Microsoft's TechEd conference is always a wellspring of IT- and developer-related news and information. This year's show, which is being held in New Orleans for the first time since Katrina, is no exception. On Monday, Microsoft pulled out the technological big guns and promised customers a seamless and measured migration from on-premise servers to the cloud. Equally important, Microsoft is also offering a hybrid cloud computing model in which customers can mix and match on-premise and hosted solutions. This represents a breadth of capabilities that competitors can't match.

Sound like marketing hype? Sometimes it's the simplest of examples that can drive home a point. On Monday afternoon, network activity at the Morial convention center slammed to stop, ruining session demonstrations and triggering curses from attendees and press alike. After being told repeatedly that "they're working on it," I gave up trying to get online and figured I would use my notes from the morning's keynote to start preparing this column. I'm so efficient.

There was just one problem. My notes weren't in a Word document stored on my laptop's hard drive; they were online. This is unusual for me, but it ended up being instructive. The problem with a pure cloud solution, even for something as simple as data storage, is connectivity. If you're online, great. If you're not, you can't get work done. As the kids would say these days, FAIL.

In any event, the network finally came back up and I was able to access my notes (and make an offline copy, just in case). Looking over the announcements of the day, it's striking how much is going on at this show. I'll start my recap with the cloud, which was a central element of Microsoft president Bob Muglia's keynote address on Monday. 

Cloud Computing

"We are at the cusp of a major transformation in the industry called cloud computing," Muglia said. "We are focused and committed to working with partners across the industry to move you forward into the cloud." Microsoft's cloud efforts are multi-tiered, with products and offerings such as Windows Azure, SQL Azure, Microsoft Online Services (MOS—hosted versions of Exchange, SharePoint and other servers), and even consumer products like Windows Live, MSN, and Xbox Live.

For businesses, Microsoft is pushing a model where there is no single cloud, but there are rather many clouds, both private and public. The idea here is that a cloud is simply a new kind of data center and that these entities can be built to serve different needs. "Clouds will run and be built in multiple places," Muglia said. "They'll be built in your data center with private or sort of do-it-yourself clouds that you'll create. Partners in the industry will build clouds. They're creating both public as well as really dedicated clouds that are dedicated to a given customer within partners or hosting data centers. And of course Microsoft is building an Internet-scale cloud with Windows Azure."

Some of the innate benefits of cloud computing are easy to overlook. If you decide to use Microsoft's hosted Exchange offering, for example, you're not just outsourcing email, calendaring, and contacts management capabilities. You're also outsourcing the management of that service (which would internally be a server) and the management of the underlying OS platform on which it runs. (Microsoft uses System Center internally for this.) Microsoft handles updating each, both from security and functional perspectives, leaving you to focus on the core business of your business.

And then there's the hybrid model. In this scenario, you keep some resources internal, such as email servers, applications, or data. With Microsoft's cloud offerings, you can mix and match on-premise servers and hosted services and, generally speaking, do so seamlessly. This model also lets you move to the cloud at your pace and to the level of commitment with which you are comfortable (or able, from a regulatory or compliance perspective).

There are some immature aspects of various cloud computing solutions, but these are being whittled away very aggressively. I still feel that the cloud is inevitable and that the benefits of moving to this model will be realized by companies of all sizes.

 

Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1

Microsoft has gotten itself into a bit of a naming pickle with Windows Server in recent years, with Windows Server 2008 being part of the Vista + SP2 codebase and its newer Server 2008 R2 version being essentially a major update and not a minor revision as its name suggests. And then there's the terribly named Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1, which isn't a traditional service pack at all. In fact, depending on your needs, you might consider this a major upgrade as well.

Server 2008 R2 SP1 features two major functional changes over its predecessor. The first is Hyper-V Dynamic Memory, which closes the gap with VMware by providing a way to configure virtual machine (VM) memory usage in a range. As a VM's needs change over time, more or less memory is allocated dynamically and automatically within that preset range.

The second is RemoteFX, which offloads GPU and compression processing of remote desktop data to the server. The primary scenario here is thin clients, which will soon be built into computer displays and not have any onboard graphics processing. Using RemoteFX and an appropriately tricked-out server, you'll be able to display high-definition video, run Aero Glass, use high-end graphics applications such as Autodesk's AutoCAD, and perform other tasks that wouldn't typically be possible on a thin client. It's a pretty limited use case right now, with lots of prerequisites. But this could prove very interesting, over time, to those that wish to highly manage their environments.

Muglia didn't talk about this in his keynote, but RemoteFX brings a second bit of functionality around USB redirection improvements. So with this release, a wider range of devices will work, including scanners, all-in-one-printers, and Windows Mobile phones.

The big news about Server 2008 R2 SP1 this week was the revelation that Microsoft will deliver a public beta by the end of July. The final version is expected by the end of 2010.

Windows InTune

Windows InTune, Microsoft's upcoming cloud-hosted management service, is going to make a big splash over time. The initial version is targeted at smaller businesses that haven't standardized on a centralized management solution but if I'm reading the tea leaves right, this could effectively kill in-house management in businesses of all sizes. Microsoft didn't provide much in the way of an InTune update at the show, but I was told to expect more news soon. So if you missed the chance to get in on the first wave of the public beta, sit tight.

Windows Phone

Microsoft finally offered a glimpse at how it will position its upcoming smartphone platform, Windows Phone, with regards to business customers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the thinking here mirrors the overall strategy with Windows Phone. That is, Microsoft will initially focus on what it sees as the core needs of this market and will then rapidly work to fill the more niche needs of other customers as well. So out of the box, Windows Phone 7 will provide spectacular email, calendar, and contacts management, with support for multiple accounts (including multiple Exchange accounts), excellent email triaging capabilities, an Office hub for managing and working with on-device and SharePoint-based documents (Word files, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, and OneNote notes), and the like.

From a management perspective, Windows Phone will support the most often needed Exchange policies, such as password requirements, factory reset, and remote wipe. And it will provide some way for enterprises to distribute private applications to their employees, although this is still a work in progress. (It will most likely involve distributing applications through a private area of the Windows Marketplace for Mobile.)

What this means is that Windows Phone won't initially offer all the management capabilities of Windows Mobile 6.5 when it first ships. For this and other reasons (such as international availability), Windows Mobile 6.5 will also be supported for some time to come. But Windows Phone will also evolve rapidly to add these features, I'm told.

There's so much more, but I'm out of time—they're closing the press room a mere 10 hours after I got here—so I'm off. If you're interested in more news from TechEd 2010, however, be sure to check out my ongoing coverage on the SuperSite for Windows.