For Microsoft Azure platform, late is good

The commercial versions of Microsoft Azure services will hit in February, just about the time when more customers are ready to test cloud computing.

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Fear Factor: Microsoft Azure Edition

Microsoft Azure platform, when it makes its commercial debut in February, will be late to the cloud computing party compared to Amazon, Salesforce.com and Google. But it won't be too late, according to developers and solution providers weighing their own move into cloud computing applications.

In fact, some think that Microsoft's tardiness to market may pay off as it has in the past. The company was famously late to graphical user interfaces, Internet browsers, spreadsheets and word processors and went on to dominate all of those categories through sheer perseverance.

Even some Microsoft-centric developers and partners that had blasted the lack of commercially-hosted services from Microsoft just a few months ago, now say that Azure may hit the Web just as a critical mass of customers are finally ready to trust at least some of their information technology processes or data to a cloud of some type.

Luke Wignall, CEO of Denver-based solution provider Common Knowledge Technology LLC, seemed to surprise even himself when he said many small and medium-sized businesses should consider some cloud computing applications. For example, he said a cash-constrained small business would be crazy not to consider something like Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Suite, an amalgam of Microsoft-hosted email and collaboration.

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"Six months ago, I would have said no SMB would consider the cloud, but at $5 [per person] for mail and a 25-gig mailbox, [BPOS is] a no brainer," Wignall said on a recent teleconference of the SearchITChannel.com channel advisory board.

The fact is that most business users have already had a Hotmail or Gmail account and now "get" the notion of outsourcing some functions to a distant provider.

Almost as if on cue, Microsoft on Tuesday said it formed a new group within its Server & Tools Business that incorporates the Windows Azure group. The merged organization is called the Server & Cloud Division (SCD). The Windows Azure development team that had reported to Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie now reports to Bob Muglia, president of the server and tools division. Amitabh Srivastava, head of SCD will report to Muglia. Microsoft sources said the move is a natural progression as the Microsoft Azure platform moves beyond incubation to production stages.

One long-time Oracle partner who downplayed the broad acceptance of cloud computing applications earlier this year said customer receptivity to the model has changed dramatically just in the last few months. He credited that to the largely good word-of-mouth about Salesforce.com's Force.com platform-as-a-service offering.

"I'm seeing a lot of interest from customers that had no interest in cloud computing before. Some of them have tried an application hosted on Force.com or have just talked to others that have. The model works," he said, adding that this credibility is what cloud computing needs to hit the next level.

It also needs its own ecosystem of service implementers, added Mick Gallagher, principle with LST, a Fallbrook, Calif., partner that works with both NetSuite and Oracle.

"I think the dynamics in the industry overall are shifting now that the Accentures, the IBMs, the Deloittes of the world realize how to build a practice around cloud computing. Once they can make money on it, a lot of problems will go away," said Gallagher.

The idea of moving IT spending from a big-bang capital expenditure model to a more palatable operational expense took hold as the recession deepened and will continue to attract IT buyers going forward, Gallagher said.

While Amazon stole the lead with Amazon Web Services, signing on many online merchants and other business customers, Microsoft will be a force here, provided it matches capabilities and pricing, several partners and business users said.

"It's still early for everyone," said the CTO of a large financial services company in the Midwest. Microsoft's well-worn mantra of "software plus services" resonates well with business customers that will continue to run some IT on-premises while also offloading some tasks to the cloud versus the Web-dependent "software as a service" cry of cloud computing trail blazers.

"Microsoft has a good story and an aggressive plan. They can get their share," he added.

Andrew Brust, chief of new technology for 26 New York, an IT consulting company with a strong Microsoft focus, said Amazon offers more OS-agnostic, do-it-yourself services than what Microsoft proposes with Azure.

"Amazon basically offers cloud-hosting instances of virtualized machines that are based on on-premise architectures. That's more straightforward to get to market quickly. Microsoft is actually hosting cloud-tailored services with better stability and protection, easier provisioning and, I believe, fault tolerance," Brust said. "That takes longer to get right but potentially delivers more value and better distinguishes Azure from traditional hosting provider offerings. In the end, I think both models are useful and necessary."

Will the Microsoft Azure platform work well with others?

One remaining concern among developers and possible corporate users is possible Microsoft lock-in with Azure. With Amazon, an application can be developed on the user's tools of choice, run on Amazon infrastructure but then be removed and run on premises as needs change.

Many are still not sure how well Microsoft will facilitate similar moves. At its Professional Developers Conference last month, Microsoft execs demonstrated "Project Sydney" technology that promises secure connection between in-house IT clouds and the Microsoft Azure platform.

And, Srivastava talked up the notion of making user-controlled and customizable Azure data center "containers" available for individual users on the Azure cloud. No timetable was provided.

Robert Shear, president of Greystone Solutions Inc., a Boston-based specialist in e-commerce site development, said Microsoft must balance the interests of millions of legacy users who run its software on premises with a new class of cloud-focused customers.

Project Sydney and private Azure containers will help ameliorate some lock-in concern, but execution, not words, is the issue, Shear said.

"From Day One, when Microsoft said 'software plus services,' I asked everyone there how [they were] going to reconcile with the quarterly or continuous feature roll-out of the cloud with the every-two-or-three-year versions for on-premises software. Every single time I asked, the answer was 'that's a good question,' and they don't know what the answer is yet.'"

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