Microsoft this week unveiled something many of its customers have been waiting for: help in getting them into cloud computing -- hybrid cloud computing, to be exact. Whether large enterprises or small business, it's going to become easier to make use of auxiliary cloud services through standard Windows Server management.
Businesses that have been reluctant to get the cloud journey underway on their own -- not enough IT staff, no budget for off-premises public cloud use -- can now turn to the familiar Windows Server and System Center, the Windows Server systems management console, and find an embedded roadmap to the cloud. The enhancements will be found in the 2012 Release 2 versions of each, which become available Oct. 18.
Some people thought Microsoft's naming of its Windows Azure cloud services meant that Windows was now in the cloud. In fact, it's the other way around. It means the Azure cloud will soon be in Windows, the server operating system already occupying 70% of the data center floor, in many cases.
And the Azure service pack that will sit on top of Windows Server and Microsoft System Center is itself not just a set of stray code modules but what Microsoft likes to call "a cloud operating system" that works in conjunction with Windows in the data center.
[ Want to learn more about System Center's evolution toward hybrid cloud? See Microsoft Enhances System Center For Hybrid Cloud. ]
"Azure is a new operating system, designed not just for our cloud, but for anybody to build a cloud with," said Satya Nadella, Microsoft's executive VP for cloud and enterprise. In other words, customers who want to build out a private cloud on premises come Oct. 18 will have the tools and familiar management console with which to do so. The Azure modules working as part of Windows Server and System Center will automatically be able to connect to one or more of the 13 major Azure data centers worldwide.
Nadella made the announcements while fending off questions about whether he was under consideration as Microsoft's next CEO. He chose as his setting the modern, open San Francisco offices of Yammer, an online enterprise social networking service, which Microsoft acquired for $1.2 billion in July 2012.
The CEO question wasn't entirely apocryphal. Each time Nadella has spoken publicly over the last three years, he's spoken directly and intelligently. Beneath his pattern of speech is an undaunted habit of positive expression that plows through audiences and critics alike as if there were nothing to worry about. The combination seems both relentless and able to shed a clear light on a given subject in what might be otherwise drab circumstances. Nadella's answer to the question, by the way, was that the Microsoft board is looking for a CEO and Steve Ballmer is still hard at work in the CEO's office. "I'm excited about my [current] job and that's all I'm going to say about that."
Azure modules that generate Hyper-V virtual servers balance workloads, maintain automated operations and move workloads (around the local data center or to a remote data center) will sit as a service pack on top of Windows Server and System Center. Through their use, the Windows Server administrator will use the System Center management console to move into the unfamiliar territory of hybrid cloud computing.
Nadella claimed that Microsoft is better suited to serve as a foundation for hybrid cloud computing than competing vendors not just because it can supply the Azure code for the two environments, but also because customers may also use the familiar tools to build cloud applications. Visual Studio 2013 and .Net 4.5.1, also available Oct. 18, are updated versions designed to supply applications that take advantage of single sign-on, cloud-based Active Directory, load balancing and elastic scaling.
Microsoft is in an unusually strong position to make the claim. Azure started as platform-as-a-service in 2010 -- a cloud environment aimed at developers -- and didn't move into general availability infrastructure-as-a-service until April 2013. Microsoft's Visual Studio will bring lifecycle management capabilities to cloud app development. Software going into production is getting modified, retested and relaunched more frequently than it used to be, and lifecycle management attempts to reduce the danger of causing a production failure.
Nadella also made the more familiar argument that enterprises will be able to find cloud versions of familiar Microsoft applications, including Active Directory and SharePoint. But ERP and CRM applications in the cloud are not merely relocated versions of its existing packaged software. "We definitely had to reinvent our software" for the cloud environment, he said.
"We've taken all the capabilities available on Azure and stood them up on Windows Server ... Early feedback is that it is quite robust," he claimed.
VMware is also bidding to become the supplier of hybrid cloud services through its virtualization software and vCloud Suite. OpenStack vendors think they're the logical alternative, especially if you're a customer who's tired of vendor lock-in. And Amazon Web Services would just as soon you use Eucalyptus Systems on premises and its Amazon public cloud for hybrid operations.
Microsoft is offering licensing discounts to use Azure and in general marshaling its arguments to make a bolder bid for what many vendors view as the largest future IT market. Windows Server and System Center may not be everyone's path to the hybrid cloud. But for those who haven't started their journey yet, it just became clear that Microsoft is about to make it easier for them to get there.