Microsoft gears up for cloud domination

Microsoft will reveal more pieces of its cloud master plan at the upcoming Build conference, but the outlines are already there -- and maybe even a little scary

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As we careen into our cloud future, three behemoths have emerged as the cloud successors to the software titans of yesteryear: Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. All three have invested the necessary billions in infrastructure to earn their cloud leadership positions, though the real returns in revenue are yet to come.

Yet one of these three is not like the others.

Two are cloud natives; one is an old-school software giant crossing the cloud chasm. Only one is a quadruple play, delivering IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS, as well as the on-premises software to build a hybrid cloud.

Yes, strange as it seems, Microsoft is best positioned to serve the cloud needs of conventional business customers. Startups and young businesses native to the cloud (including independent developers) will probably choose the vast resources of AWS or Google Cloud, whereas the emerging No. 4 cloud player, IBM, will probably hang onto many of the mammoth enterprise customers that already depend on it. But the rest? The Microsoft cloud has a good shot, maybe even a great shot, at grabbing their business.

How can this be? One way to parse it is to consider various organizational roles, from developers to users, and match them to cloud services available today and in the future.

Developers, choose your cloud

Let's start with developers since the Microsoft Build developer conference starts two days from now (for a deeper discussion, see "4 ways Microsoft will lure developers deeper into Azure").

The Microsoft Azure cloud crew is smart. It's embraced open source and steadily accumulated services developers can tap into as they build -- still far fewer than Amazon offers, but Azure seems determined to catch up. It's broadened its appeal beyond Microsoft.Net and C++ developers to support Java, PHP, Python, and Node.js. Plus, it keeps adding features to make Web and mobile development easier, such as those bundled in Azure Mobile Services or Azure App Service, the latter announced last month.

But to me, Azure’s most stunning recent achievement is to vault itself into the world of containers, which developers love for dev and test, particularly when building microservices-based applications. Last year Microsoft jumped in with Docker support -- for Linux instances running on Azure, including CoreOS -- and announced that Windows Server would soon incorporate the Docker engine, too. Plus, the company is working on its own native container types: Windows Server Containers and Hyper-V Containers, both of which will debut in the forthcoming version of Windows Server due in 2016.

I’m not the only one convinced that in the not-too-distant future, containers will take the place of VMs in production -- the application portability and more efficient use of resources is irresistible. Not only is Microsoft hip to this, but its recently announced Azure Service Fabric looks to be the most advanced container management and orchestration solution yet.

The Service Fabric SDK will be available at Microsoft Build and run on both Azure and on Windows Server 2012 or later versions -- which leads us to Microsoft's next cloud advantage: Any company with a substantial investment in Windows Server and System Center already has the on-premise foundation for building a Microsoft hybrid cloud once all the pieces are ready.

Luring CIOs with the hybrid cloud

People like me talk about companies of the future getting out of the IT business and ultimately ceding their enterprise computing needs to public cloud providers. But with a few exceptions, IT execs scoff at this idea.

The rejection stems partly from cloud security concerns, which are rather weak if you ask me, considering the sorry state of on-premises security. Regulations regarding where data can and can't be stored may be a showstopper, though, depending on the line of business. More to the point, the idea of creating a total business dependency on a public cloud provider, or even multiple ones, scares the hell out of CIOs. No one believes that interoperability among clouds will prevent the public cloud from posing the ultimate lock-in proposition.

At the same time, CIOs understand the appeal of the public cloud, particularly as a place to build and deploy customer- and partner-facing Web and mobile applications that need to scale on demand. The challenge then becomes integrating on-premises IT with the public cloud -- that is, creating a hybrid cloud.

Microsoft is not only way ahead of Amazon and Google in this regard, but the last two don't even have a play. Going forward, this is a key Microsoft advantage in appealing to a broad swath of businesses. Windows Server and System Center 2012 R2 already provide some capability for IT to manage across local infrastructure and Azure cloud deployments. Plus, Azure Pack -- a free download for Windows Server -- adds private cloud capabilities to clusters of Windows Server boxes and enables easy app migration between private and public Azure clouds.

