Insights into Microsoft and the Cloud, Part 1: Are Microsoft & Azure Viable Contenders in the Cloud?

Part 1 of a 4 Part Series
Recently, an article posited whether Microsoft was irrelevant and it spurred a great conversation between Microsoft expert and INFINIT CEO Jerod Powell, colocation expert Sean Patrick Tario (who, literally, wrote the book on data centers) and INFINIT’s Mike Brogan and Dan Schneiderman. We’ve transcribed our chat, knowing that the Q&A would likely be of interest to more than just the four of us, and composed a 4 part blog post series from this insightful and provocative conversation.

SEAN: I want to get straight to the core of the situation, which is that seemingly more and more articles are coming out saying Microsoft and Azure are no longer relevant, or that they will no longer be relevant in the near future. Frankly, in all the conversations I've had with clients, no one has ever asked “How can we use Microsoft to virtualize?" or "How can we use Microsoft to accomplish the same things that OpenStack and CloudStack are offering?”. I simply never hear it... so I'm prone to agree with what I'm reading that Microsoft and Azure, from a hosting and IaaS perspective, are possibly not very relevant any more. So, what do you guys see that the rest of the market doesn’t see?

JEROD: Well, #1, I think it’s just like anything; if you’re in the market and your focus is on VMware or you’re a fan of Google or you’re a fan of Apple and that’s your thing, then that’s what you tend to gravitate towards and use.

But I think most of those users are using a ton of Microsoft technologies without even realizing it, and since our business is Microsoft and our business is serving small, medium, and enterprise businesses, we see exactly the opposite of what’s being stated. We see tremendous saturation in Microsoft solutions and very little in other solutions, and I don’t see that going away.

From what I’ve seen and some of the moves that Microsoft’s made in their cloud solutions, they are no longer laying in wait, yeah, maybe they were a little bit late to the game, but I also think that they’re large enough and powerful enough and in a position that they could afford to take their time and do it right which can be clearly seen with the tremendous success of Office 365. The reality is Microsoft has been working hard in developing the cloud platform that is the future of their company. I think this took time to do right and I also think it has taken an internal shift in how things have traditionally been done at Microsoft. Knowing some of the cloud solutions they have coming down the pipe, the success of Office 365 and some of their existing cloud solutions, they have a solid play in the market that is only going to get stronger and stronger.

Will they be the dominant player that they were in the ’80s and ’90s? Maybe not, the game has changed, in today’s market the market share can change hands very quickly, we have seen this time and again. How on earth Microsoft wouldn’t be relevant is beyond me, they have an army of partners, a platform and productivity cloud solution that is amazing, and they will absolutely be slugging it out with the big players in the market. Did Apple die? Did AT&T die? No. Companies the size of Microsoft with the solution set they have and partner following don’t typically just go away.

If you look at the amount of Microsoft products and solutions in use across the small business community, basically the backbone of the country, they are in most cases using Microsoft technologies. I don’t see that changing, yes they may lose some market share but they have also created an easy upgrade path for their on premise customers to expand into the cloud in a hybrid cloud model which I believe is the place to be right now.

This is the reason we have remained a strong Microsoft partner and why we’ve stuck with it through all of this bad Microsoft PR. The reality is Microsoft became the company you loved to hate, especially in the Bay Area, but across the country as well and that is where you get a lot of this bad PR, a seemingly endless number of people would love to see Microsoft go down in flames for some reason or another. If I look at my business and our Office 365 practice for instance, we are migrating a lot of customers from Google Apps to Office 365, many that switched to Google Apps and are now coming back because Google Apps is an inferior communications, collaboration, and content management platform. This is not the PR you hear, in fact you hear exactly the opposite in most cases but our real world experience is not reflecting what I am seeing in the press.

DANNY: Adding another dimension to that, we’re talking about cloud this and cloud that. We have a customer right now that wants to be 100% cloud. They use NetSuite for their ERP, Workday for their HR – I think there are seven, eight or nine solutions they use from an application standpoint in their offices. This company now has 750 employees, and up until a couple of months ago, they had no internal infrastructure, active directory or anything like that.

Now, they’re split 50-50 Windows versus Macs, but if you’re an enterprise or a medium-sized business that wants to be cloud, cloud, cloud, there needs to be some kind of infrastructure on the ground, too.

Everybody’s using a netbook, Chromebook or something similar. I mean, there’s going to be something, and from an IT infrastructure standpoint, there needs to be some way to manage and administer that. There are obviously more and more cloud management tools coming out, but I just don’t see the market anywhere near where it would need to be to say, okay, now we can have a 2,500 to 10,000 person enterprise able to be managed 100% by an internal IT team with cloud apps.

