Microsoft's cloud plays, in English

by [Published on 7 Dec. 2010 / Last Updated on 7 Dec. 2010]

This article describes some of Microsoft's most prominent cloud products.

Introduction

Microsoft has made a number of cloud plays and continues to do so. As the world continues to push services out of the data center and into the cloud, keeping up with the changes can be tough. Unless you’ve been in hiding in the mountains, you have probably seen the word “cloud” attached to just about every service from every company as a way for various marketing departments to make sure customers understand that their companies get it. 

While, personally, I’m a wary cloud participant, I understand the benefits – and detriments – of what we used to call outsourced or hosted services. The term cloud, in my mind, simply replaces these now ancient terms but the underlying concepts remain similar. We’re simply moving to a world where Internet pipes are becoming large enough that more and more services can be jettisoned to the cloud than ever before.

As a company, Microsoft has made a surprising number of cloud plays over the years and they continue to do so. Most recently, Microsoft announced their Office 365 product which replaces their Business Productivity Online Services.

Windows Azure Platform

The Windows Azure Platform is probably one of Microsoft’s biggest cloud plays; it’s an application platform – sort of like Amazon’s EC2 service – that allows organizations to host and run applications in Microsoft data centers. In essence, Azure-hosted services run across Microsoft’s significantly distributed network, providing organizations with on-demand computing capability:

  • Windows Azure. Windows Azure is a cloud operating system that enterprises can use to host and run their line of business applications. Windows Azure is the compute and storage component of the Windows Azure Platform.
  • Windows Server AppFabric. An extension to the Windows Server Application Server role, Windows Server AppFabric helps developers create services suitable for both on-premises and cloud-based deployment.
  • SQL Azure. This component extends the Data Platform capabilities by enabling database services, reporting, and analytics and data synchronization with mobile users, remote offices and others.
  • Windows Azure AppFabric. This is another component that helps developers connect applications and services between Windows Azure and on-premises deployments. This is a complementary service to Windows Server AppFabric.

Now, to clear up confusion regarding the AppFabric name: Both services share a name, but their implementation yields different results. Windows Server AppFabric is an on-premises edition that includes local caching technology while Azure AppFabric is the cloud-based implementation that allows customers to bind on-premise and cloud-based applications and products.

Office 365

Office 365 is Microsoft’s latest announced foray into the world of the cloud and is a combination of both on-premises and hosted/cloud-based tools. Formerly know are Business Productivity Online Services (BPOS), Office 365 now consists of the following products:

  • Office 2010 Professional Plus (on-premises). This component is the only real local, on premises portion of the Office 365 offering. As has always been the case with Office, it’s installed on a computer in the organization but leverages the online components of the Office 365 offering. Note that Office 2010 is not included in every Office 365 bundle. Some of the bundles rely on the lighter, less capable “web app” editions of the Office package.
  • Exchange Online. Exchange Online is Microsoft’s Exchange Server 2010 product moved into Microsoft’s data centers. An Exchange Online mailbox provides each user with 25 GB of mail storage space as well as a number of the features users generally demand, such as ActiveSync and other mobile device support. Exchange Online is accessed via the Outlook 2010 component of Office 2010.
  • SharePoint Online. SharePoint has become one of Microsoft’s fastest growing products ever. The SharePoint Online component of Office 365 provides organizations with cloud-based space to which users can save the work created in Office 2010. SharePoint Online also makes it possible for disparate teams to collaborate with one another using Team Sites. From a security perspective, administrators retain control over security permissions. SharePoint’s Online My Sites feature gives users their own view into the hosted portal so that they can keep their most important information front and center. SharePoint can be used by most of the Office 2010 components for collaboration.
  • Lync Online. Microsoft recently rebranded Office Communication Server as Lync, hence Lync Online. Lync is a multifaceted communications platform that brings together instant messaging, voice calling, screen sharing in online meetings and a whole lot more. The Lync release of Office Communications Server is the point at which it’s feasible to replace a traditional PBX with this service. The Office 2010 Communicator tool interfaces with Lync.

As you can see the locally installed Office 2010 is truly the client consumer for the rest of the Office 365 services.  Given Microsoft’s strengths – both technically and from a revenue perspective – it makes sense that the company would develop this type of cloud-based service; it’s heavily reliant on hosted services, but is just as reliant on locally installed services that would include Windows and Office licenses.

Microsoft promises a 99.9% uptime for Office 365 services.

The new Office 365 offering takes many forms; the form you choose will be determined by your vertical and, to a much lesser extent, your needs.

