Decision Maker

Why the Microsoft 'Cloud-First' Model Changes Everything

The updated releases of new versions of the Windows client and Windows Server are the most obvious evidence yet of Microsoft's new emphasis on moving to shorter product-update cycles. Less obvious is the way in which the company plans to have shorter cycles. What it's doing is what Redmond calls "Cloud First," meaning the company engineers first for its own online services (notably Office 365 and Windows Azure), and then bundles up those changes every year and creates a new product release for us.

This signals significant changes in the company's thinking that have positive implications, the first of which is more-frequent product releases. I find it easier to deal with small changes than revolutionary ones. I'll take frequent, big service packs over infrequent, giant OS releases.

Second is that Microsoft cloud offerings today largely help small and midsize businesses, which are said to comprise about 80 percent of the IT marketplace. I'm not suggesting Office 365 can't handle big enterprises -- Microsoft has several large, high-profile customers using it already -- but I am suggesting it's often easier for a smaller company. A retailer with 1,000 employees can move to Office 365 or other cloud services much more easily than a manufacturer with 50,000 employees. It isn't a big deal for a small bank to move certain systems to Windows Azure -- but it is a big deal for a bank the size of JPMorgan Chase.

Big vs. Small
Smaller companies are typically more tolerant of problems. If e-mail is wonky for a few hours, your local school district of 5,000 employees might be inconvenienced and annoyed but can probably cope with it. Take away e-mail for a 40,000-seat defense contractor and its whole world stops. So the cloud is good for smaller organizations to deploy new things because they can "beta test" with less exposure. (Note that I'm not suggesting Microsoft is deliberately treating its online services as a beta test: Office 365 has been remarkably stable for my company.)

But giant enterprises have massive datacenter investments. They'll use the cloud tactically, but they're going to continue using in-house resources a lot, even if they architect and manage those as a private cloud. Smaller companies tend to have less investment simply because they're smaller, and so it isn't as massive a change for them to push things to the cloud when it makes sense. Smaller companies are, simply put, more flexible.

So it's possible that, as Microsoft thinks "Cloud First," it's really develop­ing features compelling to smaller businesses. That's a change over the last few years when the focus was enterprise, enterprise, enterprise, all day and all night. Of course, the cloud itself is a giant enterprise, so Microsoft is also developing for the ultimate enterprise: Whencloud features get pushed into a public product release, big business still benefits.

Managing More
One of those main benefits is manageability, of course. When Microsoft set out to build Windows Azure, Office 365 and other online services, the company had to think, "Man, our software is tough to manage on a massive scale. We're gonna go broke if we don't fix that." Microsoft is famous for "eating the dogfood," meaning it considers itself its own worst customer. The company uses its own products and experiences any pain in the process, and that motivates it to fix problems. Well, until the cloud, Microsoft hadn't fully experienced the pain of managing a 10,000-server infrastructure running Microsoft products. Now it has -- and we're clearly seeing investment to improve the situation in tools such as Windows PowerShell, System Center and so on.

What does all this mean for you? Whether you choose to move certain functions to the cloud, you're going to see more features that help smaller business -- a return to Microsoft's roots. You're going to see better manageability, provided those small businesses take the time to rebuild their datacenter processes around the new Microsoft management models.

Therein lies an important caution: Rebuild. Microsoft had to rethink manageability for servers, and it had to redo a lot of its own processes and assumptions, in addition to coding software differently. Now that the software is coming around, you're only going to get full advantage if you also morph your management processes to work with the software. That willingness to flex, rather than trying to force the software to do so, is what's going to make IT teams stand apart in the next decade.

About the Author

Don Jones is a 12-year industry veteran, author of more than 45 technology books and an in-demand speaker at industry events worldwide. His broad technological background, combined with his years of managerial-level business experience, make him a sought-after consultant by companies that want to better align their technology resources to their business direction. Jones is a contributor to TechNet Magazine and Redmond, and writes a blog at ConcentratedTech.com.

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