At TechEd 2011 in Atlanta, Microsoft elaborated on its vision of the cloud, which has quickly evolved. Microsoft now articulates its vision of the cloud as a new computing paradigm. 

As I understand it, Microsoft is defining the cloud as a collection of services that can be managed as a unit. These services can be collections of virtual machines (VMs) or servers performing a common task. For instance, you might group together a set of five VMs into a service where three of the VMs are configured as web servers, one is configured as a business tier application server, and one is configured as a back-end database server. The entire group is defined as a service, and IT can manage a single entity. These services can be either on premises or off premises. If they are on premises, you can think of them as a private cloud network. If they are off premises, consider them the public cloud. A combination of on-premises and off-premises services is the hybrid cloud.

However, the cloud and cloud management don’t necessarily mean external services such as Windows Azure. The cloud can also be your own internal IT resources where a management layer abstracts those resources into a private cloud. One of the key technologies that enables this paradigm is Microsoft’s upcoming System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2012. VMM 2012 introduces an entirely new feature set that lets you create and manage clouds, building on its ability to manage Hyper-V, XenServer, and vSphere VMs.

Microsoft is in a unique position in the industry to deliver on its cloud vision at a number of different levels. In addition to providing management software that facilitates the creation of a private cloud infrastructure, Microsoft is leveraging the power in its global data centers to deliver IaaS,  PaaS, and SaaS offerings. Although IaaS isn't Microsoft's primary push, it's available through the Windows Azure Hyper-V role. Windows Azure and SQL Azure are both PaaS offerings that allow you to build and run your own cloud applications on top of them. Finally, SaaS offerings such as Windows Small Business Server (SBS) 2011 Essentials, Office 365, and Windows Intune provide ready-to-run services that are all hosted by Microsoft. Steve Ballmer’s “We’re all in” cloud computing rhetoric at last year’s Professional Developers Conference (PDC) seems to have rung true. Microsoft has made some big strides in cloud computing and done so very quickly.

The real question seems to be: Are businesses all in for cloud computing, too? It’s clear after talking to many TechEd attendees that, even in this pro-Microsoft crowd, so far there are far fewer buyers in this cloud scheme—certainly less than Microsoft would like you to think. However, that’s in part because the cloud isn’t just about technology. The cloud also has the potential to be career changing, and there's a vast difference in perspective between IT pros and developers.

Developers have very little trepidation about the cloud. Many see it as a new opportunity. However, the IT pro perspective isn't nearly so optimistic. IT pros see the cloud as potentially threatening jobs when administrative positions are lost to off-premises services. Although this scenario is a possibility, it’s also true that just moving services off premises doesn’t mean that the need to manage those services goes away. For instance, if an organization decides to move its email from an in-house Microsoft Exchange Server server to an off-premises hosting service, there will still be a need to add and delete users and mailboxes, as well as maintain distribution lists and internal email polices.

The silliest trend that I saw at TechEd 2011 and that I hope never materializes was the use of the Xbox Kinect for IT. We all saw Minority Report and Tom Cruise with the cool virtual monitor, but who really wants to have to connect their Xbox to a business system and wave their hands at it? Not me. The cloud seems like it could be the real future of computing, but the Kinect just seems like a desperate attempt to try to be cool. Hand waving is never good for demos, and I don’t think it’s going to replace the mouse anytime soon.

As an introduction to a reviewer’s workshop at TechEd, Dave Campbell, Microsoft technical fellow, noted that he thinks the cloud presents a new paradigm in computing and that we're about 3 years into a 10-year cycle. Microsoft’s cloud offerings have evolved very quickly and are now at the point where many businesses might want to seriously consider one or more cloud options.

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