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MOS or Windows SBS 2008? Vive la Diff?rence!

You can always tell when you're challenging the status quo because that's when those with vested interests in things not changing appear, as if by magic. And when it comes to the transition to cloud computing, as we discussed in last week's commentary, MOS or Windows SBS 2008? It's Time to Embrace the Cloud, there's little doubt that it's going to be a painful and lengthy shift.

To be fair, there are two related but separate issues here that I think need to be examined. The first is the somewhat natural human tendency to avoid change. Change is scary. It's the reason Aunt Sally will never use an ATM machine, and why consumers are still buying movies on physical discs for some inexplicable reason. But real change can and should come about only when that change makes a real difference, and makes things better. Cloud computing is that kind of change. And you can resist it. But it's happening.

The second issue is a bit more sinister: With its core business changing dramatically without any effort on its part, Microsoft is finding that it needs to adapt, and quite quickly, to meet the needs of those changes. And in doing so, the software giant is exhibiting another very natural tendency in any living creature: The will to survive, even if that means taking down those around them. I'm talking about you, Microsoft's partners. Yeah, it's time to find a new business model.

This what just discussing cloud computing has wrought. Because when you scrape away all the technical details, what we're really talking about here is a new way to do things we've been doing for a long time. Email, hosted externally instead of on-premise servers, for example. SharePoint collaboration tools. LiveMeeting virtual meetings instead of hopping on a plane every week.

Like so many technical innovations of the past, cloud computing is not the be-end, end-all solution for everyone, all the time, in all places. There are regulatory and legal reasons why some companies cannot, say, host email outside of their business. Some businesses will never be able to fully take advantage of cloud computing offerings. And some will simply resist, out of inertia, out of fear, out of ignorance. Nothing is absolute. There are absolutely valid reasons to go either way at this point, and maybe there always will be, though I feel that the needle will dip ever closer to the cloud computing end of the scale more and more as time goes by.

Last week, I exhorted small businesses to look to the cloud and avoid on-premise solutions that are, by comparison, more expensive to obtain and maintain and far more complex. Those who disagreed with this statement fell into some interest categories. There were the people who make a living promoting and selling Small Business Server and related services. Their fear, their pushback is understandable. There were the administrators who don't see the benefits of the change that is sweeping the rest of the tech industry: Externally hosted services, after all, might result in less need for their services. And, believe it or not, there are those who think Microsoft can never catch up: Clouding computing is the tidal wave that will finally bring down this software giant, they say. It's already too late.

I think Microsoft is uniquely positioned to serve the market with either type of solution--cloud-based or local servers--and that this is a strength none of its completion shares. The interoperability that Microsoft offers between its cloud-based solutions and local servers is, as well, equally unique and useful. You can, for example, make a Microsoft-hosted Exchange Server part of your local AD infrastructure if you want to mix and match. This best of both worlds approach is Microsoft's greatest strength during this transition.

Unfortunately for many of those who have made strong bets on Microsoft technologies, the software giant is also stepping on some toes. And this is the dark side of change. Instead of relying on partners to host Microsoft servers as services, Microsoft is opening up its own datacenters to the masses. And it will compete directly with its own partners, many of whom were already offering similar services to customers.

We live in interesting times. When it comes to the debate over cloud computing vs. self-hosted servers, I say, "viva la difference." There is, and will always be, a place for both approaches, though again, I think the volume market will migrate away from servers and to services. When it comes to Microsoft's role in this changing marketplace, well, that's a gray area, and one that we can and should debate. I'm not sure that what Microsoft is doing is what's best for its ecosystem. But I do feel, ultimately, that it's probably in the best interest of not just itself, but also of its customers. It's hard to complain about that.

An edited version of this article appeared in the November 25, 2008 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul

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