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June 27, 2011

What’s Behind the Cloud Power?

Nicole Hemsoth

As I strolled down the gleaming halls of the Seattle-Tacoma airport earlier this month, there could be no mistaking that I was indeed in Microsoft country. Lining nearly every available high-flung archway were massive banners touting Microsoft’s “Cloud Power” initiative. 

The ceaseless parade of hanging cloud-touting ad blankets varied only slightly in wording–and was enough to get my wheels spinning.

It was something of a surreal experience when I spend all day staring down the word “cloud” as it filters in via hourly news streams. Confident-looking stock photo models beamed down on people rushing between terminals, silently reassuring the distracted masses that in the cloud lies a mythical land of data tranquility, soft-focus baby blue backgrounds, and nice clean white borders to neatly frame all that is contemporary IT.

Aside from being a bit more cloud than I wanted to see following three days of random cloud-driven conversations at the AMD Fusion Developer Summit, there was something else that stuck with me about that endless series of cloud power banners. It was all very vague (simple CIO-looking people saying “Hi, I am a nameless person from the clip art gallery that looks serious about business and I have harnessed cloud power”) –and the repetition, banner after banner– spoke of a certain desperation to link the “cloud” to “power” under the Microsoft name.

Now of course, that’s just advertising, marketing, corporate messaging. I get it. The server and tools team is probably not strategizing with the folks who designed (and bought) the dozens of mega-banners. But still, it left me with the feeling that Microsoft wants people to link it to “the cloud” but in no specific way or via no specific set of tools, services, practices, etc. It just wants to be “all in” with the cloud in the consumer’s mind and hope that eventually, when they get a product to wrap into the cloud, the cloud branding theme of cloud computing and Microsoft’s power in it will work some kind of convincing magic.

But consumers of IT, from the Fortune500 CIO or CTO down to dear Aunt Roberta in Minnesota who just called to let you know that she installed Firefox to see what lies beyond Explorer, all have something in common…they want specific services from specific providers versus general one-size-fits all solutions. Don’t think that’s true? Make a list of ten technologies (devices and software/apps) that you cannot live without and see how many of them are not contingent on personalization or narrow, individual focus somehow.

In an era of mass customization (which is something of an oxymoron, agreed) looking to one vendor to supply all things IT is a thing of the past. I think Microsoft knows this and instead of touting all things PC as its power, it is content for now to reassure its customers who’ve been committed to Microsoft services for decades in some cases that hey, when it comes to the cloud, no sweat. We have a handle on it. And when we come up with something to market that is highly specific yet involves that vague, fluffy cloud and a consumer base of literally hundreds of millions of customers, we’ll let you know.

And the point here is that Microsoft’s solutions have been all about mass production of necessary, ubiquitous computing tools. Software that made life easier, involved little or no thought, and just plain worked. It still seems to be working on where the cloud will pop into that time-tested strategy but at least they have the messaging covered. Thoroughly.

Many have suggested that the cloud spells Microsoft’s doom given its historical reliance on all things licensed. However, according to the new Server and Tools president, Satya Nadella (who took over for Bob Muglia earlier in the year) this is far from the case. He made the argument that this is an opportunity the company plans to exploit in just the same way it did with the mass arrival of PCs.

In a recent interview Nadaella said that “at a philosophical level, if you say there is a fundamental change in architecture, we have to embrace it and ride it….Microsoft has always been about low price and high volume.” Instead of using this as a challenge to the traditional MS model, he says that the “consumption –based economics of cloud computing fits into Microsoft’s sweet spot.”

Here’s where his argument lies. In his view, they do not have high license fees, which will continue to boost its general (yet still mostly undefined) overall “cloud power.”  He says that cloud services like Azure hasn’t been able to beat out Amazon or Salesforce clouds but that’s no tragedy because since Amazon is hosting Windows Server instances, they are still a piece of the cloud success story. Partnerships will be key to their cloud strategy he claims.

But is that really cloud power?

Nadella said that in terms of their cloud, the Windows Azure appliance has allowed customers like Fujitsu and eBay to bring Microsoft cloud technology into their own data centers. He pointed to Fujitsu and its Azure appliance-powered capability to bring mainframes apps into a cloud service model.

The thing is, customers with buying power need more than a vague sense of where the cloud power lies. They need to find solutions, sometimes across a number of vendors, that are now easier than ever to integrate. One could suggest that the real “cloud power” lies in the hands of the users as they make decisions on specific solutions based on specific applications versus taking the “one size fits all” approach.

This is not to rake Microsoft over the coals too much; their Azure cloud, although lower in adoption to rival services, does appear to have a committed array of devotees. And besides, why should I complain when the “cloud power” commercials have finally convinced relatives that those things called clouds that I write about that have nothing to do with weather are a real thing after all.

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