SEAN: So what specifically are the metrics – I don’t know if these are published or if there’s any way to really get accurate data comparing the different options in the market? Here’s where I’m specifically going with this: AWS recently came out and said, “Hey, we can do VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) now!” So it would seem to me a no-brainer for those already leveraging them on the application/production side to start pushing their internal IT demands over to AWS as well. Does Microsoft already have an offering that’s doing VDI in the cloud? I think there’s no doubt that cloud adoption is growing significantly across the board, but does Microsoft have something specifically to address this that’s not requiring the client to have infrastructure on premise? Do they have a VDI solution hosted on Azure equivalent?

JEROD: I think that’s an interesting question for a number of reasons. #1, what is VDI, really, in the marketplace? I think that you’d be surprised to find that there are a couple different definitions of what you would see that manifest as. First of all, in my mind, I’ve never seen many reasons one would want to virtualize a workstation for a user anyway, there are typically better solutions than VDI such as RDS or Citrix. What you are really looking at is virtualizing workloads from my point of view and if I were a CIO of a large enterprise this is how I would view it as well. From that perspective, yes, Microsoft does have a solution, a great solution, in Azure, you can run Remote Desktop Services (RDS) terminal services type applications.

To date Microsoft still doesn’t allow you to do a full virtual desktop (may have changed by the time this is published), but there are ways around that and you can certainly do VM’s and server desktops which usually fit the bill anyway. We are also a SPLA provider and do our own hosting and this is where Microsoft is a powerful player, the hybrid play, having some stuff on prem to support things like line of business apps, partner hosted VDI for example, and Azure for public cloud services. That being said in our own hosting environment it is rare we will do VDI over RDS, typically we can leverage an RDS solution rather than go full VDI. Additionally I think that there are actually some issues that are ongoing with Amazon over proper licensing for VDI as well as with some of these other hosting providers providing VDI. Technically VDI licensing at one point only covered on premise solutions and were not allowed in a SPLA or service provider scenario, this may have changed however. At the end of the day those providers extending VDI to their customers just sell more licenses for Microsoft anyway.

So they do have a solution, they also have by far the best cloud play/on premise play in a hybrid cloud solution. You can seamlessly integrate into the cloud and on premise and blur that entire line. It's key because a lot of customers are going to leverage that for a number of years to come. Regardless of how fast technology moves, the customer base is going to move as fast as they see fit, and not everybody’s going to pile onto the next cloud service that comes out there.

SEAN: Can you define what you’re referring to when you say SPLA?

JEROD: Service Provider License Agreement. It’s how hosting providers license Microsoft software on a monthly basis as needed and provide those licenses to their customers.

SEAN: Can you walk through what a case study would be for one of those hybrid cloud situations where the client has on premise infrastructure and they’re also leveraging Azure?

JEROD: Yes, there are a couple of scenarios we can reference. We leveraged Azure to host Active Directory Federation Services servers, which are servers used for single sign-on so that you can federate with your on premise active directory infrastructure and provide authentication. We’ve used it to expand storage for offsite backup and disaster recovery. We have leveraged Azure SQL Services to create BI dashboards with feeds from several internal customer data sources. And finally we have leveraged Azure to run development servers isolating them from the customer’s production servers. These are just a few of the scenarios that are possible but there are countless other applications of a hybrid cloud model.

That’s part of what we are now doing with our INFINIT Enterprise Private Cloud (iEPC) offering. We built our private cloud offering on Windows Server 2012 R2, Hyper-V, System Center, and the Widows Azure Pack which allows us to integrate directly with Azure, in an Azure-like interface. Then our customers, with a single interface, can easily move data processing from their OPEX based dedicated enterprise private cloud to Windows Azure as well as integrate with any on premise infrastructure.

SEAN: So what’s with all the negative press I keep seeing and reading about Microsoft?

JEROD: I think a lot of the negative press you see about Microsoft is because they’re the king, the company that everybody loves to hate for whatever reason. I guess maybe they were bullies way back when, but you see bullying the opposite way now, with Google, Amazon, Apple and some of the other big players.

The reality is, they’re continuing to innovate and I do think that they needed to make the CEO change, which should be big for them. With the new CEO now focused on cloud and a platform/productivity strategy, and a cloud-first mobile-first strategy, plus the type of enterprise solutions that they’ve always offered pushed into the cloud, the future is bright for Microsoft.


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