrester Research. A year ago, Microsoft said all its enterprise software would eventually be offered as a service. "So 2010 is just simply a building year to begin to get that integration among the products of software plus services. That is a lot of work."

Evidence of such work came Dec. 8, when Microsoft announced it was creating a Server and Cloud division by integrating its Windows Azure group into its Server and Tools business unit, an alignment that speaks not only to integrating the infrastructure and development tools, but a harbinger to integration that will come across Microsoft's software portfolio.The new division aligns technologies introduced in November at the company's annual Professional Developers Conference (PDC), where Microsoft showed its goal is to supply tools, middleware and services so users can run applications that span corporate and cloud networks, especially those built on top of the Azure cloud operating system.  

That PDC lineup was dominated by new technologies such as Sydney (virtual networks), AppFabric (an application server layer), Next Generation Active Directory, System Center "Cloud" management tools, and updates to the .Net Framework, all of which provide bridges between corporate networks and cloud services.

But as validation to the building effort Microsoft faces, only a small portion of that software is available now. The majority will launch initial beta cycles in 2010. And Gillett adds that Azure and Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Services (BPOS), which includes Exchange and SharePoint, are in their first versions and will take several years to mature.

"The challenge for Microsoft is how they talk about their online services without using the cloud word because the cloud word will get people just thinking about Azure," Gillett says. "What they want people to think about is the full spectrum of things Microsoft can do for people as a service. Their danger right now is that Azure equals cloud."

Educating those users is precisely the other hurdle Microsoft will have to start negotiating in 2010, according to Andi Mann, vice president at Enterprise Management Associates.

"I think for Microsoft in 2010 the cloud is going to be more important from a marketing and positioning perspective than an actual use case," says Mann, who at the end of the month will publish a report entitled "The Responsible Cloud" that looks at drivers, adoption patterns, management, security and other areas.

Mann says the report shows that across all enterprises, adoption of cloud computing is 11%. "That is really quite small," he says.

His data also shows that only 16% of those who have adopted cloud computing, or will within 12 months, will go solely with an off-premises model. But 50% of those respondents will go with a mixture on both on-premises and off premises.

Mann says the cloud computing model that is least popular with users is platform-as-a-cloud that Azure represents. The most popular is software-as-a-service, represented for Microsoft by BPOS, and infrastructure as a service, represented by SQL Azure and integration technology.

It is that last area that will represent much of Microsoft's building in 2010.

Project Sydney, which was introduced as a concept at PDC, creates a sort of virtual network that ties together pieces of an application or processes running in various places so they all look like one logical system. AppFabric is an application server layer, which includes hosting and caching technologies, that spans the cloud and internal servers so developers have a single, consistent environment for .Net applications. Visual Studio 2010 will include templates that allow movement of cloud applications between hosted and internal networks. System Center "Cloud" management tools that go into beta in 2010 will provide a unified console for managing on-premises and cloud assets in the same way.

"Lots of applications will be split between cloud and IT or multiple places and we want to have bridging technologies and we are going to provide these services or tools or various ways to help you partition your app in any way you want," Microsoft's Srivastava says. He cited Sydney as an example along with AppFabric and its access control and service bus features.The building, however, won't all be original work. On Dec. 11, Microsoft bought Opalis, which develops IT automation technology, and will use it to extend its System Center tools across corporate networks and the cloud.

The list represents only a handful of what is likely needed to connect internal IT systems with the cloud and do it in a secure and managed way to support mission-critical applications.

"The full dimensions of the problems will develop over time as organizations step into the cloud," says Ray Valdes, an analyst with Gartner.

EMA's Mann says couple all that with the fact that "IT never gets rid of anything" and you have a situation where "IT is not going to move to the cloud, they are going to add the cloud to what they have."

And how IT can go about doing that will be Microsoft's challenge. The clock begins ticking louder in 2010.

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