Some days ago Steve Ballmer talked about Microsoft's commitment to cloud computing. I suppose, many people were quite surprised that Ballmer claims that 70% of Microsoft's 40,000 employees are already working in one way or another on Microsoft's cloud. Of course, he didn't mean that the majority of Microsoft's workforce is engaged with Azure. Obviously, Ballmer must have a very broad concept of cloud computing.
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My first reaction was comparable to Mary Jo Foley's. If Hotmail, Windows Live, Xbox Live, etc., are all considered cloud computing, then it can't be some new kind of technology but something we have been using for many years already. This also means that it is not a question of whether cloud computing will prevail. Cloud computing is already everywhere, and everyone is using it. Mary Jo Foley thinks that marketing is the reason for trying to establish such a broad definition of the cloud. I mean, what other company can say that they have 28,000 people working on their cloud infrastructure? Thus, Redmond is not following Amazon, Google, and company in cloud computing—Microsoft is actually the leader in cloud computing.
At first, I disliked Ballmer’s speech because I also saw it as a marketing trick. I was thinking that if one would just erase the expression "the cloud" from his speech and let some IT professionals guess what he is actually talking about, most of them probably would have thought he was referring to the web or perhaps the Internet as a whole. The danger of such a wishy-washy definition of the cloud is that it downplays the new technologies that most IT people associate with cloud computing. I mean, why does anyone need Azure for cloud computing if I can also do it with a simple web server?
I then listened again to some parts of the speech, and this changed my mind. I can't tell why, exactly. But after a while I realized that he is not just talking about some dumb web apps. 28,000 people are a lot. Hence Ballmer's concept of the cloud must be even broader. He probably also counts a large number of the Windows team members in his cloud workforce estimate. And then consider his email to all Microsoft employees. If this is just a marketing trick, then why so enthusiastically encourage 40,000 people to embrace the cloud?
I think, Ballmer recognized that something fundamental is changing in information technology. It is happening gradually but steadily, and it grows exponentially. He decided for himself that "the cloud" is the most fitting term for this development. None of those concepts that usually come up when people talk about cloud computing, such as pay-as-you-go pricing and scalability, are new. For instance, pay-as-you-go is a very old concept in IT and was quite popular during mainframe time.
So what is new? What the heck is the cloud? It has to do with the internet but it is more than that. In the beginning people mostly used the internet to access information by simply downloading files. Then, came the Web 2.0. People started not just to consume information but also contribute to the web in blogs, video portals, social networks, etc. One of the founders of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, believes that the Web 3.0 will be the semantic web. This will certainly not to be case. Nobody cares about the semantic web. So what will be the next step, the next release of the internet, the internet 3.0? Well, it is the cloud.
By now, you are probably thinking I am making fun of you because you still don't have a clue what the cloud is. Okay, I tortured you long enough. What’s new are the applications, the software that reaches out to the internet. Now you will probably laugh. You knew all along that the cloud is about web applications. This is what the Google evangelists are preaching. No, that is not my point. Perhaps web apps were the first cloud apps. The new thing is that almost any kind of software is connected through the internet with other applications. This is why 70% of Microsoft's employees are already working on "cloud technology." When Ballmer said:
All of our products make the cloud better, and the cloud makes our products better.
he meant that no application should just run separately on a PC or a mobile phone. Good applications run in the cloud. For Microsoft that means that every application has components that run locally and components that run somewhere else, perhaps on the other side of the globe, or perhaps simultaneously on multiple continents around the globe.
Of course, at the moment only a relatively small portion of every Microsoft application has cloud components. But Ballmer's enthusiastic speech can only mean one thing. This is going to change, and it has to change fast. An example is Office 2010. Its cloud components are the most interesting part. It is not just the web version that runs in the cloud. For instance, Outlook's new Facebook connector is a cloud-based component. This way a part of Facebook becomes a part of Outlook and vice versa. It becomes more and more unclear where an application actually runs. If Outlook is not only connected to Exchange but also to Gmail, Facebook, or perhaps to Twitter, then the best way to account for this is to say that Outlook is not just a client-server application, but a cloud application or an application that runs in the cloud. As I've said before: Cloud computing is location virtualization. It doesn't just virtualize hardware or operating systems; the cloud virtualizes the place where software runs.
Thus, the difference to all other cloud concepts (and there are countless definitions floating on the web) is that the cloud is not just something that runs far away in a huge datacenter to which we connect with a dumb web browser. The cloud is the internet 3.0. And the third evolutionary revolution is that now not only every user contributes to the internet, now every application "makes the cloud better." Every mobile phone, every PC, and every server is part of the cloud.
We are only at the beginning, of course. However, I have no doubt that Microsoft and the whole Windows ecosystem has the resources to change this quickly. There are still only a couple of fleecy clouds in the sky, but it is probably only a matter of a couple of years until we will find ourselves amid a thunder storm.