My company is in the final stages of a migration to Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud computing offering. At first brush, Office 365 is essentially hosted email and online versions of Microsoft’s Office software. However, when you delve a bit deeper into the offering, one can also purchase a subscription that includes desktop versions of Microsoft’s ubiquitous Office software, at a price that amounts to less than the cost of individual licenses.

I’ve always suggested that cloud should be about more than saving a few bucks, and for us, Office 365 promises a significant “hassle” savings as it will eventually replace our on-premise server that runs Windows Small Business Server. SBS was generally worry free, save for the bimonthly “ghost in the machine” that would require a couple of days of troubleshooting, time that could have been better spent elsewhere.

I will miss a few features of having a locally administered server. File and print services are now commodities available in big box store NAS units, but SBS offered centralized user administration and access management that’s not easily replaced. This concern brings me to what most interested me from a larger industry perspective as we migrated our network: how hosted infrastructure is now within reach of even the smallest companies, and how it will evolve.

The dawn of the black box

Tools like Office 365 will serve most of basic infrastructure needs for small and medium companies; however, there are still instances when a local server proves beneficial. Network backup, centralized user and computer management, file and printer sharing spring to mind-services that can’t easily be replaced by a cloud equivalent. What would be an interesting replacement would be local hardware that’s remotely administered by a cloud provider.

A reasonable analogy is the cable box provided by your cable or satellite company. It’s essentially a “black box” from a technical perspective: you’re unconcerned about (and prohibited from) managing or maintaining the hardware, and interact with the device through a simplified interface or, in many cases, through an online portal that communicates with the box. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine Microsoft, Google, or Apple shipping a “black box” that a small business plugs into their network, then configures via a simplified web portal. The box could handle file and print services, centralized user management, and even cache OS patches and virus updates, all without the care and feeding one would associate with a standard server.

Microsoft’s Small Business Server seems to have been striving toward a “network in a box” concept, but at the end of the day still requires a full-scale server and the associated maintenance. The box I’m envisioning would likely be about the size of your current cable box, and perhaps be based on solid-state drives and fanless hardware. Rather than a howling rackmount unit, it might sit quietly in a 20-person office, updating its configuration automatically based on changes to the associated cloud account. Microsoft is already making moves in this direction, although it’s still not the computing equivalent of the cable box.

Could this work for the “big boys”?

When one begins scaling to thousands of users, cloud services look less attractive from a financial perspective due to migration costs and the economies of scale that can be accommodated with thousands of users. A remotely-configured “black box” might seem like heresy to the CIO of a large company, but it’s less of a stretch than one might imagine. All manner of single-purpose devices from routers and firewalls to anti-spam “appliances” are migrating toward this model. Most separate the underlying OS and associated configuration from a vendor-provided portal that configures the device. Virtual appliances fit the same mold, and it’s not too big a stretch to envision basic network services following a similar route.

If nothing else, local devices that are centrally managed and configured from the cloud offer a level of flexibility and redundancy that would be appreciated. New branch office? Set them up on your vendor’s cloud portal, have that vendor ship them a “black box,” and moments after they plug it in their local network is up and running.

While cloud computing seems to be the latest and greatest, like most technologies it is not a tool for every problem. For many computing services, local resources still offer benefits, especially when a cloud-based management and configuration philosophy is applied. While we still may be a year or two away from a true “network in a box” product, the major players seem to be making the right moves to get us there.