Microsoft's Roadmap for 2012 Charted by Analyst Firm

Consultancy firm Directions on Microsoft has outlined expectations for Microsoft's product roadmap in 2012 and beyond.

In a Webinar conducted on Thursday, Rob Helm, managing vice president at Directions on Microsoft, described a rough timeline for Microsoft's emerging products and services. He specifically touched on Microsoft's cloud platform (Windows Azure, along with System Center 2012), mobile devices platform (including Windows 8), and business intelligence (SQL Server 2012) segments. Despite its name, Directions on Microsoft isn't affiliated with Microsoft, although many of its analysts formerly worked at the company.

Helm said that in 2012, we should see Microsoft rolling out System Center 2012, Windows 8 and Windows Server 8 products (see chart). However, Windows Server 8 may arrive later than the client. Helm explained that "we don't think that Windows Server 8 is tied to the client release."

Directions on Microsoft 2012 Predictions
[Click on image for larger view.]
Roadmap predictions for this year. Shaded rectangles represent products not yet released. Source: Directions on Microsoft roadmap briefing, Jan. 26, 2012.

Cloud Expectations
Helm described Microsoft's cloud platforms as centering on software and services for running apps in large-scale datacenters, both public and private. Motivations for organizations to move to the cloud include cost, as well as gaining access new hardware and automating processes.

On the private cloud side, Microsoft's vision is Windows Server 2008 plus System Center 2012. Helm said that many organizations with private clouds use VMware's hypervisor for virtualization rather than Microsoft Hyper-V hypervisor, but those using VMware products may also rely on Microsoft System Center for management.

On the public cloud side, there's Windows Azure, hosted by Microsoft. Windows Azure offers some unique capabilities for organizations to tap, but it doesn't use System Center right now, Helm said. Instead, it has its own management solution called the Windows Azure Fabric.

The two cloud platforms, as represented by Windows Azure and Windows Server, will likely get closer, according to Helm.

"In the endgame, two to four years out, I expect their [Microsoft's] unified platform that private datacenters and partner-hosted datacenters will be able to host, as well as Microsoft datacenters. But I think that's going to take a couple of successive releases of both Azure and Windows Server," he said during the Webinar.

Windows Azure may get two important updates in 2012 around the time of the April Microsoft Management Summit. The updates will be designed to help port Windows Server apps to Windows Azure with less cost. The first update is associated with "VM roles," allowing customers to take virtual machines and put them on Windows Azure. The second update may relate to Server App-V, which "will allow Windows Azure to run Windows service components and various other kinds of Windows service components that it can't run today," Helm said.

In general, Microsoft is moving more toward hosting its software products on the Windows Azure platform.

"In the second half of 2012, I'd expect to see one or more Microsoft products being run for paying customers on top of Windows Azure. That's not the case today," Helm said.

For instance, Helm noted that Office 365 (a collection of hosted Microsoft applications) does not currently run on Windows Azure. Another case is Microsoft Dynamics NAV, an enterprise resource planning application. Helm predicted that Dynamics NAV might be seen running on Windows Azure "in second half of 2012."

In response to a question, Helm said that Office 365 gets updated on a quarterly basis. It tends to get "service pack" updates on a once-a-year basis. Major Office 365 releases that introduce new suite components will continue to arrive in three-year product wave cycles, with the next one possibly arriving in late 2013. Dynamics CRM has been the only product where the online and on-premises releases have coincided, he noted.

System Center 2012
Every product in the System Center 2012 suite will get a major update, but the most important changes will be found in Virtual Machine Manager. The entire System Center 2012 product line will be sold as a single suite when released in 2012. Currently the products are available at the release candidate stage. Helm said that we might see System Center 2012 released as a final product, "probably by April." It's expected to happen near the time of the Microsoft Management Summit.

System Center will gain greater reach into Windows Azure, Helm predicted. He noted that Virtual Machine Manager 2012 already can manage some Windows Azure resources. In addition, some Windows Server capabilities will grow closer to Windows Azure.

"I think Windows Server will eventually gain the capability to run Windows Azure's unique services for storage, authentication and so on," Helm said.

