Microsoft's Cloud OS Compelling, But Questions Remain

On top of Windows Azure, Microsoft will additionally build a series of its own applications and services developers and customers will be able to take advantage of.
Monday morning, as Microsoft announced its new cloud services platform, Windows Azure, the company's chief software architect admitted that Microsoft is playing from behind.

"In some ways, we're all standing on Amazon's shoulders," Ray Ozzie said in a keynote address.

But Amazon is only one of Microsoft's new competitors. Amazon Web Services are coming out of beta and now include Windows as a service. Google and have gone public with and are continuing to tweak their platforms. Start-ups seem to be entering the market weekly. What Microsoft delivers will need to be compelling to be popular.

Anything Microsoft eventually releases will have to have compelling user scenarios, bring unique features to market, be competitive on price and bring on board customers who may be otherwise reticent to use Microsoft software or move their applications to the cloud. It's still early, but though Microsoft's roadmap is broad in scope, it leaves many unanswered questions.

The basic concept is that developers, consumers and enterprises will be able to build, deploy and access cloud-based applications running on what is essentially a re-tooled, distributed version of Windows Server. That re-tooled version is Windows Azure. On top of Windows Azure, Microsoft will additionally build a series of its own applications and services developers and customers will be able to take advantage of, like, for example, identity services. Increasingly, Microsoft services like Exchange Online and Hotmail will run on Windows Azure.

The company is arguing that it can bring some unique things to the market: unmatched simplicity, scale, openness and a system that not only lives on the cloud but was also designed ground up to do so. Windows Azure, after all, is in many ways an entirely new operating system. It has its own kernel, and it runs in a truly automated, distributed, virtualized fashion.

Authenticating new users for a cloud application, as well as uploading an application to the cloud, take but a few clicks of the mouse. Microsoft has plans to allow developers to use not just Visual Studio, Active Directory and languages like C#, but also Eclipse, OpenID, and PHP.

But by waiting another year for release while Azure goes through extensive beta testing, Microsoft is also giving its already-in-the-market competitors the chance to get features like simple provisioning, uploading and identity right on their own.

Applications also need to be compelling. Microsoft's hard at work on that front, but here again the deliverables are far off. The company gave a first glimpse of System Center Atlantis, where customers could create performance reports and compare their data center performance with other companies, but there's no release date there. Start-up Bluehoo demonstrated a mobile social networking app that didn't exactly have the conferees gathered here in Los Angeles cheering.

Most of the app ideas and scenarios discussed are further out, despite the level of interest they might raise. For example, Hauger mentioned running MySQL and Oracle on Windows Azure or even scaling on premise installations of those two applications to the cloud. But there's no word on when scenarios like this would be possible.

Even licensing has to be compelling, and here yet again, the answer is unclear. As Ozzie mentioned this morning, pricing will be competitive. But, for example, will it be simple? In an interview, Microsoft cloud infrastructure services general manager Doug Hauger said Microsoft believes many businesses will want to include Azure access in their enterprise agreements. But if Azure is priced base on usage, how will companies plan the future into their licenses?

There's a lot left for Microsoft to deliver in terms of both product and detail, and a lot of time to do it in. The question is whether Microsoft can make it compelling and concrete enough that customers buy in.

To help understand how other companies large and small are approaching cloud computing, InformationWeek has published an independent report on the subject. Download the report here (registration required).