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The next Microsoft in the cloud computing era is ...

Peering into an Azure yonder

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Analysis Cloud computing lacks both cross-compatibility and standards. Added to vendor lock-in is the possibility of outages, breaches of security or privacy, providers suspending your account, losing data or even going out of business altogether.

A variety of vendor strategies are in play. Apple and Oracle exemplify the proprietary lock-in model, while Google champions open source without truly being open. VMware combines its high-margin virtualisation business with acquired software companies to create a hybrid model that is both proprietary and somewhat open all at once.

Amazon is in an interesting pickle. It had an excellent proprietary offering, AWS, and then along came a cross-compatible open source offering, Eucalyptus. Suddenly it finds itself competing against other proprietary offerings and against other AWS-compatible cloud providers. More interestingly, companies can now build AWS-compatible local clouds.

Against this backdrop, Microsoft's cloud strategy stands out for appearing so poorly defined. On the face of it, it has little unity or corporate cohesiveness. Microsoft's tentacles all seem to be pursuing different and sometimes contradictory strategies. The reality is, however, that Microsoft may have one of the most viable long-term cloud strategies on offer.

Key to this strategy is Azure, its platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offering. Microsoft provides a set of tools upon which developers can create software-as-a-service (Saas) applications and backs it with massively redundant data centre infrastructure. At present there are no other Azure vendors, so if you develop your application for Azure, you would seem as trapped as with any of Microsoft’s competitors.

License to make money

But in typical Microsoft fashion, it’s not quite as simple as that. Azure’s foundations are IIS, SQL, .NET, Hyper-V and so on writ large – old Microsoft technologies grown up and ready for the web. If you don’t like what Microsoft is offering with Azure, you will be able to license its software stack and build your own.

Certainly, if Microsoft doesn’t offer the application you require directly, it would prefer you to use a SaaS application provided by a developer hosting its wares on Azure. Every penny you spend on an in-house systems administrator is a penny that could be spent obtaining services from Microsoft.

Microsoft isn’t short-sighted enough to believe that businesses everywhere will switch immediately to a hosted cloud model. Hosted email is 15 years old and it has been at least seven years since it became reliable enough for enterprise consideration. Despite this, Exchange Server still sells by the bucketload.

Microsoft’s traditional business model is not going away. The company makes billions of dollars licensing software for businesses to install and will continue to generate revenue in this way for a very long time.

Microsoft’s Azure Appliances, which will probably launch next year, are containerised deployments to customers who for regulatory reasons require that no third party hosts their data. These containers will be available only to customers prepared to buy more than 1000 servers. The underlying infrastructure is maintained by Microsoft.

Move it, move it

Microsoft is continuing to integrate Azure into its operating systems, opening the door to a future where your data can move seamlessly between locally hosted applications and those hosted in Microsoft’s cloud. ServiceOS and elements of the Windows Live family promise to offer data portability across networks.

Traditional hosted applications play a part as well. Microsoft offers hosted versions of Exchange (including Forefront), Communicator/Lync, Sharepoint, Dynamics CRM, Office and the newly minted Office 365. The company has also launched Windows Intune, a hosted desktop management service equivalent to Windows Server Update Services and System Center Configuration Manager.

Microsoft is also pulling together a SaaS marketplace. Google’s has proved an excellent way for SaaS developers to market services and no doubt Microsoft’s version will become similarly critical. Perhaps most important of all is Microsoft’s embrace of HTML 5.

Combine all that Azure has to offer with proper HTML 5 application development, ServiceOS and Windows Live, and offer it through a proper marketplace, and you end up with Steam for HTML 5 applications including proper cloudy storage.

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