Monday, March 30, 2009

Maintenance Woes Handicap Microsoft's Azure

Last week, Microsoft product manager Steve Martin indicated in his blog that Azure would be a Microsoft-only service – hosted only by Microsoft in Microsoft data-centers. It seems that maintenance challenges, or the ability to “innovate freely,” are limiting the availability of Azure to a pure service play. To be fair, Microsoft has indicated that key technology developed to support Azure will find its way into Microsoft Windows server products, which, of course, can be purchased and deployed by anyone. But I have serious doubts about Microsoft as a service provider because I do not think they have the operational mentality to succeed on the margins that are available to service providers – they are not cheap and efficient like Amazon. Microsoft is already demonstrating that the ties to their past technology architecture are already handicapping the potential success of their future cloud endeavors.

Anyone that pays attention to my musings in this blog knows that I am a huge fan of Amazon's web services – particularly the elastic compute cloud (EC2). And I believe Amazon is going to be very successful in this space because they have led the way with an architecture that effectively de-couples the definition of the application from the definition of the compute resources. Plus, they have an operational mentality – they are cheap and efficient. Aside from Amazon, I believe the really big winners are going to be the technology companies that enable existing service providers to respond to Amazon with a technology model that loosely couples applications to the infrastructure - eliminating the complex maintenance challenges that have historically precluded elasticity and enabling seamless application delivery across public and private clouds. Here are some of the potential players and my handicap for their success.

VMware – I believe virtualization technology is going to play a critical role in cloud due to its ability to de-couple the applications from the host computers – enabling elegant maintenance and true elasticity. VMware is certainly the leader in this space, and there is little doubt that they have relevant technology. The key question is going to be their willingness to respond to the “cheapness” and “openness” requirement of the service providers. VMware has historically sold technology to enterprises in a typical perpetual software licensing model. Cloud will require much more sharing of risk/reward in the sales model and a willingness to be flexible in the technology requirements to co-innovate with the service providers and ecosystem partners. VMware is not known for its partnering mentality.

Citrix – Xen is currently the incumbent technology for virtualization at Amazon, and Citrix is clearly aligned with Xen due to their $500M purchase of XenSource. However, cloud to date seems to be all about Linux and related open source infrastructure due to the flexibility of the licensing model, and Citrix has historically been very tightly aligned to Microsoft and its associated technology and licensing model. I think it is an open question whether Citrix is willing to embrace a radically different business model to monetize Xen as part of a service provider cloud ecosystem.

Cisco – the announcement earlier this month about the Cisco unified computing system is all about a new brand of infrastructure that is unencumbered by the legacy approach which tightly couples applications to the compute host resources. I believe Cisco “gets it” much more so than the current mega-vendors HP and IBM – each of which is going to be hampered with the legacy approaches for application delivery and management. But, as is always the case with new ventures like Ciscos unified computing system, the sky is always bluest when there is nothing yet to lose. We'll see if they can actually execute in the market with a new model.

Microsoft – While Microsoft certainly has many strengths, I do not think any of them lend themselves particularly well to cloud success. Of all vendors, they have the most to lose, and the least to gain, with this new approach. Their sales and distribution model discourages elasticity, they are way behind the leaders in the market for virtualization technology, and they do not have a mindset to be operationally efficient as a service provider. I believe their biggest opportunity in cloud is to provide a new desktop approach that seamlessly integrates all of the services a user would expect to be effective and productive in a networked world. If Apple doesn't continue to run away with that opportunity, maybe Microsoft will make some hay in this space.

Google – I have criticized Google again and again for their AppEngine model that essentially requires application providers to recode their applications to fit Google's infrastructure. I actually do not think Google wants to be a big cloud player for “infrastructure” services in the manner that Amazon is currently defining the market. Instead I think Google is going to be a next generation application platform provider more in the mold of Apple with its consumer products, but geared more to the needs of the business user. As a giant SaaS platform for applications like email, office productivity, VOIP, calendaring, geographical services, etc., I think Google has a great play with their current approach. Just don't expect them to compete with Amazon in the infrastructure space. – I think is completely out in left field for everything other than applications that need to reside close to their CRM application. I personally feel that Marc should just go ahead and take on SAP and Oracle in the business applications space and forget about trying to morph their highly proprietary application platform into a general purpose application delivery platform. They have a terrific sales team, a terrific customer base, and the competing applications from Oracle, SAP, and others are just awful in terms of the grief customers endure to maintain and support them.

EMC – Some folks may be a bit puzzled by the inclusion of EMC in this list of potential cloud players, but remember that EMC owns nearly 90% of VMware which means that cloud is definitely top of mind at EMC. And they actually have been thinking about the data problem associated with cloud. Namely, how do I ensure my data is available to my applications when they become portable across multiple compute service providers? Their Atmos product is effectively Amazon S3 in a box with some interesting features around policy management and data federation. As an equity play, EMC may be a cheap way to own VMW, and they might make some hay themselves if they execute in the cloud market ahead of the other storage providers.

The rest of the A-list technology providers – HP, IBM, Oracle, Red Hat, Sun – either do not get cloud, are actively bashing it (witness Oracle), have no assets that are currently relevant, or are so far behind in investing that, short of a series of acquisitions, I believe they will remain effectively irrelevant. Of course there will be lots of lip service and cute marketing tricks such as IBM's recent open cloud manifesto, but until there is some substance, I stand by the above handicaps.


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