Microsoft Azure to be in Windows shops, like it or not

Microsoft seeks new blood to deliver on the long-term strategy of making Azure a force in the cloud market and an extension of Windows Server.

Microsoft’s aggressive push to the cloud is destined to rock IT shops heavily invested in Windows Server. As it stands, the mission to align its Azure cloud platform with Windows has already upset the company’s own leadership.

Earlier this week, Microsoft disclosed that longtime president of the server and tools business division, Bob Muglia, would leave Microsoft this summer. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in an email to Microsoft employees, “All businesses go through cycles and need new and different talent to manage through those cycles.” He added that the new leadership will move Microsoft servers “forward into the era of cloud computing.”

One New York-based integrator and Microsoft partner said the leadership change is “either part of a bad exodus or a healthy shedding of old guard -- or both.”

But Muglia was involved with many transformations at Microsoft. He’d been with the company since 1988 and was part of Microsoft’s technology evolution from Windows NT to mobile devices and, most recently, cloud services.

The company offered no additional comments on either the Muglia transition or its Windows Server strategy, leaving IT pros to wonder what a leadership change will mean for the future of Windows Server, if anything. The company’s trajectory will continue to be a push to cloud computing. Unfortunately, the cloud is what worries people.

Microsoft’s next cycle: Cloud
Microsoft will use its existing customer base to make a name for itself in the cloud market, just as it has done with virtualization (Hyper-V) and other technologies. In this case, the company will get its customers to use Azure by merging that platform with future versions of Windows Server, said Rob Horwitz, an analyst with Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft.

“Microsoft’s long-term vision is to have one common platform that can be leveraged in many ways, so that I can have the same application running on-premise, in the cloud or by a hosting provider,” he said.

The concept of development platforms (Windows Server and Azure) and pre-packaged applications such as Exchange will continue into the foreseeable future though. “What will change is the code used to implement the on-premises platform and apps, and the hosted platform and apps will converge,” Horwitz said.

Convergence of on-premise and cloud computing has been Microsoft’s goal since the inception of Azure, but on-premises codes needed to be modified to tackle issues such as multi-tenancy and scalability, Horwitz said.

But Microsoft is working on ways to give Windows Server customers a smooth transition to Azure. The company disclosed some Azure-centric technologies at the Professional Developers Conference last fall, including Server Application Virtualization, which will let IT pros virtualize traditional apps and move them to Windows Azure without a rewrite. The final version of that and other Azure tools are due this year.

Azure vs. Windows Server
The benefit of Azure over traditional Windows Server is that the OS doesn’t have to be tied to specific functions. For instance, IT pros run Microsoft SQL Server on a database server with dedicated resources, but Windows Azure server supports all scalable apps with resources added as needed instead, Horwitz said.

That sounds convenient, but most enterprise IT pros are conservative. They are in no rush to adopt Azure because they are comfortable with traditional Windows Server if it meets their needs. Also, Azure isn’t mature.

Alan Silverman, a consultant with the IT services firm Atrion Networking Corp. in Warwick, R.I., said his small business clients have moved to cloud-based services primarily for email to reduce hardware and software costs, but the typical midsized customer is investing in private clouds using virtualization and centralized storage. Those private clouds offer faster and cheaper provisioning of resources and fulfill their needs, so Azure isn’t a must-have.

“With those investments taking place, it is hard to imagine that everything will be moving to the public cloud any time soon,” Silverman said. “Our midsized customers still need the customizability of on-premise software.”

The Azure private cloud
Silverman added that IT pros are talking about hybrid public/private cloud options, “but the interoperability and especially the account synchronization is still a work in progress.”

Microsoft’s long-term vision is to have one common platform that can be leveraged in many ways.

Rob Horwitz, analyst, Directions on Microsoft

Since companies are skittish about public clouds, Microsoft came out with a private cloud version of Azure in July that companies can run within their own data centers, which is essentially Microsoft’s way of pushing customers to take baby steps toward public clouds.

The need for a private version of Azure shows that customers don’t trust public clouds and most of all, that Microsoft hasn’t reconciled its cloud vision with the needs of its customers, analysts said.

“Microsoft is really focused on the endgame where the real power comes from writing an app from scratch for the cloud,” said Carl Claunch, an analyst at Gartner Inc. “Very few people are really ready to do that; just the sheer investment of turning everything over to the cloud isn’t feasible.”

Some say Microsoft shouldn’t even be considered a serious player in the public cloud space yet.

“Lots of people are very confident using Microsoft technologies to build their own private clouds. But are they really confident in Microsoft to run and host all their technologies and information for them?” said Nelson Ruest, an IT consultant with Victoria, B.C., Canada- based Resolutions Enterprises. “I haven’t personally seen such professionalism on the part of Microsoft’s implementation staff to suggest that.”

Barbara Darrow, senior news director, and Brendan Cournoyer, senior site editor, contributed to this report.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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