System Center 2012 licensing has been reworked so that organizations will only be able to buy licensing for the whole suite, but individual product licenses will continue to be available for the older products for 12 months out, Helm said. Licensing for the System Center 2012 suite will require Software Assurance (SA). Organizations will have to commit to two or three years of SA licensing to use the new suite. For those wanting buy into System Center 2012, it will be a much bigger financial commitment to consider. Those organizations using System Center products piecemeal without SA will have to consider making a big step if they want to move to System Center 2012.

In general, Helm said that Microsoft is getting more liberal with its licensing, but the trend is that it's tied to having SA subscriptions in place.

In response to a question, Helm explained that up to now with System Center, organizations have needed Management licenses (MLs) and Infrastructure licenses. With System Center 2012, the Infrastructure licensing is eliminated but MLs remain. The two System Center 2012 ML licensing options will require SA over a period from two years to three years, and the licensing is based per processor. Pricing for the cloud has gone up 35 percent to 40 percent, but pricing for the non-virtualized cloud case has gone down 10 percent to 15 percent, he added.

Organizations that want to use System Center 2012 will get the whole suite. For instance, if an organization already has a System Center Configuration Manager ML [with SA], that translates into gaining access rights to entire suite ML for organizations that upgrade. For organizations already covered by SA, this transition will be relatively painless until the SA payments reset.

Helm cautioned that Directions on Microsoft has not seen the final licensing language for System Center 2012. It comes out in March, so the final licensing ramifications can't be determined until then.

Helm was also asked if the System Center 2012 Standard license would be supported by license mobility. Helm said he didn't know and that the answer would await the release of final licensing language. Microsoft's license mobility program is for Volume Licensing customers with SA, allowing them to leverage the value of some of their on-premises licenses when migrating to cloud services.

Mobile Devices and Windows 8
With the consumerization of IT trend, tablets increasingly are seen as targets for running corporate applications, Helm said. However, to get there, tablets will have to become "good corporate citizens."

Windows 7 is Microsoft's current client OS for tablets, but the tablets on the market running it tend to lag in providing good battery lifetimes, Helm said. Microsoft's tablet strategy used to be based on the Window CE OS, which was designed for low- power, touch-enabled cell phone use.

One key element of Microsoft's mobile platform strategy is Active Sync, which is implemented across almost all non-Microsoft-OS mobile devices out there. Active Sync is designed to help coordinate data but it also can be used to locate devices that are lost or stolen.

Windows 8 will be the next client release of Windows for PCs, but it's also designed for tablets. Windows 8 features the Metro user interface, the Windows Runtime for programming applications and some improvements for mobile broadband network access, Helm said. He predicted that we will see some sort of touch interface for Microsoft Office on Windows 8 tablets.

The best-case delivery time for Windows 8 is late 2012, according to Directions on Microsoft analyst Michael Cherry. However, Windows 8 could arrive as late as late sometime in 2013, possibly in the first quarter. Helm said that a "beta" of Windows 8 will be coming at the end of February. Veteran Microsoft observer Mary Jo Foley has noted that Microsoft plans to call this release a "consumer preview" rather than a beta, but it's not clear what Microsoft means by that nomenclature.

Windows Phone could eventually move off the Windows CE kernel, Helm said. He suggested that Windows 8 might show up for use on high-end smartphones. System Center Configuration Manager 2012 will have some ability to control mobile devices through Exchange Active Sync, Helm said. Windows Server will gain the ability to manage encryption of data on mobile devices sometime between now and 2014, he added, possibly using something like Active Directory rights management. Something like that will be possible for Android and Apple device platforms too in "the next couple of years," Helm said. Beyond 2014, System Center products will be able to control and update applications on mobile devices, possibly starting with Windows 8 on smartphones, he added.

In response to a question, Helm suggested that Microsoft will add support for BI in Android and Apple clients in late 2012. In general, Microsoft's mobile BI strategy will be centered on its PowerPivot technology and not on online analytical processing (OLAP) technology, Helm explained.

Microsoft recently reviewed its efforts to get BI on the iPad, which appears to be a work in progress or an effort that will get better support through the Microsoft partner community.

