Microsoft’s Cloud, Part 1: Defining The Cloud

On the eve of Microsoft’s PDC event, the Developers Conference where many of the company’s close-held secrets are finally unveiled, a number of internet industry pundits have chimed in on the subject of Cloud Computing, the subject of PDC’s first keynote. First Tim O’Reilly (yes, he who gave “Web 2.0” its name) made the bold claim: “Everything is moving into the cloud, in whole or in part. The utility layer of cloud computing will be just that, a utility…”

What Is Cloud Computing?

Nicholas Carr follows up O’Reilly’s article arguing the finer points of “Network Effects” in cloud computing – that is, whether or not this move to the cloud will in fact be reliant on something called the network effect – a founding characteristic of Web 2.0 which describes the design of systems that get better the more people use them. You can see network effects in nearly every Web 2.0 property today. Take for example, Facebook: this social network wouldn’t have the value it does today if no one used it. That, in short, is the network effect.

But what’s got lost during their theoretical argument about the underlying principles of cloud computing is just defining what cloud computing is to begin with. What is cloud computing? Have we all agreed on a definition yet?

We’ve been checking our webmail online for years on end, but is it now, in 2008, that we finally get to rebrand this activity as cloud computing?

For some, webmail fits under this moniker because it’s an interaction with an online service where data is stored, accessed, and manipulated outside of the hard drive of your personal computer, where traditionally computing took place. For others, though, only the move of new applications, like word processing or application development, get to be considered “cloud computing.” 

Web-based End-User Applications

windowslive According to the O’Reilly article, webmail is indeed a part of the cloud computing movement. He says, “any web application is a cloud application in the sense that it resides in the cloud. Google, Amazon, Facebook, twitter, flickr, and virtually every other Web 2.0 application is a cloud application in this sense.” However, he notes that people tend to see things as cloud-based if they were once desktop-only applications. 

By his definition, you can add the entire set of Windows Live applications under this broad category of “cloud-based end-user apps” as they allow for accessing data like your email and calendar from any computer, anywhere on the net.

Utility Computing & PaaS (Platform-as-a-Service)

In addition to end user apps, O’Reilly states that there are other categories of cloud computing, too. Utility computing, for example, describes the service that Amazon provides, something that mainly appeals to developers. Here, devs can rent out either Linux or Microsoft-flavored virtual machine instances, storage, and computation at pay-as-you-go utility pricing.

Another category for the cloud is the Platform-as-a-Service. Here, O’Reilly invokes the example of Salesforce’s force.com platform. Paas goes beyond just allowing for computing storage space and raw power and delivers everything needed to design, develop, test, deploy, and host an application in the cloud.

Where Does Microsoft Fit In?

What’s missing from both O’Reilly’s and Carr’s report on cloud computing is where Microsoft fits in. Is Microsoft, a software company whose business relies on writing applications for computers have a place in the cloud? The answer, as we have just heard at PDC, is YES.

So now, let’s take a look at Microsoft’s Cloud Platform in more detail…

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