Is Microsoft the answer to the cloud quandary?

The company could rediscover relevance because it understands that the companies using its cloud services require flexibility first and foremost

First, some background: I have often been a very vocal basher of Microsoft. As of a few years ago, I now run Apple stuff because I got sick of Windows quality issues causing me endless pain. I have mocked Microsoft's failed attempts at being a legitimate data protection player and storage player over the years. I watched it bomb following Apple, with Zune, a phone OS and a tablet. As a follower, it's been poor. As a leader, however, it's been unequaled.

A year ago I felt like the company might actually be accelerating its path to irrelevance in a futile attempt to cling to a business model built in the 1980s.

Thus, it may come as a surprise (it did to me) that I'm suddenly enamored with what Microsoft could do with its cloud OS. Like everything that comes out of Redmond, some healthy skepticism is merited -- but as I watch the cloud era take shape, I see one giant with the market muscle and the clarity of vision rising from the mist, and it's Microsoft.

The cloud is primarily a derivative consumption model for services that already exist. It's also a radical business model change for those vendors that were not born into it. It is a sea change on both the buy side and the sell side. Sea changes in markets evolve out of mass confusion and market hysteria. Once things calm down and take shape, however, someone takes control. Usually that someone is a net new player -- leaving the old guard of the market in its wake. Amazon is a player that didn't exist a short time ago. VMware is a player that didn't exist in any meaningful way until five years ago.

When it came to cloud, it looked like Microsoft would be left behind. Now I think it might end up being the king (again) of a whole new kingdom. A bigger kingdom. A kingdom of three. Three data center considerations: mine, a service provider's and Microsoft's.

Let's start with a basic premise: You run Microsoft applications. If you don't, this argument is not for you. It's for the 95% of the world that does.

You run applications locally. You most likely have at least one of your own IT operations in a data center you own or rent. You have some stuff on a service provider's cloud, or you will. You might be looking to move some of your applications to the cloud ( Office 365). Your world is a hybrid. Private, public, hybrid clouds are the three kingdoms of the 21st century.

The primary reason that everything is not already in the cloud is that no one to date has been realistic in their offerings -- ignoring realities that cannot be ignored. Users aren't going to stop running their own IT in entirety. They are not ready for a one-size-fits-all solution that is radically different from the devil they know. They need time -- and flexibility. As no two snowflakes are identical, neither are any two IT operations. They are nuanced. They require the cloud to adapt to their businesses -- not the other way around.

This is where Microsoft has a distinct advantage -- it already runs in your world. In the new world order, it has the right concept -- it adapts to you. Microsoft lets you, the customer, stay on top of cloud phenomena that are changing faster than you could possibly keep up with on your own -- without any negative impact to existing workloads. It lets you have your cake and eat it too.

Microsoft is the only provider (today) that offers infrastructure and application management capabilities that can execute the same way inside your own data center, at a service provider's data center, or in the Microsoft Azure cloud. Because of its (free!) Hyper-V hypervisor, workloads can execute unmodified in any of those situations. Your private data center/cloud, some service provider's cloud, or Microsoft's cloud. Better yet, if you put stuff in one and don't like it, you can move it. The control stays with the customer -- not at the vendor.

I love what Amazon has done with AWS, but you can't run an AWS VM locally, or move it to another provider without a major (a.k.a. nightmare) conversion and migration exercise.

Microsoft also has System Center to manage everything -- anywhere. On-site or at a provider -- you will run System Center somewhere, or everywhere.

Better still, I can move my Microsoft apps to the cloud with Office 365 and stop dealing with software (the same way Salesforce did it with CRM) all together. I can use Microsoft Azure to set up my platform-as-a-service offerings, enabling me to start developing in the new world without any heavy upfront investments.

So I am not telling you that this is a fait accompli. I am telling you that Microsoft the giant has a massively unfair advantage in that you already run all its stuff. The completeness of its vision and capabilities to execute stuff everywhere you could conceive of executing it -- and the ability to change your mind, are enormously compelling. Will Microsoft get it all perfect? Of course not, but it has the money, brand, brains and market muscle to pull it off.

Sometimes you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Steve Duplessie is the founder of Enterprise Strategy Group, where he is a senior analyst. You can contact him at steved@esg-global.com, and read his blog at thebiggertruth.com.

Read more about cloud computing in Computerworld's Cloud Computing Topic Center.

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