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By | Neil McAllister 6th December 2014 14:01

Vendor lock-in is truly a TERRIBLE idea ... says, er, Microsoft

How the cloud taught Redmond to play by a new set of rules

Comment When it comes to building applications for the cloud, John Gossman thinks agility and portability are essential. "You don't want to get locked in too much to a particular vendor, strategy, technology, whatever," he says.

Gossman's advice should shock nobody. What might surprise you, though, is that he works for Microsoft.

Ten months into Satya Nadella's tenure as CEO, it's getting harder and harder to make the case that the Microsoft of today is the same company that it was even a year ago.

Whether it's Nadella's claim that "Microsoft loves Linux," or the decision to open source the entire .Net framework, or Redmond's recent partnership with Docker to bring its Linux container technology to Windows Server, today's Microsoft seems uncharacteristically willing to admit that it will never rule the IT ocean – and even, perhaps, that it's more productive to swim with the tide than against it.

"I've never walked into an enterprise that is all Windows or all Linux or anything," Gossman admitted, speaking at the inaugural DockerCon EU conference in Amsterdam on Friday. "And that includes Microsoft. We have, just from Skype alone, a big set of Linux things."

Gossman is no fresh-faced agitator looking to change Redmond from within, either. A 15-year veteran of the firm, he came to Microsoft when it acquired Visio in late 1999. Since then, he's played a pivotal role in developing Silverlight and the Windows Presentation Foundation, among other projects.

These days, he's an architect with the Azure group – and that's key, because if any one thing seems to be driving Microsoft's change of tune, it's the ascension of the cloud.

As Gossman pointed out in a panel discussion at DockerCon on Friday, if you're in charge of an IT department today, there's probably someone higher up the food chain who is asking you what your cloud strategy is – and your answer better not be that you're going to run all of your applications in your own data center.

"Unless you're in some highly regulated industry, you're probably going to get fired," Gossman said.

Likewise, he added, you aren't likely to last long if your plan is to pick a single public cloud vendor and host everything there.

"You should get fired," Gossman said, "though you might confuse the guy enough to keep your job for a while."

It might be tempting to assume that this kind of talk is the result of Microsoft venturing into unfamiliar territory; that while Redmond might have dominated the on-premises software business, it can't hack it in the cloud. But that simply isn't the case. By most analysts' estimates, Microsoft Azure is now the second largest public cloud vendor, trailing only the 800-pound gorilla of Amazon Web Services.

It didn't happen overnight, and it didn't happen by accident. Redmond has been burning through cash in its bid for pole position in the cloud race. It spent $5.5bn on "additions to property and equipment" in its fiscal 2014, which ended on June 30, and it's a good bet that a huge chunk of that went to building data centers. It was also 29 per cent more than the $4.3bn that Amazon spent in the same period.

But the market for cloud services simply isn't the same as the traditional software markets that Microsoft grew up with. Once, Microsoft could have sold Windows into an organization with the expectation that it could lock the customer into its platform for the next ten years or more. That's not going to happen with the cloud.

Turning electricity into profits

Savvy cloud customers are already deploying their applications on not just one vendor's cloud infrastructure, but several. Locking these customers into a single vendor's platform simply isn't an option, because the reasons why they might want to change cloud providers are often going to be beyond Microsoft's control – or even the customer's.

"You might get a very successful operation in a public cloud and be very happy with it, and have some regulatory reason why you're no longer allowed to store your customer data in a public cloud in a particular geo, or something like that. And that can happen at any point," Gossman explained.

"And then there's also just the fact that this cloud industry is pretty young and new. Even if you have chosen a small set of vendors that you're very happy with, they may change their technology strategy."

That's a big part of why today's Microsoft is so eager to talk about its support for Linux on Azure, and even for its support for "foreign" technologies like Docker on its own platform. If it wants to succeed in the cloud market, it needs to operate its business by cloud rules.

Don't think of that as a defeat, either. Redmond has hardly abandoned the proprietary software business, and Gossman told The Reg that there are certain Microsoft products – such as SQL Server and Active Directory – that even customers with significant Linux-based infrastructure are often willing to license.

But if Windows Server licenses aren't selling as briskly as they once were, Microsoft's cloud strategy is its hedge against that decline. Think about it: do you really need to charge customers license fees for a platform to run their applications on if you're billing them by the megabyte and the network packet for the cloud storage service where they keep their data? And the same rules apply for other cloud services, including CPU time.

"There's a utility aspect of the thing, where we just basically turn electricity into compute," Gossman said. "And at that point, we want to run all the world's software, anything that you can do. It doesn't have to be a Microsoft product."

So when Satya Nadella says today's Microsoft loves Linux and that it's happy to participate in the open source world, you can bet he means it. Remember, before being promoted to CEO, Nadella ran the company's cloud, server, and tools business. He knows as well as anyone in Redmond the rules of the modern software marketplace.

And at the end of the day, while today's Microsoft has changed, it's not really a brand-new company at all. It's still in business to make money. And while Azure isn't a huge profit center today, Microsoft's investments to build out its cloud leave it well-positioned to be at the top of the heap when cloud reaches critical mass and private data centers have all but disappeared.

The game has changed, and vendor lock-in is out. But although it has to play by a new set of rules, Microsoft's strategy remains the same: it aims to win. ®

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