  • Office 365 for small business. This edition replaces Microsoft’s existing Office Live Small Business service, although the existing service will not be phased out until October 2011, giving organizations some time to make migration arrangements. This edition is available for organizations with up to 50 users and costs $6 per user per month; even better, the first month is free so you can try it out. It should be noted that the small business edition of Office 365 does not include all of the features of the enterprise edition. Among the missing features is Blackberry synchronization support, Active Directory federation and email archiving.
  • Office 365 for enterprises. The enterprise edition provides organizations with a bit more flexibility in allowing companies to choose options. Different teams can choose options based on needs. The enterprise edition also includes single sign-in capability, voicemail using Unified Messaging and runs between $2 and $28 per user per month. Office 2010 Plus is also an optional part of this edition.
  • Office 365 for kiosk. As a part of the Office 365 offering, Microsoft is making available an edition that is targeted at kiosk workers which Microsoft defines as employees that spend a majority of their time away from a computer and need it only for occasional use. This is an enterprise option that starts at $2 per user per month.
  • Office 365 for education. Microsoft is in the process of rebranding their current Live@EDU offering under the auspices of Office 365, although the company has yet to make a formal announcement.

My take

Office 365 is a huge step in the right direction for Microsoft and does a nice job of balancing the company’s interests in capturing both on-premises revenue via Office 2010 while retaining the ability to derive revenue from service-based offerings that would have formerly required a significant organizational investment.

For organizations that need additional ability, the Office Web Apps tools provide a limited replacement but will certainly not suffice for heavy lifting. I expect to see Microsoft enhance these tools over time.

Windows InTune

Although the service is still in beta, Windows InTune has been announced by Microsoft as a cloud-based service intended to help organizations manage and protect the desktop fleet. Windows InTune helps IT departments manage desktop updates, monitor PCs, provide remote assistance when necessary and protect PCs from malware and enables organizations to closely track hardware and software inventories.

From Microsoft’s literature, here are the components that make up Windows InTune:

  • Manage updates: Centrally manage the deployment of Microsoft updates and service packs to all PCs.
  • Protect PCs from malware: Help protect your PCs from the latest threats with malware protection built on the Microsoft Malware Protection Engine that you can manage through the Web-based console.
  • Proactively monitor PCs: Receive alerts on updates and threats so that you can proactively identify and resolve problems with your PCs—before they impact end users and your business.
  • Provide remote assistance: Resolve PC issues, regardless of where you or your users are located, with remote assistance.
  • Track hardware and software inventory: Track hardware and software assets used in your business to efficiently manage your assets, licenses, and compliance.
  • Set security policies: Centrally manage update, firewall, and malware protection policies, even on remote machines outside the corporate network

My take

I can see a good future for this service, particularly as organizations – even small ones – continue to grow both in personnel count and in geography. More and more organizations are opening branch offices and allowing remote workers.

This new service is enabled by installing the Windows InTune management client.

Microsoft Office Web Apps – Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote

For years, people have complained that each successive version of the full Microsoft Office suite adds more and more esoteric features that are rarely used by a majority of the population. The next complaint is that Office can be pretty expensive, although there are quite a few lower cost Office editions on the market that can help to address that problem.

For those that need relatively basic capabilities in their Office suite – i.e. no mail merge, database or other advanced features – Office Web Apps might be just what the CIO ordered.

My take

In their current form, Office Web Apps are good for minor tasks. I actually use these tools to write simple documents and also find myself using the Web Apps to create the basis for more complex documents. Office Web App-based documents are stored on SkyDrive and when you’re creating a document in a Web App, you have the option to click a button to download and edit the file in the full version of the application. So, when I hit a capability limit, I can always use the more full-featured tool.

Windows Live SkyDrive

SkyDrive is, for me, one of Microsoft’s most useful cloud offerings. This service provides users with 25GB of space to store ad share files. With SkyDrive, users can share files with others, too, making SkyDrive a useful collaboration tool. Office 2010 includes the ability to save files directly to a SkyDrive account.

Best of all SkyDrive is free for personal use. For enterprise use, Office Web Apps are available for those that have Microsoft volume licenses. In these cases, Office Web Apps can be deployed on an on-premises server running Microsoft SharePoint Foundation 2010 or Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010.

My take

I love SkyDrive a lot.  I can certainly see a major benefit to consumers and companies alike.

Summary

This is not necessarily an exhaustive list of everything Microsoft is doing in the cloud. It is a list of some of the company more prominent cloud services. In a future article, I’ll describe some of the less common services.

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