Bill Gates announced on Monday that Microsoft will offer online business services to companies of all sizes. At the moment, only organizations with more than 5,000 users are supported. With online business services he meant Exchange Online and Sharepoint Online. Obviously, this is a response to Google and the cloud computing hype. Since we are planning to introduce Sharepoint in our organization, I was curious to learn more about this new offer.
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Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find more technical information about it. There is a lot of media coverage, but most of the articles I found are just repeating Gates’ announcement. Microsoft’s web site has a bit more information, but doesn’t answer all the questions that came into my mind.
So I tried to sign up for the beta trial, but I didn’t get very far. After I signed in with my Windows Live ID Microsoft wanted some more personal information. I don’t know how often I have given them my address already, but okay, I filled out the form again. That wasn’t enough, though. The registration wizard was insisting on getting my phone number, too. Since I am really curious about this trial I was willing to give them all they need. The only problem was there was no form field for the phone number. So I thought that maybe Firefox just didn’t display that field and started the whole thing again in IE. However, IE wasn’t even able to launch the registration wizard. All I got were a couple of run time errors.
Perhaps it was just too early in the morning for my Vista machine. Sometimes it takes as long as my first cup of coffee in the morning before it becomes fully operational. So I tried again with Firefox on an XP machine. Hard to believe, but I finally was allowed to deliver all my personal information. So I was looking forward to my first experience in cloud computing. However, all I got for my efforts was: “No services available for trial this time.” This was it then, my first cloud experience. It vaporized before I could even get a grip on it. If you had more luck, please let us know.
The question I was most curious about was how I could integrate Exchange and Sharepoint in our IT infrastructure. They both heavily rely on Active Directory, so that would certainly be the tricky part when it comes to moving those two backend apps to Microsoft’s cloud machinery. The info page about Microsoft Exchange Online tries to answer this question:
Exchange Online extends rich capabilities to your users with a single sign-on, including e-mail, shared calendaring, and contacts. And it works with Active Directory to ensure that information is synchronized between your local and online directories, allowing your IT department to support a mix of hosted services and on-premise software. Additionally, Exchange Online supports business continuity and disaster recovery with cloud-based antivirus and spam filtering and high data center security standards.
“Cloud-based antivirus” sounds cool. I must admit I never heard the term “on-premise software”, but Wikipedia knows about it, so it seems like I missed something. It stands for old-style software, i.e. for programs that have to be installed in the building of your organization. Anyway, it seems to be possible to run Active Directory on your “old-style Windows servers” and synchronize user accounts with a “new-style Active Directory” that is located somewhere in the cloud.
We have some experiences in directory synchronization with third parties and they were not really positive. Many things can go wrong. It is doable, of course. But the main question is if the efforts necessary to get this running outweighs the savings. I don’t know about Sharepoint yet, but our Exchange server is quite an undemanding fellow. Usually, we only touch it when we upgrade to a new version. The rest of the time it doesn’t require much attention.
I think the integration of hosted services with on-premise software (I am practicing the usage of this new word) is the biggest problem when it comes to cloud computing. Let’s assume Microsoft also runs Active Directory for you and all other Microsoft apps you have. What about third party applications? Say an application that relies on Exchange? Can you host it in another cloud? And how can the apps in different clouds communicate?
Microsoft’s new cloud efforts are certainly driven by Google. They want to get their share of the big cloud. The strange thing about this cloudy hype is that is has been already there for quite some time, but the sky is still bright. So all those weather forecasts about overcasts didn’t come true, yet. Sometimes some little fleecy clouds show up for a day when Google comes out with a new announcement, but then, as Mr. Gates noticed correctly, they vanish pretty fast:
Most of these Google products, to be frank, the day they announce them is their best day and then after that ....
So why is Microsoft so afraid of Google then? Don Reisinger from ITworld.com thinks it is simply jealousy. Microsoft is somehow obsessed with Google. I absolutely agree. I am sure you won’t disagree after you watched Ballmer’s new web developer’s dance: