James O'Neill's Blog

November 1, 2010

Thinking about the cloud – part 2, Office 365

Filed under: Azure / Cloud Services,Exchange,Office,Real Time Collaboration — jamesone111 @ 3:03 pm

In my previous post I was talking in general terms about why BPOS was a sound idea. The recent announcement of Ray Ozzie’s retirement set people quoting his mantra “Three screens and a cloud” – the three screens being Computer, Mobile device, and TV.  The unwritten part of “Three screens” is recognising their diversity: people should interact with the best possible client – which means adapting to the specifics of each “screen”; it’s not “any browser and a cloud”: many phone apps do something which PCs do in the browser, they only exist because of the need to give a different experience on a different kind of screen. Instead of seeing a monolithic website (which in reality probably wasn’t monolithic) we see an app which consumes a service (probably the same service which was behind the web site).

But there was more than publishing stuff using services instead of HTML pages; more even than the likes of Groove or Live Meeting which used the cloud to enable new things.  From Ozzie’s vision, famously expressed in 2005, came a realization that services already used by business PCs and devices would increasingly be in the cloud, instead of on an organizations own servers. That was the cue to provide Exchange as a service, SharePoint as a service and so on. We’ve tried to make a distinction between “Software as a Service” – which in some people’s minds is “Any browser and a cloud” and “Software PLUS Services” – which covers a plethora of client software: from multi-player games on Xbox to iTunes to Outlook talking to an Exchange server. But when Office Outlook on a PC accesses Exchange-Online , Exchange is software and it is provided as a service –it just isn’t accessed using a browser: I haven’t yet seen a successful way to make the distinction between the two kinds of “Software as a service” just understand it has different meanings depending on who is speaking.

I don’t know if it was planned but it seemed fitting that we should announce the next generation of BPOS on the day after Ray’s announcement.  I prefer the new name Office 365. Mary Jo Foley posted something headed “This is not Office in the cloud” – in which she says “this was not some out-of-the-blue change in Microsoft’s business model. Microsoft is still pushing Office first and foremost as a PC-based software package.” Which is spot on: if you need office in a browser, Office Web App is there but it is not a replacement. I wrote in the previous post about the challenges of providing SharePoint, Exchange and so on, it is not Office but the services behind Office which are in the cloud. The key points of Office 365 are these:

  • At it’s core are the latest versions of the Server Software (Lync replaces Office Communications Server and provides Live Meeting functionality, and both Exchange and SharePoint are updated).  The FAQ page has a link to explain what happens to existing BPOS customers (and there are plenty of them – sending 167 million e-mails a day).
  • The ability to create a Public website (previously part of Office Live Small Business) has moved into Office 365 (Again the FAQ page explains what will happen to Office Live Small Business)
  • The update to SharePoint 2010 enables us to offer Office Web Apps – so documents can be viewed in high fidelity and edited from the browser.
  • Despite the the presence of Office Web Apps the main client will be Office on Desktop computers : Office Professional Plus for the desktop is now available as a part of the package on the same monthly subscription basis
  • There is a-la-carte pricing for individual parts of the suite and bundles known as plans targeted at different market segments.

I think the a-la-carte pricing option is a good thing – though some are bound to say “Microsoft are offering too many options”. The plans are just the combinations of cloud services we think will be popular; services can be added to a plan or bought standalone – for example “Kiosk” workers can get on the company e-mail system with Outlook web access from $2.  We’ve announced that the plans will cost between $4 to $27 per month,  that one of the enterprise plans closely mirrors the current BPOS at the same $10/user/month, and that there will be $6 plan with the features we think small business will need. In the run up to the launch I did see some details of different plans and options but I haven’t seen all of these in the announcements and it is not impossible that they will be fine tuned before the system goes fully live.  When will that be? The launch has a beta programme (sign-up is at http://office365.microsoft.com) , Mary-Jo said back in July that the plan was for full launch was early 2011 which sounds about right – it’s also necessarily vague, because a beta might reveal a lot of unexpected work to be done: if you want a more precise date I always say in these cases those who know won’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.

We’ve positioned Office 365 as helping small businesses to think big and big business to act fast – the link gives examples which range from the Starwood hotel chain to a single independent restaurant – it’s worth taking time to work out what it might mean to the organization(s) you work in/with: the cloud might be right for you, it might not – but if it isn’t I’d want to be able to explain why not and not have people think an opportunity was being missed through inertia.

This post originally appeared on my technet blog.

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October 19, 2010

Thinking about the cloud (part 1).

Filed under: Azure / Cloud Services,Exchange,Office,Real Time Collaboration — jamesone111 @ 5:49 pm

I was telling someone recently that before I joined Microsoft I spent the late 1990s running a small training company. The number of employees varied, averaging out at a dozen or so. I delivered training, did the business management, helped the win over customers and I looked after the IT. It was like doing two or three jobs.

