At a press briefing this week, Microsoft COO Kevin Turner put some meat on the bones of Microsoft's "software plus services" strategy to deliver cloud computing capabilities to customers. Turner reviewed Microsoft's current on-demand offerings -- mainly Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online, plus hosted versions of Exchange and SharePoint -- but also revealed that major new announcements would follow at the Microsoft Partner Conference in early July.
Microsoft's near-term cloud focus
When asked whether Microsoft plans to offer a development platform in the cloud, Turner grinned and said pointedly: "We are not announcing anything today." Given the strength of Microsoft's developer base, and the recent announcement of Google App Engine as a cloud-based development platform, Microsoft has every incentive to launch a hosted platform for developing Web applications as soon as possible.
[ As Microsoft and other vendors reveal new services, the platform lock-in game moves to the cloud, thereby bringing an entirely new set of risks for customers. But there's a right way -- and a wrong way -- to plan for such lock-in. ]
Much talk was devoted to which enterprise servers and applications would be offered on demand either by Microsoft or its partners. Turner put special emphasis on SharePoint, which as a collaboration tool is well suited to deployment in the cloud, and as a portal platform offers the potential to wrap enterprise, desktop, and Web apps into a unified user interface.
Hosted desktop virtualization in the cards
And what of desktop virtualization, where Microsoft could host entire desktop environments for customers? "Most large customers would give us their desktops today and say, 'You go ahead and manage them,'" said Turner, who acknowledged that Microsoft already has desktop virtualization pilot programs in place with a few select customers. At this point, he said, Microsoft is gathering feedback and "looking hard" at this area, with no timeframe for commercial availability. He agreed, though, that Microsoft's combination of desktop and Dynamics enterprise apps puts the company in a unique position to provide fully integrated application environments to customers via desktop virtualization.
Tim O'Brien, senior director of Microsoft platforms, provided additional detail, noting that Microsoft is looking at on-demand versions of a whole range of software, including identity management. If Microsoft plans to go down that road again, what had it learned from the Hailstorm debacle years ago? "We should have offered customers a choice of where they wanted to put data about themselves, instead of trying to maintain all of it."
Choice is the Microsoft mantra when it comes to software plus services. If customers want locally installed software, Microsoft will provide it as it always has. If they want a customized, on-demand suite of applications hosted by a Microsoft partner, they should have that choice, too. And if they want software as a service hosted by Microsoft, the company is rearchitecting Exchange, SharePoint, Office Communications Server, and other software for multitenancy.
For the latter purpose, Microsoft is creating its own massive datacenter facilities "you can see from space," says O'Brien -- in Texas, Illinois, Ireland, and other locations.
At long last, Microsoft's commitment to on-demand computing seems very real. "If you're going to go in, you'd better get all in," O'Brien said.