Microsoft Is Poised to Answer Google’s Cloud Challenge

By Don Willmott

Last week I wrote about Google‘s efforts to rush us into a cloud-based IT future. Well, far be it from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to sit idly by while his chief competitor steals the spotlight. Ballmer roared back in an extensive Information Week interview that can only bolster my conclusion that IT is not just heading toward the cloud, it’s racing toward it at breakneck speed. Microsoft is “all in” when it comes to cloud computing, Ballmer said, and he expects massive growth in this market. When Ballmer talks you can’t help but listen because he’s famous for talking LOUDLY.

Take it away, Steve:

We have hit a point where things have been, let me say, moving along, incubating, coming along, being used, but I think we’re really at a point where we’ll see a transformational kind of hockey stick in the pace with which we will accelerate our efforts and our customers, most importantly, will accelerate their adoption, which is kind of the reason we get out and talk about things, and sort of put the stake in the ground at this stage.

Truth be told, Microsoft doesn’t have quite as much credibility as Google when it comes to evangelizing the cloud, but what Microsoft does have is the apps everyone uses – plus its Azure cloud development environment and platform – and the question becomes whether it can deliver what enterprises already know they want in a cloud-based format. “There is not an enterprise customer I visit today where this is not an issue – just not,” Ballmer said.

And it’s not just Google that’s in Ballmer’s crosshairs. Amazon has already been quite successful with its versatile (albeit relatively expensive) Elastic Computer Cloud (EC2) cloud-enabling environment, but Ballmer is unimpressed:

The truth of the matter is there’s nobody with an offer like ours in the market today, not even close. We’re actually trying to help people do what they really will need to do for the modern time. You don’t get that out of what Amazon is doing. Amazon is a great company doing great stuff, but they basically say give us your VMs and you can still muck around at the low level.

Care to respond, Jeff Bezos?

Ballmer asserts, and I agree, that cloud services must be built very differently than enterprise-based services because they must be managed so differently. That’s why it isn’t easy to take specific applications or what he calls “lines of business software” and merely move them online. Microsoft’s biggest successes so far have been with its groupware and e-mail offeriengs. Exchange is ubiquitous in corporate America, and SharePoint, for all its drawback, has been a success story for Microsoft.

In fact, Ballmer noted in the interview that CIOs are also telling him that the other big initiative they’re pondering is collaboration in all its forms. This will certainly get Microsoft’s attention because Google has already fired the first shot with its so-cool-it’s-nearly-incomprehensible Google Wave. Perhaps you’ve already done a little bit of SharePoint vs. Google Wave analysis. Sharepoint certainly offers the kind of control that enterprise IT desires. Who knows what Google Wave will look like when it gets a general release, but Google CEO Eric Schmidt did say in his most recent public remarks that Google gets it when it comes to security for cloud-based apps. We’ll see about that eventually.

In the meantime, now might be a good time to check in with your Microsoft enterprise sales rep to see how the current pitch sounds: cloudy or not so cloudy? My forecast is that it will be cloudy indeed. Once Steve Ballmer latches onto something, he’s not inclined to let go, especially if it means he can stick it to a couple of competitors. Your Microsoft implementations are sure to evolve soon. It’s going to be a fascinating transformation.