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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Microsoft is dreaming in the clouds, when it comes to its new OS

Microsoft and free aren't words that you expect together in a sentence. While the prolific operating system maker has been generous in offering discounted licenses to students and to developing nations, it has always made sure it got its fair slice.Well for a limited time, developers will get to use and test a unique new OS from Microsoft -- Windows Azure -- entirely for free. The new OS marks the release of Microsoft's long awaited cloud computing operating system.For those in the dark about cloud computing, you're not alone -- the abstract concept is a new one and very challenging to developers. In basic principle, it’s the concept of offloading tasks from workstations to cloud clusters -- high powered groups of servers. This setup leverages modern high-speed internet connections to deliver data storage, applications hosting and more.Cloud computing is tremendously popular, as it is widely viewed as the future of web hosting. One key reason for this is that cloud computing allows applications to easily scale to match rising or falling demand, without shifting local hardware. In order to deliver increasingly rich applications over an internet interface, moving to a cloud computing architecture becomes increasingly necessary. However, until now cloud computing lacked a single iconic operating system specially designed for it.That has all changed with the release of Microsoft's Azure. The new OS is a community preview, available free to any developers. This is a slight departure from Microsoft's RM/Beta/Alpha sequence typical to many of its operating systems, though it has done community previews of other releases before. "How long until the OS hits the market," is one question many will ask. Microsoft's Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie was on hand to answer questions about the new OS, and he fielded this one. He stated, "Well, when we finally determine that it achieves the objectives from a completeness perspective and a reliability perspective that our customers would expect of us, then we'll go commercial. And when it does, it will be profitable from birth because we're going to price it to be that way."While Microsoft's OS is similar, according to Mr. Ozzie, to Amazon's EC2 web service in some respects, it is overall rather unique. Some users will be confused, he says, to restart their computers only to find their hard drives empty. Despite the .NET foundation, developers will have to adapt to the new storage system and adapt to the new error handling system.Mr. Ozzie says that Microsoft's growing interest in data centers and serving is the key to the company's success. He says, "It's a business that we will be in probably as long as there will be a Microsoft. ... Cloud computing is ultimately going to be 'do you trust this provider to have more to lose than I have to lose as a company if they mess me up?' And Microsoft has both the capacity to invest and the willingness to be in that end of a business, and give that kind of a trust assurance to developers and enterprises."While many outside the development community will meet the news of this new Microsoft OS with a bit of confusion as it’s not something they can easily experience, the bottom line is that this OS will help drive a new generation of feature-rich websites. And while cloud computing from an architecture standpoint might be perplexing to some, being able to use rich applications like word processing online, with free storage, would be easy to understand, and a highly desired development.As for Mr. Ozzie, he firmly believes the new OS represents the future of Windows, and is perhaps more critical than even Windows 7. He says that in 20 years, cloud computers will be household items and the once foreign concept will have been embraced, much as the personal computer was two decades ago. Says Mr. Ozzie, "It's a new kind of computer that 20 years from now we'll wonder how we did without."


Windows Azure: The End Of Software?
Forget the marketing hype, Windows Azure isn't the latest Microsoft operating system. It's a business strategy. One that shows Redmond believes the days in which it can make fat profits from software alone are numbered.
Let's deal with the technology for a moment. Windows Azure is a hosted, runtime version of Windows Server. OK, that's out of the way. Now let's look at the business plan.
Under Windows Azure, the strategy, Microsoft is entering the hosted services market in a big way. Earlier this year, the company opened vast new data centers in Washington state and San Antonio, Texas. It also plans to open server farms in Chicago and Dublin in the near future. Now it's clear why.
Microsoft is betting that an increasing number of its customers will want their applications on tap -- from "the cloud" (i.e., the Internet) -- in the years ahead. And it's going to charge them subscription fees that cover hosting, maintenance, upgrades, and the software itself.
Microsoft's pitch to business: "Pay for the services you use and reduce capital costs associated with purchasing hardware and infrastructure." With Windows Azure, "You can scale at the click of a mouse to meet seasonal demands or spikes in traffic based on sales and promotions," the company assures.
Makes sense. In fact, it makes so much sense that IBM went down this road more than a decade ago.
IBM in the late '90s realized what Microsoft, as it watches Vista sales languish, is just now discovering. Software has become a commodity. There's so much free stuff out there -- from Linux to Gmail -- that making a buck off lines of code is getting harder every day. And each year, the free stuff gets better and better.
IBM's free Lotus Symphony office suite has seen more than 200,000 downloads to date. That's 200,000 users that don't need to buy Microsoft Office.
IBM correctly bet that the best way to make money from software was to sell hosting, installation, integration, and support services. Those are big, capital- and labor-intensive businesses where scale matters and barriers to entry are high. No pimply-faced geek living in his mother's basement in Latvia is going to open a 5-acre server farm and put you out of business.
Google, with its Google Apps offerings, has figured this out as well.
So the Windows Azure strategy is the right move -- but Microsoft is a tad late to the party. And the transition from packaged software seller to hosted services provider is not going to be an easy one. Microsoft still relies on old-school software sales for the bulk of its profits.
Still, does the company have any other choice?
Microsoft says its newest operating system will be used to control embedded systems.
Additionally, it will feature Microsoft's BitLocker drive encryption and key management security technology, and, like Windows 7, 64-bit support.
"Windows Embedded 'Quebec' will provide OEMs with the ability to further differentiate their devices by taking rich user experiences to the next level," said Kevin Dallas, general manager of Microsoft's Windows Embedded Unit, in a statement Tuesday from the Embedded Systems conference in Boston.
Microsoft offered developers their first peek at Windows 7 this week.
The company said the next version of its franchise OS will feature improved compatibility and will be more user friendly than Vista. Microsoft said it plans to release a trial, or beta, version of Windows 7 early next year.
The desktop version of Windows 7 will feature a new taskbar and a streamlined interface that will make users' most frequently used programs—such as a music player or a word processing app--easier to access, according to Microsoft. It will also include a new feature, Device Stage, that's designed to increase compatibility between the host computer and commonly used peripherals such as printers, phones, and digital cameras.
The company also said, "Windows 7 will offer more options than ever to customize and personalize Windows-based PCs with styles that match the user's personality," though it provided little detail.
Perhaps most significantly, Microsoft said applications that are compatible with Windows Vista will work with Windows 7 because the two operating systems share the same basic architecture. "Windows 7 extends developers' investments in Windows Vista," the company said in a statement.
Upon its debut in January of last year, Vista was roundly criticized for its lack of compatibility with applications built for the older Windows XP operating system. The problem was partly to blame for the fact that
few businesses have upgraded from XP to Vista, even though Vista has now been on the market for almost two years.
"With our new approach to planning and development we now have a great foundation for our partners to start learning and innovating on this exciting new version of Windows," said Steven Sinofsky, senior VP for Microsoft's Windows Engineering Group. Microsoft has established
a Web site where developers can learn more about building applications for Windows 7.

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