By 'Windows Cloud,' did Ballmer mean an operating system?

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3:46 pm EDT October 2, 2008 - In a move reminiscent of a different CEO named Steve, Microsoft's chief Wednesday expressed the idea of a future service for deploying applications "in the cloud." But perhaps speculators are confused by the "Windows" name.

Until the Professional Developers' Conference convenes in a little over four weeks' time, Microsoft will very likely say nothing of consequence about a concept its CEO publicly called "Windows Cloud" during a developers' meeting in London yesterday. That's by design, of course; Steve Ballmer is, for once, successfully deploying a Steve Jobs tactic of tossing a new concept to the masses like fresh meat to the wolves, and occupying their attention up until the final date of revelation.

But if we know "Windows Cloud" isn't the final name of this undefined new concept -- and Ballmer specifically said it's not the name -- then based on the information we have, it seems premature to assume that this new innovation will be, as some have already reported, a new category of the Windows operating system. Lest we forget, Microsoft already produces a competitive platform that uses the "Windows" name and that is not an operating system: the Windows Live applications platform, which the company has already associated with "the cloud."

The original concept of "the cloud" dates back to public communications network diagrams, where it was used to symbolize the portion of any wired communications link that none of the parties in the process particularly cared about. When the idea of multi-party conferencing was first sold to the public, AT&T told customers they wouldn't have to care about whose circuits they would be using to dial up and add parties to a conversation. For all anybody cared, the telephone network would reside in a cloud of invisibility.

Later, that notion was borrowed by Internet applications architects, who reasoned that the location of app servers and, later, storage devices would be inconsequential to the user of a "terminal service." It may have taken close to decade, but the term's finally caught on. And now that it's been leveraged like "information superhighway" in the '90s and "open source" in the present decade to mean far more than it should, the unspoken possibility is that Microsoft could actually be developing a platform for which the term -- the very one Ballmer said isn't the final name -- would ironically be the most fitting.

The possibility is that Microsoft is constructing an online services platform where .NET applications may be deployed on behalf of customers, and utilized from any computer or, even more likely, any device. This was, after all, the publicly stated future vision for the .NET platform when it was first unveiled before the turn of the decade.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at the "Heroes Happen Here" launch event last February.

While Ballmer only mentioned it briefly, the British IT magazine PC Pro cites him as describing exactly this concept: "You should be able to write an application and push it [into] the cloud...Write the application and put the intelligence where it makes sense, in the cloud, server or device."

Despite this very clear statement, which omits any mention of the need for an operating system, the headline for that article -- along with others that appear to have been based on it -- defined "Cloud" as a code name for an operating system. This despite the fact that Microsoft already manufactures an operating system upon which an enterprise can deploy a cloud platform: Windows Server 2008 Datacenter Edition.

The term "Windows Cloud" may have been coined at Microsoft in March 2007, by a developer in its Australian division named David Lemphers. He did use the concept to refer to a hypothetical future operating system that borrows the kernel from Windows Server, but is flatter and self-configuring to the needs of datacenters that want to deploy cloud services for their customers.

"So I reckon we start with a purpose built cloud OS," Lemphers wrote on his MSDN blog at that time. "We start by flattening the OS architecture. The cloud doesn't care about platform lock-in, legacy drivers, video cards; those are silicon worries! It cares about sockets and storage, and it cares about fast and reliable! Therefore, kill the abstraction tiers, write each line of code to connect service tier to kernel tier with no abstraction in between, focus on the stuff that matters in the new world, throw the old world OS thinking out (well, maybe don't throw it out, but don't let it constrain the thought process)."

After having thrown out the old-world thinking, Lemphers' concept started looking less like an operating system and more like a set of developers' tools.

"See, the tools for Windows Cloud, let's say Visual Studio Cloud Edition would be all about orchestrating other cloud services, into new services," he wrote. "It would support direct push to your cloud infrastructure, would support redeployment, secure staging, throttling, the works. It would support reverse engineering existing Web assets, all that stuff."

Steve Ballmer may never have met David Lemphers, but if he took Lemphers' idea and ran with it further, it could easily have evolved into a deployment tool that lets Redmond's own Windows Live servers act as the cloud. Applications deployed there could be accessed through any Web browser, and may require AJAX or perhaps desire Silverlight (the former WPF/E). Lemphers' idea of "killing the abstraction layer" could be enabled through a simplified form of Web services that uses a so-called "RESTful" model; and we already know that will be a feature of .NET Framework 4.0 to be demonstrated at PDC this month; that's no surprise.

So consider a scenario where it appears Windows really does move off of the client end, in this case into "the cloud." Microsoft may still want to find a way of licensing it as though it were Windows, the operating system, but only from the perspective of developer licenses rather than end users. This, to me, seems to be the most sensible and plausible scenario; what's more, it could become a very compelling service. While Amazon will soon be deploying Windows Server in its cloud, its EC2 service may lack a platform to help developers build the applications that will reside there.

I don't expect Ballmer to don a black turtleneck and blue jeans in L.A. this month, but at a time when his company really needed to get people talking about something exciting again, so far, he's doing a good job of it.

2:45 pm EDT October 3, 2008 - Though not much more was actually expected from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer on the whole "cloud" project at Microsoft, CIO reporter Martin Veitch was successful in coaxing from him the specific category of project this falls under. As the transcript of the CIO interview indicates, "Windows Cloud" is not an operating system.

Comparing it more with Amazon's EC2 hosting service, Ballmer used the phrase "service of services" to describe the concept. The initial phase, based on his description, would be geared around Microsoft's ability to host cloud computing services on its servers; a later phase would encompass other enterprises' ability to host similar services. That later phase may indeed involve an operating system -- most likely a special edition of Windows Server 2008, perhaps during the R2 phase -- but it would only be one component of Microsoft's larger plan.

Saying he wants to avoid a situation where customers become locked in to one provider -- even if that provider is Microsoft -- Ballmer told Veitch, "We need to design 'a service for services', if you will...Now, Version 1 that we will announce this month, you'll think about it as running a Microsoft data centre, sort of like the Amazon model. And yet we know and we've talked already with corporations and partners about going beyond it. That's why the symmetry between the server and the cloud is important. Because if we bring back the cloud features into the server platform, it's also possible for any corporation then to go into instance of its own similar services."

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