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Microsoft outlines future in cloud computing

By Steven Overly

From the onset of Monday’s keynote speeches at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference, it was clear cloud computing was the topic of choice for the software giant’s executives.

During his speech, chief executive Steve Ballmer went so far as to tell the 9,500 partners in attendance and many more watching online: "If you don't want to move to the cloud, we're not your folks.”

But it wasn’t until Bob Muglia, the Redmond, Wash.–based company’s president for server and tools business, took the stage at the Verizon Center that the partners learned how Microsoft planned to get them there.

Windows Azure Appliance , the latest product from Microsoft’s cloud service platform, will allow service providers and large clients to build private or public clouds that run on their own servers, Muglia said.

This differs from Microsoft’s current Azure offering, which maintains data in off-site centers under Microsoft’s control. Muglia said the product is designed to give clients more control over how and where they store their data.

Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Fujitsu will be the first large partners to offer data centers that meet Microsoft standards; meaning smaller partners can peddle the services of those companies to the small and mid-size businesses that they consult, said Scott Ottaway, Microsoft Windows Server’s senior product manager.

“We’re committed to doing that because we’ve heard customers want those new innovations,” Ottaway said. “The value of that is customers will have more choice.”

Many in the tech industry have questioned whether the move to cloud computing, a service whereby companies receive remote information technology support, could compromise their security. For industries that also contend with regulatory compliance issues, such as health care, education and government, the issue becomes even murkier.

But Muglia said Azure Appliance gives greater control to clients, allowing them to maintain data in a way that meets their security and compliance requirements. He told conference attendees that the product could open new cloud computing markets for Microsoft, which reaches millions of small businesses and other clients worldwide through its extensive partner network.

eBay has been using Windows Azure, not Azure Appliance, since the start of the year. James Barrese, the company’s vice president for technology, said it has given the online marketplace provider the flexibility to shift technological resources to projects that require more data storage and infrastructure support.

“It allows us to get the benefits of the infrastructure and automation and efficiency of the scale with cloud, yet it’s still within our data center,” Barrese said in an interview.

Regardless, Brett Waldman, a technology analyst at IDC, said not to expect an immediate mass migration to the cloud.

“Most people, including Microsoft, expect cloud adoption to be a multi-year journey, but do expect everyone to eventually arrive at the same destination,” Waldman said in an e-mail. “The Azure Platform Appliance is probably just one of many new offerings to come that Microsoft will be delivering over the next few years that will ease the transition of their customers to a Microsoft-centric cloud. “

Bob Gourley serves as chief technology officer and founder of Reston-based Crucial Point LLC, a strategic consultancy with a focus on national security technology. He also maintains the blog ( ).

Gourley primarily uses Google applications in his business, but tracks Microsoft and was delighted by Monday’s unveiling of Azure Appliance.

Gourley said it seems to merge the benefits of cloud computing with the needs of enterprise and business customers. He predicts that combination could make once resistant or hesitant clients, such as national security companies, warm up to the idea of cloud computing.

“In the most obvious example, enterprises like the intelligence community that must provide top secret networks and top secret servers for their highly confidential data can never use external providers,” Gourley said. “But they can sure host their own Azure Appliances.”

By Dion Haynes  |  July 12, 2010; 4:33 PM ET
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