Cloud: evolution not revolution

Fed up with ‘cloud’ yet? You ain’t seen nuthin’. It’s not going to go away. But, with a bit of luck, it’s going to start falling into place.

When Microsoft announced its ‘Software Plus Services’, many people, including me, scoffed. We assumed that this was just a way of preserving its profitable fat client software business while nicking whatever advantage it could from cloud-delivered services.

Microsoft has sunk its Office hooks deep into the corporate marketplace. But that won’t surprise you. For better or for worse, people actually like using the same applications as their colleagues inside and outside the organisation and, in enterprises, the most popular ones are from Microsoft.

It doesn’t matter how hard competitors try, the compatibility just isn’t there. And, with products like Word, useful capabilities like Track Changes are just not portable. The wiki brigade will point out the nonsense of Track Changes and argue that a single workspace with multiple authors and a proper version history makes so much more sense. And in a pure academic sense, they’re right. But, in the main, wiki products are lightweight and alien compared with the richness and ubiquity of Word.

What many organisations really need is concurrent editing of single instances of Microsoft documents. Some companies are working on such things, but that’s tomorrow. They will have to climb the curve of evangelist, early adopter and early majority before they get anywhere near mainstream acceptance. By which time, who knows?, maybe Microsoft will have extended Word into a Microsoft-hosted wiki-like environment.

But Word is only an example of what’s going on. Plenty of other applications deliver tremendous capability at the desktop and their online cousins less. A long time ago an industry pioneer called Adam Osborne used to claim that, “adequacy is sufficient, everything else is irrelevant.” He probably said it in order to foist a portable computer with a five-inch screen on an unsuspecting world. But, for many, especially in the lower reaches of the market, his observation is true. There, OpenOffice, Google Docs and other products/services will continue to steal desktop business from Microsoft.

But, despite claims to the contrary, we’re not about to experience a cloud revolution. The world isn’t going to suddenly put all its eggs in the cloud basket. We’re going to see a wide range of engagements with cloud. We’ve seen the start with – a massively popular niche application which can be tapped into from anywhere. The same goes for email, online storage and credit card payment services. These are all cloud-based and require little thought to implement. They sit well with existing business processes.

Other cloud services act as an extension of the IT department, providing physical expansion (and contraction) without wrecking budgets and causing chaos in the data centre. As we move forward and we think of entrusting more of our IT to the cloud, we will need to tread carefully, lest we create hard-to-manage interdependencies between service providers. Nothing new in priniciple, but this is our own business we’re entrusting to outsiders. SLAs and responsibilities need to be nailed down carefully.

It seems pretty obvious now that cloud services will sit alongside existing applications and services and be called upon when they provide genuine incremental value. But this wasn’t so obvious a little while ago when the evangelists were screaming ‘cloud is the future’ and Microsoft, in what looked like a rearguard action to save its traditional business, was arguing that ‘software plus services’ is the future.

It sticks in my craw to say it, but I think Microsoft got it dead right.

Will the BPOS cloud ensure Microsoft’s future?

Yesterday, Microsoft announced ‘worldwide’ availability of its Business Productivity Online Suite. And it barely mentioned ‘cloud’. Hurrah. But it did mention software plus services which is Microsoft’s way of coupling power at the desktop with online services. The service, by the way, was introduced in the USA last November.

‘Worldwide’ to Microsoft means nineteen countries (listed below) and five languages. And it runs in four data centres: Two in the USA, then one each in Dublin and Singapore. Amsterdam and Hong Kong data centres provide what Microsoft calls ‘geo-redundancy’.

This may be a strange way to start talking about a new service, but some organisations are very fussy about where their information is stored and processed. For those who aren’t, then Microsoft claims the “best-in-class SLAs and IT governance”. 99.9 percent uptime, for example, and nine levels of security.

The countries served by this new announcement are:  Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and UK.

What’s on offer is hosted versions of some well known software from which you can mix and match according to your needs: Exchange, SharePoint, Office Live Meeting and Office Communications.

The benefits are the usual ones associated with moving to a reliable cloud service: someone else takes care of the headaches associated with installing and owning equipment, keeping the applications up to date, backup and security, and so on. And, of course, you get the usual benefits associated with collaboration and communication applications. Neither of these is specific to Microsoft or to its hosted services, but if you’re already a Microsoft shop then it’s a much shorter step than changing software vendors.

Microsoft introduced the concept of the ‘desk-less’ worker. Someone who maybe works on a factory floor but who needs periodic access to basic services, perhaps through a shared PC or kiosk. They’re not what you’d term ‘knowledge workers’, the sort that would benefit from the full capabilities. Each counts as a ‘user’ from the billing perspective but the monthly cost is much less than for regular users.

Pricing is per element per user, by number of elements signed up for and additional data storage. You can learn more on the UK pricing and availability page.

The ‘worldwide’ system started trials yesterday and will be available for purchase next month. From April Fools Day, as it happens. Microsoft is offering a 30-day free trial. Depending on factors such as company size, it can be bought directly from Microsoft or through its resellers.

There’s a lot to be said for going the Microsoft route – not least the ready availability of people already familiar with the software elements. Setting up an effective SharePoint system, for example, still requires some skill and effort. It is, however, an inflection point and other vendors are putting together some decent online offerings. The obvious ones are Google and IBM, although the brave might prefer to assemble a ‘best of breed’ solution. Microsoft, however, has the huge benefit of customer inertia. But will that be enough to see it through?