No big technology company thrives on competition the way that Microsoft does. Whether the bogeyman is Apple’s graphical user interface, Novell’s Netware network operating system, or the Netscape Navigator Internet browser, Microsoft seems to enjoy meeting each challenge with a huge technical change of direction. And according to sources inside Microsoft, the next such about-face will come later this month, in the form of what is being called, for now, Windows Cloud.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer mentioned Windows Cloud for the first time last week in two European speeches but said little about exactly how the new operating system will work. All that has been said in public by Microsoft’s head of cloud computing, Amitabh Srivastava, is that the project is “risky,” which is quite something from a guy whose last project was the late and troubled Windows Vista operating system.
Cloud computing is an extremely hot area right now. A cloud is made by linking together any number of generic Intel-class computers so that they act like a single large, distributed computing platform. An application running on a cloud can more easily scale up for larger audiences and is more resistant to failure. A computing cloud may contain tens of thousands of computers distributed around the Internet running applications on the nearest, least-loaded server or across a fleet of machines. Such applications can be anything from a website server to a virtual desktop computer accessed by a thin client or a Web browser.
Google’s many Web applications run on a cloud of machines that may well contain more than 100,000 nodes (the company won’t say). Dozens more companies, both large and small, are working on computing clouds because they could save money and energy, and enable more-powerful applications. Some researchers see clouds as the successor for everything from the PC to the mainframe.
But among the many questions not answered until now about Windows Cloud is how seriously the OS is being taken by the company itself. The same people within Microsoft suggest that the company is taking it very seriously indeed.
“The cloud stuff isn’t just another enterprise product,” explains a source who asks not to be named. “It is going to impact everything we do, all of the product groups. Consumer and enterprise are going to have to figure out where they fit into the cloud paradigm.”
Precisely how the cloud-computing paradigm will fit with Microsoft’s operating systems and applications remains a mystery for now. But one thing is clear: if Microsoft is to develop the technology needed to dominate the market, it will need to catch up quickly. “The shift to cloud-based computing is analogous to our shift to the Internet in the late ’90s,” the source adds. “[That] changed the direction of the company and impacted everything we did.”
The best-known cloud operating today with public access is Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), which will soon also support Windows Server applications.