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Originally published October 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 27, 2008 at 9:25 AM

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Details about Microsoft's cloud computing expected at conference

Microsoft is expected to sort out its strategy for cloud computing, a broad change in how computer users retrieve and process information and applications, at the company's Professional Developers Conference this week.

Seattle Times technology reporter

The technical details

Event: Microsoft Professional Developers Conference

Where: Los Angeles Convention Center

When: Today through Thursday

Who: More than 5,000 people are expected, mostly the company's key audience of software developers.

Hot event: The dry Santa Ana winds whip through Southern California this time of year, and crews have been battling fires around Los Angeles. In 2003, smoke from the fires closed Los Angeles International Airport. Some Microsoft employees who were set to give demonstrations during keynote speeches at the show couldn't get into L.A. So they flew to Las Vegas and rented cars to drive to the show.

Microsoft is expected to sort out its strategy for cloud computing, a broad change in how computer users retrieve and process information and applications, at the company's Professional Developers Conference this week.

This is the first PDC since Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software architect, sent his "Internet Services Disruption" memo in October 2005, a pivotal moment at Microsoft. It moved the company toward developing software that straddles the desktop and the Internet, and it foreshadowed Bill Gates' handoff of leadership to Ozzie.

Microsoft's cloud-platform strategy has come out in bits and pieces since then — mostly in terms of what it means to end users. This week, Microsoft is expected to clarify its strategy, particularly what it will mean to software developers.

Speculation around Microsoft's strategy has ramped up ahead of the event with an array of names swirling around the Internet. There's Red Dog, Zurich, Windows Strata, Live Mesh and more.

Analysts are expecting Microsoft to announce a new offering for developers of Web-based applications that would compete with Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud and Google's App Engine.

Here's how it could work: Microsoft has spent billions of dollars building new data centers — large warehouses packed with server computers that power its online services, such as Web-based e-mail, instant messaging, Internet search and MSN.

To efficiently handle these applications and Web sites, Microsoft made software that manages memory, storage and communication between applications, and that shifts loads from server to server to accommodate a spike in traffic to a certain Web site, for example.

"It's sort of low-level, operating-systemlike functions, but it's all in a hosted data center," said Matt Rosoff, analyst with Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland.

He said Microsoft likely will use its expertise in data centers and management software to offer developers fee-based application hosting, saving them the cost and risk of building and managing their own infrastructure.

"It can offer cost savings, especially if you're a startup and you don't know how much traffic you're going to get or what kind of storage capacity you're going to need," Rosoff said.

This low-level software layer is part of the broader cloud-computing architecture that would handle services Microsoft is offering to different customers.

Other layers have software for identity verification and security; management of personal information and devices; and the end-user applications themselves, such as mapping programs.

Developers can take advantage of these functions for their applications, too.

Microsoft already has introduced hosted versions of its server software for e-mail and collaboration, allowing large companies to essentially outsource those tasks to Microsoft and devote their own IT resources elsewhere.

For small businesses, Office Live provides online document storage, Web site creation and business management.

The business models for these services are still emerging, but advertising and subscriptions, rather than software-license sales, are the leading candidates.

Some things muddled

While the company's overall strategy is coming together, the component pieces remain a bit muddled.

"There is duplicated effort happening," Rosoff said. "It is not particularly well-coordinated. That is classic Microsoft. They often have different product groups working on solutions to the same problem."

Tim O'Brien, a senior Microsoft platform strategist, didn't directly discuss Microsoft's planned announcements at the conference, but he did point out Microsoft's strengths in delivering Internet services. The company has about half-a-billion users of its consumer Web services.

"We know a thing or two about delivering services to people at very broad scale," O'Brien said. "We know a thing or two about data-center operations. We've been doing this for some time."

Building a cloud-computing platform is not something just any company can do. It requires a tremendous investment in hardware and power to run the servers and keep them from overheating. (Inexpensive hydroelectric power has attracted several companies to build data centers in the Northwest.)

The three major players are Microsoft; Google, which built up server infrastructure for its leading Internet search engine; and Amazon.com, which put its Elastic Compute Cloud in full production last week.

"There's developer mind share that's up for grabs," said Michael Cherry, another Directions on Microsoft analyst.

Developers want to hitch their efforts to a platform that makes it easy to bring their software to market; builds on skills and tools they already know; allows them to do something they couldn't before; and has the largest audience, "so that they can be discovered and their application can be used," Cherry said.

Devoted developers

Microsoft has worked continuously to attract developers to its platforms, but it has been some time since it faced a major platform challenger.

Previous examples include the company's introduction of 32-bit Windows NT 3.1 in 1993, when IBM's OS/2 was still a viable platform, Cherry said. More recently, Microsoft launched its .NET programming framework around the turn of the century in competition with the Java language from Sun Microsystems, which offers many similar capabilities.

O'Brien said Microsoft has some distinct advantages when it comes to cloud computing, including a devoted community of millions of developers who have been building desktop applications on its Windows platform for years.

"It's incumbent upon us as a platform provider to ensure that ... the bets that they've made on us will continue to be relevant and move forward into the services world," he said.

O'Brien estimates as many as 10 million professional developers worldwide fit the traditional profile of someone who writes software for a commercial vendor or enterprise IT department.

But the definition of developer is broadening, taking in a more diverse group of people with different interests.

"If you look at someone who's writing some HTML and some JavaScript to make their blog look better, are they a developer?" O'Brien asked. He thinks so.

"People are able to do more things with technology much more quickly, much more easily without a formal education in computer science, and you're starting to certainly see that today with this generation of kids, for example," he said.

Luring developers

How will Microsoft retain its current developers and attract a new generation to its platform?

O'Brien said the company allows developers to use a common set of tools and programming languages to write applications for the Web and devices such as Windows PCs and mobile phones. That's important as developers try to distinguish their Web applications by making them richer and more powerful.

This can mean pushing software back down onto devices.

"I think we're early days, but it's been an interesting phenomenon to watch play out," O'Brien said.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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