I don't want to be a party pooper on the eve of the Windows 7 consumer launch, but a new client operating system -- graphically pleasing and decently performing though it may be -- is about as relevant to the future of computing as a reengineered internal-combustion engine would be to the future of the automobile. As in, nice, but no cigar.
Which may be why, amid all the public hoopla, Microsoft is quietly putting many more chips than most folks realize behind its cloud-computing strategy.
I've long believed that Windows 7 will be the last great client operating system. Its success is assured not because there's any crying need for a new OS, per se, but rather because Windows XP has essentially outlived the hardware platform on which it was designed to run, particularly as regards today's heftier requirements for non-core features such as security and data-access control. (I know; you're thinking that these features aren't non-core to you.)
There's also the operational truth that many enterprises skipped the last natural upgrade cycle when they opted not to adopt Vista. Mostly, in a non-deterministic sense, it's just time for an upgrade.
Moving forward, though, it's pretty clear that the normal, stepwise progression of hardware, applications, and networking technology which made regular OS upgrades an imperative in the past has itself become a thing of the past.
Today, people are wondering less what a future Windows 8 will look like than they are about how they're going to wrestle the increasingly long laundry list of technologies -- most of them emerging technologies -- at their disposal into a manageable implementation plan. Why should this be so difficult? Most simply put, because the ones that are easy ain't cheap, and the cheap ones ain't so easy (or, more precisely, as predictable and controllable).
Even as I write this, this perfect storm of IT trends is altering the imaginary requirements document according to which new OSes are architected. A short list of the stuff we're talking about includes:
Add to this the cost-cutting imperatives of the recession, and I think this list amounts to a new requirements foundation, which argues not for a traditional OS, but for some kind of application-cloud-virtualization management engine.
Interestingly enough, one can make a strong argument that this is exactly what Microsoft is mulling over, in its march to field cloud services such as Windows Azure and Windows Live, and in its future OS research.
As InformationWeek Editor-at-Large Mary Hayes Weier noted in her insightful piece, The Conversation With Gates And Ballmer That Sparked Microsoft's Cloud Strategy,: "Microsoft seems a lot more committed to cloud computing these days, following a year or two of vague references to a software and services model."
She quotes Microsoft vice president of online Ron Markezich as saying that the company has been preparing for the shift to cloud for five years. However, he also caveats that statement by adding that Microsoft sees cloud as an evolutionary model and that few customers with "legacy systems will move
100 percent to the cloud."
First off, it should be noted that caveating one's statements is embedded in Microsoft's corporate DNA, though it can cause unusual intellectual contortions in a company so vast. I was once at a briefing for Windows CE where the product manager took pains to stress that this product would not cannibalize sales from desktop Windows. As if.
I think it's a truism that hidebound corporations with many "legacy apps" are not going to move "100 percent into the cloud." But then, they're probably not the best prospects for cloud vendors' sales pitches, nor the most likely exploiters of the business innovation advantages cloud can deliver.
Very likely, just as cellphone penetration has been higher in countries which didn't have a built-out legacy landline network, there will be many new and emerging enterprises which use a cloud-only model, and do so from the ground up.
If you're thinking that Microsoft might be a laggard in catching on to this market dynamic, my research tells me you should think again. Unlike Digital Equipment Corp., Wang Laboratories, and every other one-major-industry-inflection-point pony which has come before it, cloud could actually be Microsoft's savior.
Perhaps Microsoft's experience in the early days of the Web browser, where it took years to surpass Netscape, have taught it not to take nascent trends so lightly.
We have the evidence presented in Weier's article about Microsoft's public commitment to the cloud. What I found really interesting is the research which I believe supports my thesis that Microsoft sees cloud as its core strategy going forward.
Microsoft's cloud-computing footprint, and its development efforts, stretching across multiple groups throughout the organization. Development work is under way within a separate group within Microsoft Research (called the Extreme Computing Group, or XCG), as well as in Microsoft's corporate research and development organization, the Windows Live team, Windows Azure, and the Online Services Division.
One gets a sense of the commitment to cloud -- I write this with admiration -- to read the way it's described in some recent job postings Microsoft has up on its career site.
Here's a portion of the job description for a systems developer in the cloud computing futures group, out of Microsoft Research:
"We are at the beginning of a far-reaching paradigm shift driven by powerful mobile devices, wireless connectivity, and services hosted across the internet. The Extreme Computing Group (XCG) in Microsoft Research is chartered to rethink computing at extreme scale == from alternative quantum computing models, through the revolutionary effects of many-core parallelism, to the massive cloud computing infrastructure and applications. As the name suggests, XCG is moving beyond the current practice to develop the hardware and software platforms that will ensure Microsoft’s success in coming decades.
