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Microsoft talks virtualization and cloud

Microsoft's virtual Server and Tools Business industry analyst meeting last week emphasized reducing costs today but also placed a lot of focus on forward-looking technologies.

Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.
Gordon Haff
4 min read

Microsoft's Server and Tools Business did the virtual conference thing for industry analysts last week. Fellow analyst Judith Hurwitz ably describes the limitations of this format. I concur with much of what she writes.

That said, I give Microsoft props for trying. A lot of companies have canceled or decided not to hold in-person events this year without making any real effort to put together an alternative. Limited interactivity and engagement aside, some of the pre-recorded videos were informative, STB President Bob Muglia was in typical energetic form, and I had good telephone discussions on a variety of topics.

Here are some of my take-aways and observations.

"Costs less" was a big part of Microsoft's pitch. This is consistent with the theme of its consumer advertising. It's also consistent in that Microsoft chooses targets for comparison with some care. For example, Microsoft isn't so much emphasizing low cost in the context of general scale-out infrastructure (where Linux and other open-source software is most widely deployed and popular today). Rather, Bob Muglia emphasized being able to put together solutions with partners at a fraction of the cost of proprietary software; he especially emphasized business intelligence, which has been the focus of a great deal of SQL Server development over the past few years.

Hyper-V. Muglia said that the "first year of Hyper-V being out has been significantly better than I expected." He also noted that it has been "gaining share every day." Of course, Microsoft would have to gain a lot of share to seriously dent VMware's dominance. That said, Microsoft's virtualization solutions (together with those of competitor/partner Citrix) will often be the low-effort path for Microsoft shops. Hyper-V gets a big boost this fall when it gets Live Migration as part of the Windows Server 2008 R2 release. This is Microsoft's counterpart to VMware's VMotion (which allows running VMs to be moved to another physical server without interruption). Even Microsoft will now pretty much admit that this technology is table stakes for a serious virtualization deployment.

Cloud computing was, of course, much discussed in the course of the day. There are a number of aspects to this but I'll focus here on Azure, which I discussed with Steven Martin, the senior director of developer platform product management. Microsoft describes the Azure Services Platform, to use its full name, as a "cloud operating system" that provides a set of services such as SQL database access. A few points from our conversation:

  • I hear a lot of concerns about security and privacy in off-premise cloud deployments. Martin notes that payroll was one of the first widely outsourced enterprise applications and Salesforce.com customer relationship management is the poster child for software as a service. Your employee and your customer data--few things are more confidential. This is a great point. It's not that we shouldn't be concerned about cloud security but the reality is that we've been letting third parties access much of our data for years.
  • What additional types of services might we see for Azure? Martin highlighted commerce services such as a shopping cart and B2C (business-to-consumer) as something "we talk a lot about." Reporting and compliance was another area he mentioned. "Potentially" but more in the vein of "if customers demand them" is database models other than the existing SQL Data Services. In general, Microsoft sees Azure as bridging internal .NET development and an external cloud so they're probably hesitant to head in directions that don't fit as well with an internally hosted environment.
  • One final interesting angle is the intersection between an abstracted cloud computing platform like Azure and multi-core/parallel programming. As I've previously written in a different context, it seems that one of the ways that we'll make it possible for application programmers to deal with the inherent difficulty of writing parallelized code is to provide them with abstractions that handle a lot of the low-level rocket science. Azure and other systems in a similar vein could well turn out to be appropriate abstractions for this purpose.

Those are just the highlights. Other topics we covered included client virtualization (Microsoft seemed more open to possibilities than in the past), Silverlight ("barely nine months in... and will continue to see a gloves off nasty fight with Adobe"), and Microsoft's continued focus on management as its big differentiator around virtualization in general.

What strikes me most about the admittedly somewhat selective set of  things that I have highlighted is that it's generally forward-looking. Yes, Windows Server is still at the core of much that STB does, but there's also substantial focus on virtualization, cloud computing, and Web-centric approaches in general. That's a substantial change from a few years ago.