Azure manages to avoid a Hailstorm of criticism

Microsoft's latest vision of cloud computing received a sunny reception compared to the torrent of displeasure that greeted Hailstorm seven years ago.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read

LOS ANGELES--Microsoft's Hailstorm prompted an avalanche of criticism when it was proposed seven years ago, but developers seem to have few qualms with Windows Azure, which embraces many of the same notions.

With Windows Azure, Microsoft not only controls the operating system but also the data centers where the applications run and the servers where the information is stored. If anything, Microsoft's control has grown, not shrunk, from the vision that the company outlined in 2001.

So why the lack of uproar this time?

Timing is a huge factor. For one thing, Microsoft's image has changed dramatically from the one it had when Hailstorm was introduced.

"It was the evil empire against Java and open source," independent analyst Peter O'Kelly said. Even Microsoft's code name was off-putting.

"When you think Hailstorm, you think destroy my garden, not helping me," O'Kelly said.

Azure slide
A slide from Microsoft's introduction of Azure Monday at its Professional Developers Conference. Robert Vamosi/CNET News

The industry has also changed dramatically. Companies have gotten a lot more comfortable with the notion that corporate information can live outside a business' own data center.

"Salesforce.com is the big one that broke through that glass ceiling," O'Kelly said.

Microsoft corporate VP David Treadwell doesn't dispute the notion that there are elements of today's strategy that can be traced back to Hailstorm.

"You are implying correctly that Hailstorm was kind of before its time," he said in an interview.

Microsoft has also learned from its experiences, Treadwell said.

With Hailstorm, Microsoft insisted on owning the relationship with the customers. Now, the company is talking about the notion of federated identity and cooperating with OpenID.

And, while Microsoft is big, it is no longer the only behemoth.

Much of Google's vision is downright audacious relative to what Microsoft proposed with Hailstorm, O'Kelly said. "Fundamentally, their mission is very clear. It is to organize all of the world's information. You are part of the world's information."

Security and trust
Also, while the data may live in Microsoft's data centers with Windows Azure, it can also be encrypted and other measures can be taken to make sure that it stays proprietary.

Azure gives companies the ability to tightly control the security of the data, said Jordan Ellington, vice president of legal technology at global firm Transperfect. Companies can encrypt the data at the server and send it encrypted over Microsoft's network and unencrypt it at the client.

"We wouldn't let Microsoft actually host our data. We're just using them as plumbing," Ellington said. Whereas, "small companies are not threatened by the intellectual property issues because it's a cheap service."

"I don't see, for quite some time, large corporations putting all their information in the cloud; it's too attractive of a target," he said.

But businesses now have to evaluate not just the theory of whether allowing others to hold their data is a good thing. The reality is that, in many cases, large third parties may be able to do more to protect a company's data than some mid-size firms can do on their own.

"Organizations have come to say, 'let's compare it to practical alternatives as opposed to some Utopian ideal," O'Kelly said.

Ray Ozzie
Ray Ozzie Ina Fried/CNET News

Plus, Windows Azure is still at the community preview stage, so businesses will have time to kick the tires before it's even ready to host their mission-critical applications.

"It's no different from paying any other hosting company," said Troy Farrell, solutions architect for Operitel Corp., which provides software management services for e-learning. "I guess some people genuinely distrust Microsoft because of their size, like some people distrust Google, which is hosting and storing data in Google Apps and other services," he said.

Trust is indeed an issue with cloud computing, Ray Ozzie told CNET News earlier this week. But Microsoft believes that trust may help them in this area, particularly when it comes to competing with Google.

"Cloud computing is ultimately going to be, do you trust this provider to have more to lose than I have to lose as a company if they mess me up?" Ozzie said in an interview. Ozzie said Microsoft is well-positioned to garner that trust, both because of the scale of its investment and because it is putting its money where its mouth is--building its own Azure-based applications.

Still, Ozzie said he'd expect businesses to move in waves, first moving infrastructure type things and only later moving business applications.

Even those who don't really trust Microsoft have options.

"Microsoft never has to see anything you are doing," said Alberto Ramirez, a developer at consultancy Tallan. Information "can be encrypted on both ends. They're just passing it along."

Microsoft may also benefit from the constraints of a tighter economy.

"There is demand for this, especially now," Ramirez said. "IT departments are scaling back. This requires no IT staff and no server in a room. And the security is taken care of."

CNET News' Elinor Mills contributed to this report.