Business Intelligence and SQL Server 2012
Business intelligence (BI) is a catch-all term to describe how a business is doing in terms of sales, internal processes and targeting using its hard data sources. The aim is to make better business decisions, Helm explained. Microsoft delivers its BI capabilities via SQL Server and its PowerPivot family of technologies.

The value of Microsoft's BI concept is in allowing groups within an organization to tap corporate data without having to consult the IT department for access. BI models can be built by experts using Excel. The expert constructs a specialized analysis database and publishes it using SharePoint Server. SharePoint handles the problem of having to update the analysis database and SQL Server is used to manage it. Helm added that PowerPivot will work with other relational database management systems, such as those from Oracle and IBM.

PowerPivot helps with modeling using Excel. In late 2012 and early 2013, there may PowerPivot support for Android and Apple mobile clients, and for Windows 8 clients when that OS is released, according to Helm. Microsoft also has a PowerView feature that will allow SharePoint users to design their own reports using just a browser.

These Microsoft BI technologies are not available on Microsoft-hosted systems such as the Office 365 suite. Helm said that this situation may change by 2013, possibly near the time when the next major release of SharePoint is available.

SQL Server 2012 is getting a major overhaul in terms of licensing. Organizations wanting to use PowerPivot previously had to have the Enterprise edition licensing of SQL Server. However, that option is getting replaced. There will be a new BI edition, licensed on a Server Client Access License (CAL) basis, that will replace the Enterprise edition, Helm explained.

SQL Server 2012 licensing will move to a per core basis, instead of a per physical processing socket basis. There may not be a cost impact to that change because of the way servers are sold today, Helm said. Organizations can license the software on a CALs basis, but the cost has gone up 27 percent, Helm added. Some the SQL Server 2012 rights are less generous. For instance, some virtualization benefits in SQL Server 2012 will be linked to SA licensing. To use PowerPivot for BI, an organization needs to license Excel, SharePoint and SQL Server with CALs. Consequently, suites with Enterprise CALs can look good by comparison, but they also entail an SA cost.

Microsoft recently announced that it will initiate a March 7 "launch event" for SQL Server 2012. That date might not be the time when the product is released. However, Helm appeared to accept it as such. He said that the PowerPivot BI capabilities would be available at that time.

Other Product Milestones
In a Q&A session, Helm provided a few more predictions about Microsoft's product roadmap. On Exchange, he said that the product's direction mostly will be determined by the cloud version. For instance, he predicted that the next Exchange product release would be designed to handle larger multitenant installations. Exchange has its own product release schedule that is not tied to the Microsoft Office releases. Helm predicted that the next version of Exchange might be released sometime in 2013.

Microsoft is planning to host Hadoop on Windows Azure, enabling big data capabilities. Helm said that Microsoft plans to look at Hadoop-style capabilities more generally for its SQL Server product line. Microsoft is going to rethink its platform in SQL Server given the success of Hadoop, he explained.

With regard to Lync, Microsoft's unified communications product, Helm said there will be a hands-off integration with the Skype voice-over-IP solution, possibly happening sometime in 2013. He said that the integration might start out with just presence and instant messaging at first.

Microsoft Forefront, which is a suite of enterprise security solutions, will get new releases sometime in 2013, Helm predicted.

Helm replied to a question about the cloud computing market by stating that Amazon's and Microsoft's capabilities are fundamentally converging. Amazon offers platform-as-a-service storage that is almost identical to Microsoft's hosted storage, he said, adding that "I think you'll gradually see Amazon Web Services and Azure converge in terms of their capabilities."

In response to a question on social networking, Helm said that SharePoint's next-generation social computing behavior will be similar to Facebook. Content management will be integrated more fundamentally into social computing. Social computing integration is already being seen with Windows Phone. He predicted something like the Windows Phone people hub appearing in the Windows 8 client.

More Resources
Directions on Microsoft is ramping up for the next release of its Microsoft enterprise software roadmap publication, which is issued quarterly to subscribers and provides greater detail than the Webinar session. The consultancy also plans to publish a study specifically on SQL Server 2012 that is planned for release next month.

Experts at Directions on Microsoft also go into the field to help to the general public understand Microsoft's licensing. The group's next "licensing boot camp" is scheduled for February 21 and 22 in San Diego, but registration closes on February 7. The company also publishes licensing guides.


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