In yet another step in its migration from traditional software delivery to hosted online services, Microsoft late last week announced a formal lifecycle support policy for its online services for businesses and developers. Microsoft has long maintained similar policies for its traditional business and developer products, and this new policy reflects the needs of this emerging product type.
The new policy applies to existing Microsoft online services such as Windows Azure, and also upcoming services such as Office 365, which will replace Business Productivity Online Services (BPOS) sometime this year.
"With this new policy, effective January 2011, Microsoft is leading the way in the online services market, where currently limited policies for support exist," a Microsoft representative told me, noting that the policy enabled three key features: support availability, consistent and predictable support, and service continuity and migration.
In a blog post describing the policy, Microsoft Program Manager David Carrington also noted that the unique requirements of supporting online services caused it to introduce a new concept—"disruptive change"—to the support lifecycle lexicon. And in this case, disruptive change "refers to changes that require significant action whether in the form of administrator intervention, substantial changes to the user experience, data migration, or required updates to client software."
So Microsoft will provide customers a minimum of 12 months of prior notification before implementing a potentially disruptive change to any supported online service. An example of a disruptive change is one that would cause a service interruption, or a situation in which a client upgrade is needed before certain cloud-based features can be exposed to end users.
There is one exception to the disruptive change policy: security updates. "Security updates in the Online Services realm require prompt application to ensure that customer and Microsoft assets are effectively protected," the Carrington post explains.
Looking further down the road, Microsoft is also providing customers with advanced notice in the event that an online service is discontinued. In such a case, the software giant will provide 12 months of prior notification before terminating the service and will preserve customer data for 30 days after termination. This should provide customers with enough time to migrate to a new solution, Microsoft says.
With this support policy, Microsoft hopes to further elevate its business-oriented online services above what is available from Google, which offers the competing Google Apps service in both free and paid variants. However, Microsoft's support policy is more akin to what enterprises expect with traditional software and provides better predictability.