The Cloud Computing Futures (CCF) team is developing an innovative hardware and software platform to facilitate software development, reduce acquisition and operational costs, and improve reliability and robustness. Our goal is to find and demonstrate the innovations that give Microsoft a competitive advantage and that bring software development for cloud computing into the mainstream. To achieve this end, our projects span the usual hardware-software boundaries to encompass innovations in power distribution, cooling, server design, networking, and system software, programming languages, and tools. To motive and drive our efforts, we are developing innovative cloud-computing applications."
Here's one for a Windows Azure senior software development engineering, in corporate R&D :
"Passionate about cloud computing technology and SaaS? Ready to build the next billion dollar business? Look no further than the Windows Azure team. The team has shipped a community technology preview of the cloud computing platform last year and is working to the first commercial launch that is about to change the world of computing. Windows Azure is at the centre of the next sea change that is underway at Microsoft, as we redefine how services are built and run. You will be an agent of change not only externally but also for services within the company, and if you feel jazzed about being part of the change, then this team is the place to be.
Windows Azure is the cloud services operating system that serves as the development, service hosting, storage, and service management environment for the Azure Services Platform. Windows Azure provides developers on-demand compute & storage to create, host and manage scalable and available web applications through Microsoft data centers. For the Commercial launch we will be focusing on building scale, manageability, richness in technology offerings and a flexible business model. We are looking to add smart, passionate technical and business folks to join the team for the journey ahead, as we go about building the next billion dollar business group in Microsoft."
Note that Azure, which is technically still within its community technology preview, is scheduled to enter general availability in November.
The third and final job post I'll quote from is aimed at the more consumer-oriented Windows Live technology. It's for a senior development engineer. However, the boilerplate for the job is not what caught my attention. Here it is, anyway:
"Join the Windows Live team, working on large scale Internet Services, at the forefront of Microsoft’s Software + Services vision! You will design and build an "Mega Scale" service in the Windows Live Web Communications group (Hotmail, calendar, IM, voice, documents, etc.). The service’s implementation ranks among the world’s largest and most cutting edge systems, spanning across data centers around the world. Come contribute to the core storage system which comprises the bulk of the service infrastructure, the hub of the application and user experience, and innovate on what it means to communicate in the new millennium!"
Rather, the information which really jumped out at me were the numbers indicating Microsoft's ambitions for Windows Live, and how the company seemingly intends to build a consumer cloud service that dwarfs anything its competitors imagine. Sure, you might say that this consumer cloud is not really application intensive -- it's more for storing your contacts and documents, and synching them up -- but still, it's significant.
Here's the Microsoft wording on that score:
To give an idea on the orders of magnitude involved :
The long term scenarios and challenges are:
Looking at these job descriptions, falling as they do among three distinct groups, gives a hint of the other, perhaps unintended, advantage Microsoft will have in its cloud battle against Google, Amazon, and IBM. It's what I call the iPhone effect. In the case of Apple's smartphone, users enamored of the device pestered their reluctant sysadmins until their latter caved in and supported the things under the sheer weight of the demand.
Consider here that, as with Windows 7, Microsoft does indeed work hard to articulate separate enterprise and consumer strategies. (The so-called Windows 7 launch on October 22 is in fact a consumer launch. The client OS is already in the hands of business customers, who've been seeded with separate messages spotlighting its security and data access features, and its connection to Windows Server 2008 R2. )
Nevertheless, in the public mind -- indeed, in the minds of most of its business users as well, I suspect -- there's an inevitable overlap between the consumer and enterprise messages. (This isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's good us Microsoft users can seamlessly transition between our home and work PCs, something Mac users can't say.)
Azure might see a similar dynamic, benefiting from its position as a computer kissing cousin of Windows Live.
As well, I'm guessing that Microsoft's historical tendency to blur the consumer/business line -- remember, after all, where it began, and how hard it's had to work to earn enterprise cred -- is playing into what I perceive as Azure's market positioning as "the cloud service for rest of us (enterprises)."
Azure's platform page speaks to Microsoft's apparent desire to serve as the helping hand guiding business users into the cloud. "Build new applications in the cloud -- or use interoperable services that run on Microsoft infrastructure to extend and enhance your existing applications. You choose what's right for you."
I submit that there's a discernable, qualitative difference between Microsoft's pitch and that of Amazon and Google. Amazon's Elastic Cloud Compute message seems aimed squarely at developers. Google offers both heavy duty developer stuff (like here) and a "lite" entree into Google Apps here), but the twain don't seem to be integrated.
In conclusion, I see I've neglected to dive deeply into the details of some of those perfect-storm technologies -- notably, virtualization and data-center efficiencies -- which I set forth as the thesis for my argument. I'll dive deeper into future columns, but for now let me close the loop by stating that Microsoft's cloud strategy appears similarly intent on shielding its customers from such complexity, and enabling them to get on, as simply as possible, with running their businesses.
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Alex Wolfe is editor-in-chief of InformationWeek.com.
[Find out when Windows 7 will be right for your enterprise. If you're weighing whether or not to migrate to Microsoft's new operating system, then be sure to check out InformationWeek's Business Case For Windows 7.