Everyone knows by now that Amazon wants the enterprise. The top dog in consumer cloud delivery has been working overtime to boost its portfolio of enterprise-class services and provide management features and other goodies that IT leaders are pining for.
So far, the company has had to deal with relatively small contenders like Rackspace and Tier 3. Of late, though, a number of new contenders have the potential at least to develop enterprise-class cloud services in relatively short order and steal a lucrative opportunity right out from under Amazon’s nose. Some of these players are infrastructure powerhouses like Verizon, which can bring its worldwide telecommunications networking prowess into the arena, or Google, by virtue of its massive search following. But I would argue that there is an even more potent challenger in the mix, one that can leverage its massive installed base of professional-grade software and services for the hearts and minds of the enterprise: Microsoft.
Think about it. Microsoft is in a commanding position when it comes to making data infrastructure productive. And while some would argue that the cloud is all about services, software and other higher-order functions, to the enterprise it is primarily infrastructure. And preferably, that infrastructure should help them broaden existing data architectures, which right now are steeped in Microsoft. So rather than require the enterprise to build cloud-compatibility into legacy architectures, Microsoft is in a good position to push all the compatibility issues to the cloud, which in Redmond is another way of saying the Azure Cloud.
Now, to be sure, the Azure cloud is a pipsqueak compared to Amazon, but just as in the PC/OS days, it’s not the hardware that draws followers, but the software. And in that vein, the company is on a roll with the impending release of Windows Server 2012 R2 and System Center 2012 R2, both of which are said to be chock full of virtual and hybrid cloud management capabilities. On top of that, new versions of SQL Server and Office are designed to bring cloud scalability into the fight for Big Data functionality and advanced service architecture development. And then there is a new Remote Desktop system for iOS, Android and Windows RT users that puts all of this functionality on the smartphone and tablet.
In a way, Microsoft’s approach to the cloud is similar to its PC strategy in the 1980s: Let the hardware hum along in the background while you concentrate on making data as functional as possible. Satya Nadella, head of the company’s Server and Tools unit, pretty much laid it out at a press event in San Francisco earlier this month, saying the company is eager for customers to integrate a wide range of public and private solutions, with overall functionality dependent upon the smooth interaction with key Microsoft productivity tools. A Windows Server private cloud, for example, can be augmented with backup storage on Azure, with Active Directory and other Office tools ready to go as needed. You can even spin up Xbox Live in the cloud for a quick Halo session with co-workers. As an added sweetener, the company has launched new enterprise-friendly service agreements and pricing discounts that lower upfront commitments and provide more flexible capacity arrangements.
Meanwhile, new technologies are making it easier for the enterprise to deploy and scale Microsoft services and applications in-house. Violin Memory, for example, recently released a new scale-out memory platform for Server 2012 R2 that provides continuous availability for everything from SQL and SharePoint to Hyper-V and SMB file services. A single array scales from 8 to 64 TB with more than 1 million IOPS, plus sub-second failover capability and sub-microsecond latency performance. In this way, enterprise users will be able to more closely match storage performance in cloud environments with what they’ve been getting out of server and networking architectures for years.
At this point, some of you may be thinking, what about VMware, or Oracle? VMware certainly has the potential to play on this level, but it only recently announced its intentions to provide its own cloud (dubbed vCHS) and details as to exactly what it would offer are still murky. Oracle is mostly deployed on the telecommunications level and will likely continue in that niche in the cloud (which is not to say it is a small or unprofitable one.)
Microsoft, then, is in a good position to emerge as Amazon’s strongest rival for the enterprise, not because it has a bigger or better cloud (yet), but because it has the most thorough grasp of what the enterprise needs and how it operates. In other words, Microsoft is already firmly on the ground that Google wants to own.