I’ve been quite reticent about our  “Business Productivity Online Service“partly because it takes a long and closely argued post to cover why, from an IT professional’s point of view, getting rid of your servers isn’t abdicating. (This is not going to be that post). But as chance would have it I was looking at BPOS again with my old job in my thoughts.  B-POS sounds like it should be something… ”points of sale”, but it is Exchange,Communications server and Sharepoint provided as Pay-monthly “Cloud services”

In the training company we ran all our own IT services, but there’s no way I’d host my own web-server today: the sense of using a hosting company was clear before I left for Microsoft.  The launch of BPOS gave businesses a way to get hosted Mail (Exchange), Presence & IM (OCS) and Collaboration & Document management (Sharepoint) for $10 US per month – or in round numbers £80 annually – per user. Comparing that with the cost of server hardware and software and especially the time that in-house systems took up, if I were running that business today, my head would say get rid of the servers.  You can mix in-house and in-cloud servers; users keep the same desktop software which is crucial: you don’t give up Outlook to move your mailboxes to the cloud.

It needs a change of attitude to give up the server. If my head argued costs and figures,  my heart might have come back with benefits like “You are master of your own destiny with the servers in-house”. But are you ? Back then we couldn’t justify clustering our servers, so if hardware failed – work would stop until it was repaired. Paying for a service in a Microsoft datacentre means it runs on clustered hardware, which someone else maintains. Microsoft’s datacentre is a bigger target for attack, but the sheer scale of the operation allows investment in tiers of defence. Small businesses tend not to worry about these things until something goes wrong, and you can always tell yourself that the risk is OK if you’re getting a better service in-house. But the truth is you’re probably not getting  better service.  As a Microsoft employee I’m used to having access to my mail and calendar from anything that connect to the internet – laptop at home, or on the move, any PC with web access, or Sync’d to a phone. I doubt if I would have set that up for the training company but it’s part of BPOS – even to the extent of supporting iPhones and Blackberries.   Getting rid of servers could not only save money but give users a better set of tools to use in their jobs – an easier thing to accept now that I don’t run servers for a business.

Now if you’ve come across the idea of the HypeCycle (see Wikipedia if not) – I agree with Gartner that cloud technologies somewhere near “peak of inflated expectations”  – in other words people are talking up “the cloud” beyond it’s true capabilities, and if things follow a normal course there will be a “trough of disillusionment” before things find their true level. I don’t buy into the idea that in the future scarcely any business will bother with keeping their own server, any more than they would generate their own electricity.  Nor do I buy into the polar opposite – that very few organisations, and none with any sense, will keep critical services in the cloud – that idea seems just as implausible to me. So the truth must lie in between: the method of delivering services to users won’t change from one foregone conclusion (the in-house server) to another foregone conclusion (the service in the cloud), like so many things it will be a question of businesses asking “does it make sense to do this in-house”, and I think IT professionals will want to avoid depending on that question being answered one way.

This post originally appeared on my technet blog.

March 5, 2010

Steve Ballmer talks about our cloud strategy

Filed under: Azure / Cloud Services — jamesone111 @ 3:19 pm

Yesterday Steve gave a talk at the University of Washington to discuss how cloud computing will change the way people and businesses use technology.

You can watch the speech on demand here, the video is about 85 minutes long, and if you want to get a snapshot of how we see things developing you can’t do much better. 

This post originally appeared on my technet blog.

February 23, 2010

What is Windows Azure ?

Filed under: Azure / Cloud Services — jamesone111 @ 2:37 pm

"What is Windows Azure?" click for Video RNLI - Click for a larger version with readable text 

One of the things that seemed odd when I first came to Microsoft, was the way we put up posters for our own internal consumption. I’ve long since grown used to it: inevitably some of these are interesting, some are not, some are eye-catching and some are not. In the atrium of my building this week is a picture of a lifeboat and as a Scuba diver I have a bit of an interest in lifeboats, an organization I hope not to see when they are on duty but really want to be there. So a picture of one is bound to get my attention.

It turns out that the RNLI is one of the early customers using real world – sorry for being melodramatic – life and death applications on Windows Azure (the system handles man overboard alerts: email might seem like life and death at times, but getting this right is the difference between lives saved and lives lost.)  This is one of a set of posters around the place advertising the LiveOnAzure website using different case studies (you can go straight to the UK-Focused case studies themselves)

“Stuff in the cloud” is unknown territory for many people. There are those  run away with the idea and and start talking as if it means getting rid of all the IT in a business or the talk degenerates into  something like “Buzzword, Buzzword, cloud, Buzzword, utility, Buzzword, Buzzword, services Buzzword cloud cloud Buzzword, platform, Buzzword,pay as you go, Buzzword,Buzzword”

The LiveOnAzure site links to some great resources, including the 4  Minute video I’ve linked to here. If you want to cut through to quick understanding of what Azure is about, it’s 255 seconds well  spent, afterwards, if you’re interested, there is plenty more to study on the live on azure site.

This post originally appeared on my technet blog.

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