Windows IT Pro readers are invited to Microsoft's fifth annual Architect Insight conference at its London site on March 31 and April 1.

The two-day event, which this year has the tagline "Architecture as a business differentiator", is hosted by the UK's MSDN Architecture Centre. Day one features topics such as SharePoint strategy, SQL Server consolidation, tools for architects in Visual Studio 2010, application modernisation and self-service BI. Day two focuses on the cloud and includes sessions from Kim Cameron, Microsoft's inventor of the seven rules of identity, and national technology officer Dave Coplin on transforming democracy with the cloud.

Conference organiser Matt Deacon, chief architectural advisor, developer and platform group, for Microsoft UK, says: "Obviously, it’s a Microsoft-based event so it’s an opportunity for us to share what we’re doing in the architectural space, how we’re practicing architecture, how our technologies apply. But it's also an opportunity for architects in Microsoft, customers and partners to have open and frank discussions with many like-minded people, so we can mutually learn about their experiences and problems in different domains. I think it’s as much about peers talking about and sharing experiences than just somebody declaring that they know the answer to x, y and z."

Deacon, who is also chairman of the UK arm of the influential International Association of Software Architects (IASA), is well placed to discuss just what the job-title "IT architect" means nowadays. Certainly, the agenda of 50 or so seminars from over 30 speakers on offer at Microsoft Architect Insight 2010 is relevant to a broad range of readers of this newsletter.

He says: "IASA seeks to represent the IT architect profession internationally and we broadly concur with a lot of schools of thought that there are solutional software-based architects, there are clearly infrastructure-based architects and then you have enterprise architects that sit across or above that."

Talking about how IT pros evolve into architects he says: "It’s almost ended up being something along the lines of the guy that’s been around too long and knows too much; i.e. it’s the hidden design decisions in software and technology that often create the problems. It isn’t how do you take a SharePoint widget and use it, it’s how did we use that SharePoint widget in the past and what are the implications of replacing it, extending it, moving it on and developing further on it?"

Job-title semantics aside, Deacon says that Microsoft Architect Insight will address IT execs who are just starting out in an architecture-like role and seasoned pros alike. One burning business issue both groups are wrestling with right now is cloud computing. Deacon says that at Microsoft he sees huge interest in the subject and hence the emphasis on the cloud on the event's second say.

Deacon says: "There’s this pressure on architects, in particular, whether it's from below with their development teams, with their partners, with their in-house suppliers or whether it’s from their management saying: 'Cloud’s coming, when am I having my cloud?'. So they need to understand what the options are and where the best-use cases are applicable and where they are not, today and tomorrow."

He points out that cloud strategies are not the kinds of things firms can implement overnight or on a whim. Businesses have far too much complex investment in the IT systems they already have on their premises.

"I think what we all agree is that one needs to start to get a control of that before one can take benefit from any other type of system or solution that’s out there," he says. "So, for me, it’s about preparation for cloud; to understand what the implications are and opportunities are for your business and to then go back to your business to understand what the issues you face today and how you can start to detangle the implementations that you have on-premise in order that you can start considering taking services elsewhere."

Delegates to Microsoft Architect Insight 2010 can choose whether to attend one day or both. Full details including booking can be found at the event's website. Whether they elect to go for one day or two, what can IT architects, nascent or otherwise, get out of this particular gathering?

"I’d like to think that you’d come away realising that you’re not alone, that Microsoft’s more connected to you than you felt they were before and that people in the industry are seeing similar issues and coming together to find similar solutions," says Deacon.

Reemphasising the community aspect of the conference, he says: "It's that you walk away realising that it’s not just your problem, that you can actually reach out, you can discuss that with your peers. I think that architects or senior technologists in general are a group that are far more open to discussing and helping and sharing than many other groups in business. It's a rich group of seasoned people who’ve got good experience and want to share it."