I've recently been working with a couple of different cloud tools and services, and I'm starting to come to the conclusion that cloud platforms are now mature enough that small and medium businesses need to seriously consider using cloud services to replace some, or possibly all, of their core infrastructure. I'm actually quite surprised that the tipping point has happened so quickly, and it was only a few weeks ago that I was arguing with some friends that cloud services really weren't ready for the heavy lifting that a well run on-premises server can give.
I should clarify things here – I'm not talking about software as a service solutions like SalesForce.com, and nor am I talking about platform as a service solutions like Windows Azure. Both of those have their place, and both give businesses access to significant functionality that would normally be either too expensive or too complex to implement in house. Instead it's using cloud services and servers to replace those everyday IT tools that take up time to run and maintain, from provisioning users to managing intranet servers.
While Google's many online Apps are starting to finally gain the enterprise features they've needed for some time (and with the ability for third parties to build on them, we're seeing even more progress), it's Microsoft's next generation of cloud tools that’s really surprised me. Or perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, as a recent conversation with John Betz, director of product management for Microsoft Online Services in Redmond revealed that Microsoft had been working on a common platform for its online services, one that simplified how they'd be rolled out and also improved how they scaled. Building on top of Azure, that common platform simplifies the process of building new management interfaces (and we can expect additional tools to follow on, with Project and CRM due to offer online services in 2011).
The tools I've been working with are Windows InTune, a cloud hosted tool for managing desktop PCs (with support for remote access, for anti-malware, and for managing how and when machines get updates), and Office 365 (a one stop shop for business productivity servers and services). Both have been incredibly easy to set up, and both very reliable. Simple, well-designed portals work in most modern browsers, and the client side tooling is either unobtrusive or is built into familiar desktop applications. There's very little for users familiar with Microsoft applications to learn, as far as they're concerned they're using Exchange, or SharePoint, or Lync, or Windows Update. They don't need to know where the servers are, whether they're on-premises or in the cloud.
It's that last point that really matters. Moving to the cloud should be seamless; it should be just a continuation of your existing business processes. Businesses don't need disruption; they don't need a learning curve. Bringing the familiar to the cloud is going to be a success for small and medium businesses that don't have big IT budgets, and certainly don't have the budget for any disruption, of any type. Familiar is good, it inspires confidence and reduces risk – something dear to the hearts of any CIO or CFO – and it's a lesson Microsoft has learnt many times over the years.
With a maturing cloud platform and now a set of well-designed cloud services, Microsoft is about to make a big change in the way it makes money from small and medium businesses, moving them away from one time purchases into a long term subscription-based relationship. With InTune and Live 365 in beta, 2011 looks like the year that change really starts to gain traction. Perhaps I'll be able to turn off my Exchange server as well.
There are a few more things that point the same way
I recently met someone who described their job at Microsoft as changing them from being a distributor to a direct sale software company (now I'm sure that comes with caveats, is targetted at a specific area and doesn't mean there's no future in being a Microsoft partner - but I'm also sure it means direct sales of cloud software).
And then there's the fact that the person presenting about Lync at Microsoft TechEd this year was not the director of some services team but the director of the product team, Denis Karlinsky. Today, services from Microsoft are still catching up to the on-premise tools, but they're catching up fast. The next generation of products from Microsoft in this space are being built as both server and service together; as Karlinsky puts "It's not server first and then service, it's equal - it's how do we get all the functionality there so we blur the experience between server and service." Eventually it will be Microsoft building the service first; "Going forward we see feature innovation happening online before it gets packaged up for the next version of Exchange," Betz told us. At that point you'll only be explicitly choosing to run these systems in house for business reasons that are nothing to do with features and not every company will have those reasons.