My reaction to Microsoft’s announcement of its Azure cloud computing platform is: “Good, now it’s safe for corporate IT to embrace cloud computing.” You may be too young to remember when IBM announced its PC (1981). By doing so, IBM validated a customer-driven movement that was already well underway: PCs (of the Apple and TRS 80 and other varieties) were already being used as renegade computers by lead users. Business people were already bringing personal computers into the office or buying them with departmental budgets. They were doing spreadsheets, performing simple calculations, even typing their own memos.
In 1981, IBM ran around in front of this renegade customer parade, pulled together a “platform,” and declared it an industry standard. The PC revolution was legitimized. Cocktail party conversations among IT professionals and corporate execs shifted immediately from “we don’t take PCs seriously” to “we have a PC strategy.”
Microsoft’s Azure announcement will have the same effect. Corporate IT gate-keepers will now acknowledge that they need a “cloud computing strategy” for their applications and their data centers. Again, they’ll be running around in front of a parade that is already well in progress. Small business users, under-the-radar-renegades in enterprise departments, and IT project leads for fast track, low budget projects have been using cloud computing for two years. Microsoft’s validation will enable them to raise their heads, be smug, and show others how it’s done.
Microsoft’s Azure: Not ’til Late 2009, but a Promising Set of MS Architecture and Applications
For many companies, the fact that Microsoft now has a serious cloud computing strategy will help them rationalize their own IT spends on maintaining and managing hardware and software for their enterprises. Cloud computing will supplant or supplement data center computing for corporate utility computing.
Once the Azure platform and its five services (Live — Office and Windows — Services, .Net Services, SQL Services, Sharepoint Services — with Exchange, Dynamics CRM Services) are production-ready, you won’t need to maintain up-to-date versions of all your MS Office applications. You won’t need to host your own MS-powered collaborative sites. You certainly won’t need as many physical servers. You’ll be able to have as many virtual servers as you want, cost effectively (we presume) hosted by Microsoft. You’ll be out of the end-user application maintenance space if you want to be.
Cloud computing a la Microsoft will offer two main benefits: less investment in person power to manage your .Net infrastructure and applications; more opportunities for application innovation, by quickly leveraging services and applications in the cloud. If you’ve already made a big investment in .Net architecture and MS applications for the tools you use to power your business, you should see a much higher return on that investment as the tools themselves become utilities and the networked cloud with its pool of MS-centric developers.
Why Microsoft’s Entry Will Legitimize Cloud Computing
There are already several major Cloud Computing players (Amazon, Google, even IBM) and lots of Software as a Services (SaaS) players (SalesForce.com, etc.). Just about every software company out there now sells their software in a “we host it for you” version. But now that Microsoft has shifted its architecture to dynamic computing and application services in the cloud maintained by us on your behalf, that’s a game changer. Every IT department will begin looking at its IT spend and dividing it into the “let’s use your people and electricity vs. our people and electricity” buckets. Lots of firms use MS applications, email, and collaborative tools to handle most of their day-to-day communication needs. Outsourcing the burden of delivering that service to Microsoft is a no brainer for most companies.
Cloud Computing Won’t Be Web Only!
There’s another reason: Computing belongs in the cloud. This current generation of Ajax- and other forms of rich client interactive gadgets, widgets, and applications (developed using MS Live, Adobe Flash/Flex, Google Gears, Ruby on Rails, etc.) are not Web-bound. They will be good citizens on any devices. When you’re online, they’ll refresh and update themselves. When you’re offline, you’ll be self-sufficient and productive.
In Microsoft’s case, I trust Ray Ozzie to lead Microsoft down the right path when online/offline functionality comes into play. The difference between the current online/offline application services and those Ray used when he designed Lotus Notes are that today’s “live” services are truly cross-platform. Users will be able to move seamlessly between their phones, their PDAs, their laptops, and their TVs and set-top boxes. The applications, services, content, will precede them (not follow), so that we’ll have truly seamless computing.
Don’t Wait for Microsoft; You’re Already Embracing Cloud Computing!
Chances are that you have been using cloud computing without realizing it. If you use many of the popular Web 2.0 applications – Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube, Flickr, BaseCamp, Twitter, Facebook, et al - you’re already using cloud computing. These applications are hosted somewhere, and you don’t care where (somewhere in a compute cloud), on someone else’s computing and networking infrastructure, with reasonable availability, response times, and security at a very low cost to the end-user: They are typically free (building value by attracting users), ad-supported, or less than $10/month, pay-as-you-go model.
My own favorite Cloud Computing supplier is Amazon. That’s because Amazon Web Services’ Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) platform provides utility computing at utility prices and encourages customer-led innovation by the developers who have flocked to Amazon’s low-cost utility computing services.
Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) and Simple Storage System (S3) Are Already Spawning Innovative Applications
Think of EC2 as a virtual, distributed data center in the sky into which you can roll your own virtual computers, software configurations (operating systems, middleware stacks, and applications). Many of the players who have taken advantage of the EC2 infrastructure are Web 2.0 players who are delivering end-user applications and services, like Basecamp, Bing11, Geezeo, DimDim, gumiyo, jamglue, Zoomii, Snapmylife, AdaptiveBlue, Siderean, Podango, Splunk, Ylastic, Everystockphoto, Texty, tagcow, Liveleader. Why spend money to build your own hosting infrastructure when you can pay as you go at low utility computing prices? Most of these players use a combination of Amazon’s S3 (Simple Storage System) to store customers’ data inexpensively and run their applications in Amazon’s EC2 cloud.
Amazon’s EC2 and S3 Are Already Being Used for Corporate Computing. The other developer community that has been taking advantage of Amazon’s Elastic Cloud and the low-cost storage of S3 are enterprise software architects and developers who need a staging area for applications under development. EC2 is a Mecca for prototypes and pre-production applications. You can configure a Virtual Machine, develop your application(s), and run them from Amazon’s Cloud in minutes, without permission from anyone in corporate IT. It’s a virtual sandbox.
Now that Amazon’s Web Services have moved out of Beta status, there are guaranteed service levels and other utilities that make AWS even more attractive for hosting corporate production applications. (It’s interesting to note that the same IT manager who may balk at the scary thought of hosting his own companies’ computing on virtual machines in the Cloud, is probably using AWS-cloud hosted applications throughout his or her day!) And, guess what, you can already run Microsoft applications on EC2!
Use Virtual Private Networks for Serious Cloud Computing
When they think about running “production data center” applications in the cloud, the biggest showstoppers for most corporate IT managers are security concerns as well as reliability concerns. What if someone breaks in? What if the cloud computing is interrupted? My head will roll. The good news is that there is now a set of players offering services that let you have the best of both worlds. Control the security of your cloud computing infrastructure using your own security standards and policies. Provide redundancy and fail-over across multiple cloud vendors or cloud instances. One such offering, introduced last week, is CohesiveFT’s VPN Cubed. “VPN-Cubed is an encrypted virtual private network (VPN), enabling customer-controlled security inside a single cloud, across multiple clouds, and between clouds and private infrastructure.” You can check out the offering here: VPNcubed. (Disclaimer: I’m now on the board of CohesiveFT.)
Want to Get Started Running Microsoft Apps in the Cloud? Use Amazon!
A week or so before Microsoft’s “we will have Azure in a year”
announcement, Amazon’s Web Services team announced Windows on Amazon
Web Services http://aws.amazon.com/windows/