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Microsoft Reaches for the Clouds

Microsoft is giving customers a lot to chew on these days. At its recent Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles, attendees witnessed the first public demonstration of Windows 7, as well as Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie taking the wraps off Microsoft's long-anticipated cloud-computing platform, called Windows Azure. Unexpectedly, Microsoft also demonstrated the next version of Office, which lets workers create and edit files in the Web browser.

For IT decision-makers looking beyond Windows Vista -- or those looking to bypass it (see "So You've Decided to Skip Vista ..." October 2008) -- Windows 7 brings some user interface improvements centered around an integrated task bar that replaces the start menu, quick-launch area and the old task bar for switching windows. The interface also sports views in the new Windows Explorer, called libraries, which bring together any device or directory where data may reside.

On the systems side, Windows 7 includes the same kernel as Windows Server 2008, can run on up to a 256-core system, offers easier setup of networks and printers, and has improved its memory footprint and power management.

Despite these notable improvements, most analysts describe Windows 7 as an incremental upgrade to Vista. "It's more evolutionary then revolutionary," writes Forrester Research Inc. analyst Jeffrey Hammond in an e-mail.

Windows 7 will also offer new APIs for building and running Web services, providing an extensible layer into Azure. A feature-complete beta will appear in the first quarter, says Steven Sinofsky, senior vice president of Microsoft's Windows and Windows Live Engineering Group.

Reaching the Cloud
Meanwhile, Windows Azure is available for beta testing now, but the company isn't saying when it's looking to make these services commercially available. Azure consists of what Microsoft says will be highly scalable iterations of Windows Server running in virtualized data centers. "It will be our highest-scale, highest-availability, most economical and most environmentally sensitive way of hosting services in the cloud," Ozzie said in his keynote address at PDC.

Underneath the core Azure platform will be underlying services that make up the "Web tier" -- known as the Azure Services Platform -- which consists of Microsoft Live Services, .NET Services, SQL Data Services, SharePoint Services and Dynamics CRM Services. Bridging the data center with Azure is a service bus within .NET Services, Ozzie said.

"The service bus lets you connect your on-premises system securely into the cloud -- into the Azure environment -- while allowing your data and information to traverse firewalls," he added.

Prepare for a Long Journey
While many PDC attendees say they find the idea of subscribing to computing infrastructure beyond the confines of the traditional data center intriguing, a lot of them are still grappling with how to move forward.

Case in point: Burak Ozduzen, a software architect with CIM Group Inc., a $4 billion investment-management company based in Los Angeles. Ozduzen likes what he saw at PDC but says Azure isn't a short-term deliverable, so he's not sure what impact it will have. "When the cloud will become a reality [from Microsoft] is unknown," Ozduzen says.

As for when his company would move to such a model, he says the transition will be slow and measured. "The security of the information is critical for us," he adds. "If you think about people pushing their financial data, it has to prove itself, and that's going to take a while."

Analysts say Microsoft has a solid vision for Azure, but warn that this is the beginning of a long-term rollout. "This is a great start, but they have a long way to go," says Tom Bittman, Gartner Inc.'s chief of research on infrastructure and operations. "For example, one of the aspects of cloud computing that's appealing is elasticity -- the ability to grow and shrink very easily." Right now, that elasticity is not an option, he says.

Now that Microsoft has given form to what's coming down the pike, it must do more than execute its product roadmap. "The future of Windows ... will depend on Microsoft's improving customer loyalty, increasing their reliance on cloud-based services and ensuring keystone products are deployed widely," says analyst Rob Enderle of Enderle Group in an e-mail.

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.

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