It's funny but true that the more things change the more they stay the same.
Even though the cloud is supposed to represent the great federation of data infrastructure, it is still embroiled in the same old turf wars that plagued the IT industry throughout the physical and even virtual eras. And in a tribute to its staying power, Microsoft is once again on one side of a titanic struggle for control of enterprise data environments.
This time, Redmond finds itself up against VMware, a relative newcomer to the enterprise game, but wildly successful in its deployment of virtual technology on leading server platforms across the industry. That would be the virtual layer that got between operating systems like Windows and Microsoft server and the underlying hardware, effectively ending the one-to-one relationship that helped Microsoft become one of the most powerful companies in the world.
So in a way, the cloud represents a chance for Microsoft to regain its former status. As enterprises continue to shift resources to the cloud, control of the cloud layer will likely prove as lucrative as control of the operating system was in the 1990s.
That's where Windows Server 2012 comes in. The platform can best be viewed as the bridge that will extend Microsoft's hypervisor platform, Hyper-V, into the private cloud, and, by extension, into Microsoft's public cloud, Azure. By boosting Hyper-V performance with increased memory and storage capabilities, while at the same time fostering larger node and cluster architectures, Server 2012 provides a more competitive alternative to VMware for large enterprise workloads. At the same time, Server 2012 has been kitted out with advanced duplication capabilities to help reduce hardware footprints and live migration tools to make it easier to transfer virtual instances from internal infrastructure to the cloud.
Still, when we talk about Microsoft and the cloud, we're really talking about the Microsoft cloud, Azure. On the one hand, there is some convenience by having applications, operating systems, virtualization and the cloud all governed by a single entity, but is the enterprise ready to put that much trust in one company? With VMware's new vCloud suite, the focus is more on the management of clouds, which can be had on Amazon, Rackspace and many other hosting services.
This isn't to say that VMware is the fully open alternative to proprietary Microsoft. VMware still wants to be the only game in the enterprise as far as virtual/cloud management and provisioning goes. But it also has reached out to the wider infrastructure community through its support for the OpenStack environment, even though it is more dependent on the KVM hypervisor. In part, this may be due to the fact that OpenStack is one of the strongest contenders for what many believe will be the next big push in the enterprise: software-defined networking (SDN). Regardless, it does seem at this point that VMware is looking to embrace a multivendor cloud more so than Microsoft.
It's somewhat ironic that Microsoft would be in this position considering it was the one that championed multivendor hardware environments back when it faced off against Apple in the enterprise. But while most observers tend to favor the flexibility of open architectures versus the operability of proprietary ones, it remains to be seen which approach will win out in the cloud. Distributed environments tend to be highly complex to begin with, and will only become more so as multiple platforms and services attempt to emerge as a cohesive environment.
If Microsoft can deliver a proprietary cloud as full-featured and at less cost than a VMware-led ecosystem, it may gain just enough of an edge to win customers at a time when trust in the cloud is still on shaky ground.