Microsoft STB’s Cloud Vision: Rashomon in Reverse

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.

On the surface, Akiro Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon (based on the short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa) qualifies as a conventional police procedural, set in 19th century Japan. While traveling to their home, a samurai and his wife are confronted by a bandit, who rapes the wife and murders the husband. But when the bandit is captured and tried for his crimes, the tale takes a psychological turn. The narratives of the event, as told by three living witnesses and the ghost of the samurai are not merely dissimilar; they are openly contradictory, thus forcing the other participants and the audience to determine who is lying, where the truth lies and why.

Modern day New Orleans, La. is 10,000 miles and 200+ years removed from 19th century Japan, but the story of Rashomon came to mind during Microsoft’s recent TechEd conference. During his opening keynote, Server and Tools Business (STB) President Bob Muglia offered conference attendees insights into the company’s vision of cloud computing, related products and services, and Microsoft’s long-term plans for the cloud. Up front, we were struck by the depth of the company’s efforts and the breadth of its goals; Microsoft doesn’t intend to simply be a player in cloud products and services but the leader in cloud-related development, strategy and solutions delivery.

That did not come as a great surprise. Microsoft’s ambitions and capabilities led the company to dominate many IT markets. But despite those successes and the admittedly critical nature of its aspirations, the broad messaging around Microsoft’s cloud efforts and plans was curiously diffuse. Muglia’s keynote was a case in point. Though he noted that the company’s vision of the cloud possessed “five dimensions,” only the first of those—servers—was explicitly stated and supported. The four remaining dimensions were largely implied in demos highlighting a plethora of new solutions and product features, including 14 alone in Microsoft Communicator.

This was striking, particularly since most of the analyst presentations after the keynote were far more pointed and on target. But as TechEd continued, I noted similar inconsistencies in Microsoft’s general messaging. At first, I wondered whether this indicated a lack of substance in the company’s cloud strategy. Instead, I eventually determined that it constituted an example of what might be called “Reverse Rashomon.” Rather than the truth being obfuscated by individual viewpoints, Microsoft was instead caught in the dilemma of relaying a highly complex message to disparate groups—CIOs, IT professionals, developers/ISVs, service providers (SPs) and channel players—whose discrete expectations of and likely benefits from the cloud differ widely and are sometimes in open conflict.

What does Microsoft’s vision of the cloud look like? Frankly, a lot like other vendors’ though with some critical exceptions. Like many vendors, Microsoft basically sees the cloud as a highly centralized IT service provisioning mechanism. That is, along with buying the company’s applications and tools as they have done for years, end customers from micro-businesses to large enterprises will be able to access those and additional solutions and services by subscribing to Microsoft’s and its partners’ offerings. This model is highly flexible and focused on maximizing customer choice, supporting everything from delivered-as-needed solutions that supplement companies’ internal IT assets to broad, fully-hosted end-to-end services. The Windows Azure platform, Microsoft’s own cloud infrastructure, is designed to work in congress with both clients’ datacenters and those supported by service providers. Where the Windows Azure platform should differ from competition is in the depth of experience, insight and expertise the company offers related to the Microsoft software and middleware technologies that provide the foundation for many companies’ core business processes. Bottom line: Windows Azure platform end users will enjoy seamless access to the Microsoft apps and tools they need without (or with significantly reduced) IT management and maintenance headaches.

Sounds straightforward enough, so where are the conflicts? Consider first the benefits of Microsoft’s cloud to these key groups:

  • CIOs and other executives: Cloud offers budget-conscious execs a means to offload increasingly expensive datacenter facilities and management processes, which can consume up to 80% of annual IT budgets, as well as to better align business and IT.
  • IT professionals: Tapping into supplemental cloud services should reduce pressures on stressed datacenter staff and could also improve overall IT performance.
  • Developers/ISVs: The cloud offers developers and ISVs an attractive channel for additional product sales, a centralized mechanism that simplifies upgrade and maintenance tasks and potentially valuable stateless management capabilities.
  • Service Providers: Sweeping cloud strategies like the Windows Azure Platform will create entirely new markets and growing opportunities for SPs’ offerings.
  • Channel players: The Windows Azure platform supports a broad set of offerings that the company’s channel partners can flexibly tailor for and deliver to customers of every sort and size.

Sounds great, so where’s the conflict? Nowhere to begin with, but consider the longer-term implications. If the Windows Azure platform is as cost-effective as advertised, companies may offload more and more internal IT processes to Microsoft and SPs. That’s great for their bottom lines but what happens to IT pros who have less and less to do? Developers and ISVs should find lots to love in the Windows Azure platform, but how do they communicate the value of their solutions in an essentially anonymous cloud, and what happens if Microsoft or other players decide to introduce competing solutions? Channel partners may be in the same boat, and those who specialize in system integration could see opportunities dwindle as clients migrate to cloud-based solutions. Perhaps the most direct conflict is between Microsoft’s homegrown Windows Azure platform services and those provided by traditional SPs. Will SPs be willing to share the market with Microsoft, and what conflicts might arise if they decide to compete directly against the company’s Windows Azure platform solutions?

These issues are certainly not exclusive to Microsoft—they resonate across many vendors’ cloud plans. At this point, they are also almost entirely hypothetical due to the nascent evolutionary state of cloud environments. Yes, Microsoft has 40+ million customers who pay for finished services like BPOS and Exchange Hosted Services. But the fully integrated, optimized and seamless Windows Azure world the company envisions remains some years away. As a result, Microsoft has time to better organize and hone its messaging around cloud computing in general and the Windows Azure platform in particular, and to deal with potential or likely conflicts related to its cloud partners and stakeholders. From what we saw at TechEd in New Orleans, the individual elements of Microsoft’s Windows Azure platform strategy and solutions are quite impressive, but for now the eventual benefits and beneficiaries of the company’s cloud vision remain contradictory or even obscure.

© 2010 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.

This piece first appeared in the Pund-IT newsletter.
Pund-IT ( www.pund-it.com) emphasizes understanding technology and product evolution and interpreting the effects these changes will have on business customers and the greater IT marketplace.

About Merv Adrian
Gartner Research VP, technology analyst and consultant, 30 years of industry experience, covering software mostly, hardware sometimes.

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