From Microsoft's TechEd: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

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I just came back from Orlando and Microsoft's TechEd. It is interesting to contrast the Apple World Wide Developer's conference and the Microsoft event in that both are kind of love fests between people and their respective vendors, but they're still very different events.


While Apple's event is for developers, TechEd is for IT practitioners; it's kind of like a mini-university on all things Microsoft, with the major focus being on the Server and Tools division. This year, it was about 10,000 people, all learning about a massive list of Microsoft technologies.


While there, I spoke with two heavy Microsoft technology users: Bankcard Corp., a credit card company that specializes in subprime credit card customers, and Pella Windows, a firm that started out doing retractable screens and ended up as one of the highest-quality window manufactures for homes. And I learned quite a bit.


So I don't get anyone in trouble, I'm not going to break out what each of the IT executives from these two companies told me; I'll aggregate the comments.


Why Microsoft over Oracle or Open Source?


I'm always interested in why companies choose a particular vendor. What was interesting about explanations of the decision to use Microsoft over Oracle was largely the impression of Oracle's sales team and the belief that Oracle was simply too expensive. There was no sense that the product didn't do the job, only that it was substantially more expensive than what Microsoft offered. The most aggravating part was that the Oracle sales reps were so aggressive I got the mental picture of mafia guys selling protection.


This sense that when Oracle came to call, folks tried not to be in the building, suggests that Oracle may need to dial it down a bit. They apparently are scaring people to buy from Microsoft. On the expense side, it was the feeling that Oracle nickel and dimed them to death; this was one of the reasons these folks seemed to prefer HP as well, because they felt HP didn't do that. It was interesting to note that both companies had generally locked down on HP, though Lenovo (the old IBM Thinkpad) was still in -- but only on notebooks.


For open source, it was the sense that someone else made this all work and neither company particularly wanted to be in the software business. But in the end, these weren't UNIX shops and they'd made the Microsoft decision early on.




As a side comment, there was a lot of discomfort surrounding Itanium and the lack of a long-term future for that platform. Itanium is used for the most I/O intensive tasks and it is incredibly mission critical, but there was a feeling that Xeon and Opteron were vastly more strategic platforms. I was asked when I thought that servers based on these products could step up to the I/O load of Itanium. It wasn't that HP wasn't doing a good job selling the technology, it was that it was clear Intel wasn't that committed to it.


Oil Prices Working for Microsoft


It was interesting to see how OCS (Office Communications Server) along with Cisco and LifeSize (Telepresence) were being used to offset oil price increases. There was an aggressive move to put in place inexpensive telepresence solutions (LifeSize) and get people out of cars and planes. What was particularly praised was how well Exchange was performing as a voicemail system for integrated messaging and how well the result actually performed. In the most interesting case (Pella) was the belief that the firm, by aggressively cutting into travel expenses, had turned IT into a strategic defense against higher oil prices -- something that Gartner has recently indicated was the case broadly (probably because of BI and a much bigger focus on green initiatives overall).


Microsoft Excitement - Employee Behavior Problem


There was this sense that these companies were largely excited about Microsoft because they were focused on solving real business problems rather than solving vender interoperability issues or struggling with complex new technologies, though there was still the issue of getting employees to actually do things differently. This suggested that there could be a huge business opportunity in helping companies get employees to change behavior (which caused me to remember that a good deal of what LifeSize does is help with employee retraining) so that the promised benefits of new products are better realized.


Open Source


Because both of these companies were largely Microsoft shops, the interoperability benefits I've heard over and over again from mixed shops weren't as obvious. But I will say that the most compelling demonstrations I saw at the event were an open source vendor (WS02) seamlessly extracting Microsoft components from a solution and putting in their own, and both HyperV and VMware being used interchangeably, with the Microsoft presenter talking about some of the current advantages VMware had and why you might rather use it than Microsoft's own HyperV technology.


Part of doing interoperability right is admitting that your stuff isn't always the best and that customers do need to use other offerings that have point advantages. I've never seen another vendor actually do this on stage and I think it showcases just how far Microsoft has come in the last five years in realizing that IT buyers have needs that even Microsoft can't always meet.


The Real Benefit of TechEd


I once again realized that the real benefit of TechEd isn't the classes or the presentations. It is the people you meet who are doing real jobs and can provide a perspective on what the world is really like. Going to shows like this is critical to building a network of people like you who can not only help you with technology decisions and problems, but often career choices and opportunities. In this tight job market, that last may be the most important protection you'll ever get. Think about that next time you think you don't have time to go to one of these things. This time I did.