Foley on Microsoft

Microsoft's Cloud OS Becomes a Little Less Cloudy

Mary Jo Foley gives her take on Microsoft's continual cloud push -- a push that has not always had a clear direction.

Ever since Microsoft first outlined its Cloud OS vision last year, I haven't been a fan.

I sort of understood what the 'Softies were trying to convey with the concept, but just never felt it landed.

Whenever anyone asked me when Microsoft would ship the Cloud OS, I realized I wasn't alone in considering the Cloud OS a murky mess -- if not the latest marketing du jour from Redmond.

Sadly, Microsoft execs are continuing to use the Cloud OS terminology to describe the company's goal of making the same hardware, software, and services available to customers whether they're going the private, public or hosted cloud routes. However, at last month's Microsoft TechEd North America conference, there was a ray of hope for those of us who are confused and conflicted about the Cloud OS. At the June confab -- which included more OS and server sessions than Office or developer ones than any TechEd I can remember -- Microsoft officials also floated some new thinking about the cloud that could make Redmond's plans more understandable.

Microsoft is continuing to try to mirror the server, kernel and processes that it sells today on the Windows Server side of the house with Windows Azure. The complement to the server OS kernel is the Windows Azure Fabric Controller. And apps like SQL Server or BizTalk Server can run on Windows Azure, either in the form of dedicated services like SQL Azure and BizTalk Services, or on top of the persistent Linux and Windows Server VMs that are available on Windows Azure.

But the company is starting to go beyond simply offering two parallel stacks of technologies. The new wrinkle is that Microsoft is offering services providers (as well as tech-savvy enterprise users) the option of adding some Windows Azure services to their Windows Server setups. Microsoft officials hinted this would be coming last summer when they announced the ungainly named Windows Azure Services for Windows Server offering, which, at that time, was for hosting companies only. At TechEd, Microsoft announced the successor to Windows Azure Services for Windows Server: Windows Azure Pack.

"The Windows Azure Pack delivers Windows Azure technologies for you to run inside your datacenter, enabling you to offer rich, self-service, multi-tenant services that are consistent with Windows Azure," Microsoft explains on its Web site describing the new offering. The specific services that hosters and enterprise customers can add to their Windows Server-based datacenters include a management portal, a service-management programming interface, a Web sites service, a VM service (for running Linux and Windows Server in VMs), and Service Bus support.

The Windows Azure Pack is the closest customers are going to get to Microsoft's unrequited promise of being able to run a Windows Azure-based datacenter inside their own corporate walls. Now users' private clouds are "Windows Azure-powered," even though, technically, the users are not running the Windows Azure OS itself.

Microsoft officials in April said there are 200,000 Windows Azure customers, with no word on how many of these are paying, non-Microsoft-employed users. At TechEd, company officials made it clear that Microsoft's decision to go head-to-head against Amazon by adding Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) components, such as the aforementioned Linux and Windows Server VMs, was bringing in even more of the cloud-curious. Before Microsoft made available these VMs -- where users can run their existing apps, basically unchanged, on Windows Azure -- about 3,000 customers were signing up for Windows Azure per week. Now 7,000 customers are signing up every week, according to the 'Softies.

Will IT decision makers buy in? That's the billion-dollar question. But given Microsoft is claiming that Windows Azure is now one of its billion-dollar businesses, the answer would appear to be yes.

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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