This week Microsoft revealed its cloud computing cards with "Azure" an infrastructure platform aimed at making applications easier to run and scale via a remote datacentre specialised with Microsoft's server-side tools.
It's too soon to weigh up the technology for real world use yet as licensing, pricing, or timing are details that have been kept mum by Microsoft.
On the surface of what has been announced by Microsoft at the Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles this week, Azure looks technically appealing. Developers, especially .NET developers, will benefit from the plug 'n' play server tools and infrastructure ready to be served up in a whim by the magical Microsoft cloud. Well, that's the theory anyway.
In an unusual twist it seems Microsoft is looking to expand Azure's appeal past its strong core of ISV developers and appeal to coders who use non-MS tools and technology. Interoperability has been hinted in interviews and support for non-MS tools will be supported in the future it seems, albeit via virtual servers and hypervisor technology. Will it woo the Microsoft unfaithful? Will the penguin-cuddling Linux lovers embrace the platform? Will the Java junkies finally give in to Microsoft? Eclipse tools are on the way. Python, Ruby, PHP? If you haven't noticed, Microsoft has made significant steps to woo these developers in this space over the past few years.
While the technical and logistical nightmares that a technology platform like Azure and other cloud services bring to the enterprise space are yet to be ironed out — and won't be for a little while yet — Microsoft's biggest immediate threat is its own reputation.
Companies investigating cloud solutions will need to trust Microsoft with their data and Ray Ozzie knows it. During an interview with CNET News.com Ozzie said:
"Cloud computing is ultimately going to be 'do you trust this provider to have more to lose than I have to lose as a company if they mess me up?' And Microsoft has both the capacity to invest and the willingness to be in that end of a business, and give that kind of a trust assurance to developers and enterprises."
Microsoft bashers aside, the company isn't exactly boasting a great reputation amongst consumers or developers of late. Vista, after all the waiting and hype, was met with a cool reception and has given up market share, though small, to Apple and Linux. What's worse is the large numbers who just refuse to upgrade from XP to Vista, even after they buy new hardware. Even Microsoft seems to be having a bit of a laugh at the schmozzle that was Microsoft Vista. On the second day of the PDC conference, Stephen Sinofsky was introduced to the sound of I can see clearly now [the rain has gone] by Johnny Nash. Presumably the rain was Microsoft Vista?
Security? While the company has improved in the past couple of years, the Softies reputation with its existing products isn't exactly top notch and still lags behind many of its competitors.
Although the full details of Azure have yet to be shown, there's been a mumbling in the Microsoft ISV and partner camp since Monday about this new strategy competing directly with the server-side software and services the company currently sells.
On the sever-side much of the cool kids building Web 2.0 land aren't using Microsoft infrastructure much at all. It's all Mac desktops, Ruby, PHP, Python, Java, MySQL (or similar) and a flavour of *nix as a server. Visual Studio, and its related web tools just isn't the weapon of choice you see when developers show the code to their web projects. Silverlight has made headway this year but still has a long way to go to catch up to Flash and Flex as a platform.
As you can see, Microsoft has a way to go to build that trust amongst its core developer audience as well as convincing a bigger audience to use Azure.
Negative aspects aside, this leaves Microsoft in quite a unique position to not only lift its game with Azure, but also fix some of the inherit problems of various existing cloud solutions, including:
* Technical standards that still aren't clearly defined for cross-platform development and transportation of code
* Knowing where your data is being hosted. Government contracts won't go near a cloud solution unless they know where the data is being stored and what borders it is crossing. (Unless you're the NSW Department of Education or Macquarie University and procure beta software like Google's Gmail)
* Making cloud services global-local. The cost for routing traffic to cloud computers in the US or overseas can be enormous, especially in Australia. Internal email or online applications, for example, will cost hundreds of thousands in extra bandwidth if routed around the world.
With this opportunity Microsoft needs to have trust. Microsoft needs to be the BFG (Big Friendly Giant) of the IT world. The company has the skills, history, and cash to make Azure work but can it deliver?