Red Dog: Ray Ozzie casts a long shadow

Why was Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie so focused on the Live Mesh sync product, but seemingly less so on the building blocks that were key to powering Microsoft's cloud platform? That's one of the many questions I had when I started researching this week's Red Dog series of posts....
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

It has been four months since Microsoft took the official wraps off its cloud-computing initiative.  Yet still relatively little still is known about the Azure platform and plans.

The part of Azure which intrigued me the most was the cloud operating system, code-named “Red Dog,” that is at its heart. Late last month, Microsoft allowed me access to many of the principals behind Red Dog — everyone from the infamous father of VMS and NT, David Cutler, to the handful of top-dog engineers who helped design and develop the various Red Dog core components. Over the course of this week, I’m going to be publishing a post a day about Red Dog.

Ozzie: An Outsider Comes In

When I started gathering information for this week's series on Microsoft's Red Dog cloud operating-system, I went in with some definite biases.

I was skeptical that engineers whose pedigrees were in Windows, not services, were the optimal group to develop Microsoft's cloud infrastructure. I was curious how Microsoft developers could suddenly turn on a dime and deliver rapid iterations of software plus services, after being accustomed to taking years (and years) to hone big-bang software releases. And I was definitely wondering about Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie's involvement in the project. Why was Ozzie so focused on the Live Mesh sync product, but seemingly less so on the building blocks that were key to powering Microsoft's cloud platform?

Check out the full Red Dog Series: Red Dog: Can you teach old Windows hounds new tricks? How the Red Dog dream team built a cloud OS from scratch Microsoft's Cloud OS Dream Team: Who's Who Red Dog: Five questions with Microsoft mystery man Dave Cutler Azure: One big, happy platform?

As I discovered during the course of my Red Dog meetings, Ozzie was anything but uninvolved in Red Dog and Azure. In fact, I heard from team members time and time again, without Ozzie's oversight and direct intervention, Red Dog and the broader Azure platform wouldn't have come together as quickly or comprehensively as they did.

Not everyone inside Microsoft is an Ozzie fan. Microsoft's previous Chief Software Architect, Bill Gates, left some big shoes to fill. And many long-time Softies had gotten used to Gates' way of doing things. They had internalized his priorities (protect Windows at all costs) and his methods (pit internal teams against one another, instead of getting them to cooperate).

One of Ozzie's biggest assets is the fact he's not a Microsoft veteran. His outsider status turned into a real benefit for the teams building Azure, according to my interviewees.

Abhay Parasnis, General Manager of Live Mesh, is an Ozzie fan (which you'd expect, given his position as a manager on one of Ozzie's pet projects). But Parasnis originally was recruited to Microsoft to work on a Gates project (Windows OE, the Windows workflow project). He's had the opportunity to see what it's like working with both of Microsoft's CSAs.

"Ray (Ozzie) realized he needed to reach into the Windows Core, Office and other 'startup' teams at Microsoft," Parasnis said. To pull off Azure, "he needed people who were used to working on mass-scale startups."

One of Ozzie's first tasks was sorting out what Parasnis called "technical tensions" between Windows and the Web. Ozzie got his founder's team thinking about "How we could build a set of capabilities that continued to make Windows a compelling platform," Parasnis said.

But Ozzie had other, equally thorny challenges, on his hands.

"Projects like this need a fairly large pool of people who have Type A personalities. How do you make them have a shared vision? Ray focuses on interpersonal dynamics as much as technology," Parasnis said.

[Can Microsoft really change?] -->

Can Microsoft really change?

Ozzie, unlike many Microsoft insiders, was more intent on exposing the consumer benefits of a new Microsoft platform or technology than the enterprise ones. He picked Live Mesh as the vehicle for showing off what a cloud platform could bring to the everyday user, instead of talking about "late binding vs. loose binding" and other cloud issues that would mean little to the average person, Parasnis said.

"Ray is more of a visionary. We (the Red Dog team) are more systems people," said Azure Chief Amitabh Srivastava. "There were lots of questions about which design point we should pick." But in the end it was clear that "we were doing a layer for Ray's vision."

Ozzie's collaborative focus was definitely key to the quick turnaround the Red Dog and Azure teams were able to achieve, added Doug Hauger, General Manager of Business Strategy for Azure.

"Ray gives good direction about where we should be going. He also facilitates an intellectual conversation that is very collaborative," Hauger said.

The Red Dog series made me realize that I am not much of a believer in the ability of people or companies to change. Microsoft: Once ruthless, always ruthless.

But one of my interviewees got me thinking. I asked how can Microsoft suddenly be all about collaboration and cooperation (and motherhood and apple pie), after 30 years' of practice in cultivating the cut-throat monopolist mentality. It's simple, he said. When there's a new sheriff in town who says, 'It's not just about Windows any more,' you have two choices: Quit or get with the new program.

I'm not ready to say Microsoft has gone soft. But it does sound like Ozzie, three years into his Microsoft tenure, is starting to have a discernible effect on the people, strategies and products at Microsoft. Do you agree?

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