Cloud Computing For The Non-Believer
There's a lot of hype and attention currently around so called "cloud" computing, how it's going to revolutionise the computer industry as we know it, and possibly even cure world hunger. When you look more closely at what is (and more importantly what is not) cloud computing, it does seem to be more an evolution of technologies and how we're using them, rather than some sort of revolution that has (or is) going to change the face of computer systems forever.
However that particular discussion could fill several blog posts and is not what I wanted to cover in this article, and there's more than enough discussion on this already as well as what defines cloud computing and how businesses can take advantage of it.
What has gotten my interest is Microsoft's reasonably unique approach, and surprisingly strong (albeit late) entry into the cloud computing arena. With the likes of Google, Salesforce.com and Amazon all having had strong cloud based offerings for some time, many figured Microsoft were too late to the party, are too stuck in the "software on the desktop" model, and did not have the sort of cohesive vision to be able to come up with any sort of compelling offering to compete with the current big names in the cloud space.
Taking a step back, there are still key aspects to cloud computing that many business (possibly even most businesses) are still very uncomfortable with, and these are a cause of resistance to moving critical business systems (e.g. Financial, ERP, CRM etc.) into the cloud. This resistance does appear to be slowly changing as businesses experiment with less critical systems such as ecommerce, extended intranets, and productivity tools like Google Docs and encounter a positive experience. But when it comes to critical business data, issues such as security, IP and retention of data onsite are still large roadblocks for many business decision makers.
Microsoft look to have formed a strategy that not only offers a wider range of cloud services than any other single provider, but they have packaged their offering to provide a unique degree of flexibility that is likely to resonate with those still uncomfortable with throwing their entire business into the cloud.
The key aspects of their strategy that are particularly impressive, and give Microsoft a strong point of difference to the rest of the market (important when you're late to the party as Microsoft so often is) are twofold:
- An approach that offers the ability to slice and dice how far you want to go with putting your systems into the Cloud. Want to jump straight in and move everything to the cloud, no problems. Not convinced the cloud is nothing more than a passing fad? That’s fine, these system will run just as well on-premises (e.g. CRM 2011 uses the same code base for the on-premises and online versions). Interested in the cloud but not quite prepared to bet the whole horse and cart? That’s fine too, Microsoft offering is a fairly unique ability to combine and run your systems partly in the cloud and partly on-premises.
- Microsoft have a very broad coverage of business applications and platforms, from Office and the Dynamics family through to Server platforms such as Exchange, SQL Server and Windows Server. Microsoft looks to be one of the few providers who can provide such a broad range of systems via the cloud as well. While most can offer one or two of the three cloud based "...as a service" verticals (Infrastructure, Platform, and Software), Microsoft have managed to leverage all their platforms to be able to provide significant enterprise offerings in the "Infrastructure as a Service" (think virtualised servers), "Platform as a Server" (think Azure and Azure SQL), and "Software as a Service" (think CRM Online or Office 365).
This broad coverage in the cloud space has come as a somewhat of a surprise to me, over the years I've become used to seeing Microsoft throwing all sorts of stuff out there, some good some not so good - but usually there has always being a feeling of disconnect and lack of inherent integration between much of their software and platforms.
Not so with their cloud offerings, now you can pick and choose pieces from any of these cloud offerings, and even combine them transparently with any internal systems you want to keep as well. For example maybe you already run SharePoint internally, but want to try out CRM Online. No problems, sign up for CRM Online (takes less than 5 minutes) and you can configure your SharePoint Server to access your new CRM Online and display data from CRM. If you're using SharePoint for document management, you can also assign documents against various account or contacts (or anything else) within CRM Online - and then access and edit these documents from CRM Online or SharePoint.
Another example to illustrate this flexibility; you already have a website hosted with a web hosting company (and you're happy with their service and don't wish to move your site), but you'd like to allow your customers to login using their Windows Live logins. You're also thinking of going with CRM, and would like to take information from CRM and make it available to customers on your existing website - should you go with CRM Online or install CRM on premises?
The answer is it doesn't matter; either option will work just fine. You can use Azure to provide the Windows Live login facilities (it will link directly back to your existing website), and both CRM Online or CRM on-premises will allow you to access and pull out CRM data and display it on your current website.
Thus with Microsoft's approach you are not forced down a particular route, and don't have to engage in an all or nothing battle in order to start your cloud computing experience. Ultimately this level of flexibility is good for businesses as it allows them to build IT Strategies based on their own business needs and requirements, and not be forced into what some vendor might consider to be best practice.