TechEd 2012: To Every Silver Lining, There Is a Dark Cloud

This week, Microsoft is hosting one of its premier "parties," TechEd North America 2012. A sell-out crowd of 10,000 IT pros, developers, managers, vendors, and experts descended on the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida, hoping to improve their understanding of Microsoft technologies. It was a mixed bag, to be sure, and perhaps not even that good for the SharePoint crowd. This week, I'll share my thoughts about the event and the metaphorical irony that played out around the event. One thing's for sure: The cloud can be scary!

TechEd is typically a place where Microsoft unveils new products and surprises. There were some announcements, to be sure: a new version of Windows InTune and new features in LightSwitch and Visual Studio among them. But Microsoft has shown its cards over recent weeks and months, so many of the potential surprises were already old news: Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012 were released for preview more than a week ago, and last week Microsoft announced consumer-focused products and launched significant new capabilities for Windows Azure.

Reaction to the TechEd keynotes was lackluster, at best. People were particularly ruthless about the Windows 8 keynote, which was a rehash of many of the points made back at BUILD in September, and since then through numerous other channels. Some of what are, in my opinion, really cool features of Windows 8, including virtualization and Windows To Go, didn't get enough hype. Instead, we heard more about charms and keyboard and mouse support. Yawn. And there's still some (in my opinion, again) very justified concern about Microsoft forcing desktop and traditional laptop users into the Metro UI even if the apps they'll use are desktop apps and the hardware they'll use doesn't support touch.

SharePoint and Office got only a nod at the event this year. Microsoft is clearly (and rightly, I think), holding its cards close to the chest until betas are released later this summer. The only non-news that leaked out is that, sure enough, the next version of Office will be called Office 2013. A short demo in one of the keynotes included Excel 2013 RT. There's still a lot we don't know about Office and SharePoint 15. There are still two more big parties to go: TechEd Europe in Amsterdam later this month and the Worldwide Partner Conference in July in Toronto.

At TechEd, there are only a few SharePoint sessions. I was honored to be selected to deliver a talk on end-to-end SharePoint governance for 200 attendees -- a session that was, last I looked, the top SharePoint session, indicating that governance is still a huge pain point for the SharePoint community.

The star of the show had to be Windows Azure, which is now clearly positioned as the Cloud OS, supporting platform as a service, infrastructure as a service, all kinds of capabilities as a service or, as my colleague Paul Thurrott coins, "anything as a service (AaaS, or *aaS)." Mark Russinovich and Scott Guthrie are beyond rock stars to this crowd. Their deity-like status approaches God and Jean-Luc Picard rolled into one. And what they're trying to accomplish with Azure could very well be all we know of Windows down the road.

They and their teams face one enormous challenge, however: the cloud itself. I stopped counting how many keynote and session demos failed because "the cloud" wasn't available or wasn't performing the way it was supposed to. Some of the most brilliant people I know were trying to solve cloud problems. Doesn't bode well for normal Joes like me. And, to emphasize the point, outside the convention center the clouds were opening up with some of the most torrential rains and thunderstorms attendees had ever seen. Several times during sessions, thunder would clap with a bang so loud that people would jump out of their seats. I heard at least two stories of very close calls with lightning strikes. The cloud was scaring the C# out of people, in more ways than one.

I think all of that simply is a reality check: The cloud is an evolution, and we are -- as posited in the keynote -- at a real inflection point in the evolution of computing technology. But it's nowhere near perfect, and we cannot just assume that because it's there, and because brilliant people at Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and other cloud providers have built it, that we can depend on it for every workload in our enterprises. It's been a while since I've had to train Help desk people how to respond when a user reports "the network is down." We've kind of figured out on-premises networks. Now we'll be going back to "the network is down," but it will be a network we can't always see, touch, or change. It will be a whole new storm of troubles.

I'm not saying the value isn't there. It is, clearly. I also have huge faith in Scott and Mark and the folks around them: If anyone on this planet can make it work, they can.

But as we evaluate what to move to the cloud, what to keep on premises, and what to make hybrid, we'll need to be vigilant about understanding cost and benefit, risk and reward. Governance -- not just for SharePoint now, but for many technologies-as-a-service -- will be super critical, and a whole new discipline will be born: governing the ungovernable -- your cloud providers and services.

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