Conviction and confusion in Microsoft's cloud strategy
With progress comes ambiguity
Microsoft TechEd Microsoft's Windows platform may be under attack from the cloud, but you wouldn't know it here at the company's TechEd in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The conference is a sell-out, with 10,500 attendees mostly on the IT professional side of the industry, in contrast to last year's event in Los Angeles, California, which only attracted around 7,000. Microsoft, too, seems upbeat.
"We are at the cusp of a major transformation in the industry called cloud computing," server and tools president Bob Muglia said as he set the theme of what's emerging as a hybrid strategy.
That strategy involves on-premise servers that still form most of its business, hosted services - Muglia said there are now 40 million customers for hosted Exchange, SharePoint, and Live Meeting - and the delivery of software for partners building their own cloud services.
Despite this diversity, the announcements at TechEd were mostly cloud-related.
Windows Azure itself is now updated with .NET Framework 4.0, and there are new tools for Visual Studio and an updated SDK. The tools are much improved. You can now view the status of your Azure hosted services and get read-only access to Azure data from within the Visual Studio IDE.
Debugging Azure applications is now easier thanks to a feature called IntelliTrace that keeps a configurable log of application state so you can trace errors later. Deployment is now streamlined, and it can now be done directly from the IDE rather than through an Azure portal.
The Azure database service, SQL Azure, has been updated too. It now supports spatial data types and databases up to 50GB, as promised in March. There is also a new preview of an Azure Data Synch Service, which controls synchronising data across multiple datacenters, and a web manager for SQL Server on Azure.
Microsoft AppFabric, a free add-on for Microsoft's web server, is now done. AppFabric has two features which are only loosely related. One is a distributed cache, which lets you scale web sites by caching data across multiple servers. The other is a runtime for workflow applications, and deserves more attention than it gets, not helped by the product's misleading name. Workflow applications with long-running state can be tricky to implement, and AppFabric in conjunction with new tools in Visual Studio 2010 is an interesting and rapid development approach.
Among the remaining news Microsoft announced Exchange 2010 SP1 is in beta and available to download, with the fixes and tweaks announced in April. There was a rundown of features in Office Communication Server 14, which does messaging and conferencing, a new SDK for Bing Maps, news on Microsoft's policies for distributing apps for Windows Phone 7, and news of a coming beta for Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V) - an Enterprise equivalent to Windows 7 XP mode for running legacy applications.
So, does this all mean Microsoft now "gets" the cloud? There was a telling comment in the press briefing for Windows InTune, a cloud service for managing PCs that is aimed at small businesses. Product manager Alex Heaton had been explaining the benefits: easy management of PCs and laptops wherever they are, and a web application that upgrades itself, no need to install service packs or new versions.
In fact, it seemed better than tools in Small Business Server (SBS) that covers the same area. Should SBS users move over?
"It's an interesting question, when should you use the cloud based versus when should you use the on-premise," said Heaton. "The answer is, if you've already got an on-premise infrastructure that already does most of this, you're pretty much good, there's no reason for you to go to a separate infrastructure."
In reality this is not the case. There are strong reasons for small businesses to migrate to cloud-based solutions because keeping a complex on-premise server running sweetly is a burden. Microsoft is heavily invested in on-premise though and disrupting its own business is risky.
The result is a conflicted strategy.
I asked Muglia how cloud computing is affecting Microsoft's business and bottom line. In his answer, he was keen to emphasise the company already has substantial cloud business: "Xbox live is one of the largest paid consumer services in the world."
Muglia added: "Windows Azure is still early days for us, but our expectation is that over time the cloud services will become a very large part of our business."
In my view, the body language has changed. When Microsoft announced Windows Azure in October 2008, it felt as if Microsoft was dragging itself into the cloud business. At the Professional Developers Conference in October 2009, Microsoft announced Azure would open for business in February, but again, it seemed halfhearted, and it was developer platform vice president Scott Guthrie with Silverlight 4.0 who grabbed the limelight.
TechEd New Orleans is different. Muglia understands what is happening and presents Microsoft's cloud platform with conviction. In addition, the engineering side of Azure seems to be working.
Early adopters have expressed frustration with the tools and sometimes the cost, but not the performance or reliability. Despite its conflicted strategy, which the company spins as hybrid, Microsoft's cloud push is finally happening, at least on the server and tools side of the business. ®