All signs point to the next version of Windows Server offering more hybrid capability, with Azure Service Fabric as a key enabler.

Cloud convenience for IT

The cloud provides a central point of control to manage all kinds of things, including user identity and devices.

Azure Active Directory integrates with on-premises Active Directory, a linkage enhanced last summer by Azure Active Directory Connect. While the on-premises Active Directory is by far the leading solution for authenticating and authorizing users, Azure Active Directory also provides single sign-on capabilities and integrates with all sorts of Azure services. Of course, a number of competing cloud identity management services offer similar capabilities, including independents such as Okta. But here again, Microsoft has the hybrid advantage of already being embedded on-premises.

By the same token, Microsoft offers both local and Azure versions of Intune, its MDM (mobile device management) and mobile application management offering, which can also manage PCs and laptops. Intune has lagged behind other MDM solutions, but it's catching up. Moreover, as InfoWorld's Galen Gruman has noted, Microsoft recently added a way for IT to manage Office 365 documents on mobile devices -- but you have to run Intune with Office 365 to get that capability.

The user advantage

Office 365 is rapidly replacing Office. True, aside from the Office Online Web apps and the back-end Exchange and SharePoint servers, Office 365 isn’t really SaaS: It’s desktop fatware downloaded from the cloud. Nonetheless, customers buy it via subscription, and you can bet that Office 365 will connect with more and more Azure cloud services as Microsoft has already done with Skype for Business (formerly Lync).

Imagine how this might play out over time. Microsoft’s cloud Hadoop play, Azure HDInsight, uses Excel for its front end. By the some token, Microsoft's cloud-based Power BI recommends "either Office 365 ProPlus or Office 2013 Professional Plus for a complete BI experience." How else might Microsoft enrich Office 365 with cloud services?

Also, when will Microsoft extend beyond its lone enterprise SaaS application, Dynamics CRM? That seems overdue. Microsoft clearly understands SaaS now, so perhaps it's cooking up an architecture that will have all its applications share the same back-end cloud services.

Microsoft's nearest cloud competitors aren't in the same league with applications. AWS simply provides a platform for third parties to deliver SaaS. Google has Google Apps, of course, but I’ve heard nothing about Google Apps becoming the front end for services running on the Google Cloud. That doesn't mean Google won't go there, but the company has always seemed less than serious about delivering SaaS applications that lead the way in business functionality.

Proceed with caution

Broader appeal to developers, hybrid architecture, and historic dominance in office applications will be key to Microsoft's business cloud push, enabling it to lure multiple classes of people in organizations. In particular, don't underestimate the personal relationship Microsoft software has sustained over the decades with users.

The secret sauce may be that Microsoft knows how to "productize" the cloud -- not only with SaaS, but in the ease of use offered to both developers and admins. You'll find that a recurring theme in InfoWorld's comparative review of eight public clouds, plus Martin Heller's recent evaluations of Azure Mobile Services and Azure App Service.

Of course, it always pays to remember that we're only at the start of the cloud era, and others with big investments in cloud infrastructure could build out in similar directions. Also, Microsoft's cloud serenade to non-Microsoft developers and Linux admins may simply fall on deaf ears. When they go to the cloud, it's AWS or Google for them. They remember the old monopolistic Microsoft all too well.

That legacy may be Microsoft's biggest obstacle to its cloud ambitions. Assuming the company can fill the tall order of integrating a multiplicity of initiatives into a coherent cloud, care must be taken, particularly regarding lock-in, lest Microsoft face the sort of backlash it encountered with its failed Hailstorm user identity play 14 years ago. As all the pieces of this complex cloud take shape, we should all watch closely to determine if, in fact, this really is a new Microsoft.

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