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Originally published October 27, 2010 at 6:24 PM | Page modified October 28, 2010 at 11:04 AM

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Developers starting to ride on Microsoft's cloud

As Microsoft kicks off its Professional Developers Conference in Redmond on Thursday, the company will continue its pitch to get developers to come over to the cloud.

Seattle Times technology reporter

Imagine Microsoft has built a virtual Mall of America. Each store can immediately explode into a Costco-size warehouse or collapse into an airport kiosk. Each store's inventory can expand and contract on demand, like the sliding gun racks in the movie, "The Matrix."

That's what cloud computing is for Microsoft — a new technology space where companies can build new software, as well as distribute and sell their wares.

Close to a year after Microsoft cut the ribbon, however, most of the storefronts remain empty. But tech companies say interest is brewing.

As Microsoft kicks off its Professional Developers Conference in Redmond on Thursday, the company will continue its pitch to get developers to come over to the cloud and the Azure development platform Microsoft has built for it.

"The last three years have been kind of like the Moses experience — charging through the desert, preaching cloud computing especially on Azure, and seeing a lot of people have interest but really no one taking hold or taking the next step," said Danny Kim, chief technology officer of Full Armor. His Boston-based company helps organizations like education departments move software management into the cloud.

Kim has started to see more developer interest. "In the last three to four months we've been seeing a huge uptick in engagement," he said. "It's getting beyond just kicking the tires to people actually doing test drives."

The cloud is a bet-the-company move by Microsoft, Chief Executive Steve Ballmer has said.

The PC's prominence as a computing device is eroding with the explosion of smartphones, introduction of devices like the iPad and advances with Web-connected television. The cloud is Microsoft's antidote to "a post-PC world," as retiring Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie wrote in a blog post Monday.

"It's important that all of us do precisely what our competitors and customers will ultimately do: close our eyes and form a realistic picture of what a post-PC world might actually look like, if it were ever truly to occur," Ozzie wrote. "... We're moving toward a world of 1) cloud-based continuous services that connect us all and do our bidding, and 2) appliance-like connected devices enabling us to interact with those cloud-based services."

In the cloud, Internet-connected devices access software and data stored in giant remote data centers. Microsoft, Google, Amazon.com, Salesforce.com and IBM are all jockeying to bring software developers to their cloud platforms.

Microsoft is "all in," as Ballmer says, when it comes to cloud investment. The company has built immense data centers around the world, in Ireland, Chicago, San Antonio and Quincy, Wash., each costing hundreds of millions of dollars. It has developed Azure and SQL Azure, the database platforms that support cloud efforts.

The company launched Azure in January and began charging customers in February.

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For companies that weren't comfortable with putting their software and data in Microsoft's data centers, Microsoft announced an Azure appliance in July, a cloud in a box for people who want to build cloud applications but want to keep the servers on their own property.

As of July, Azure had 10,000 customers. The company has not disclosed revenue numbers.

Microsoft declined to comment for this story.

"I think it's a pretty good start. It doesn't show any kind of weakness, it doesn't show any great strength, it just shows that there's interest," said Rob Sanfilippo, vice president at independent research firm Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland.

The pricing has been confusing to people, although Microsoft has options for developers to try out the service free. Microsoft usually sells software with licenses and is starting to charge for online services per user.

Charges for using Azure are based on computing power, bandwidth and storage, an entirely new pricing model for software companies to wrap their heads around.

"Initially it was a little difficult to unwind for customers how pricing was broken down and what they should expect as time wears on," said Mike Lucaccini, president of Archetype, a company in Emeryville, Calif., that builds media-management software. He has started offering hosting services on Azure to his customers who don't want to buy new servers and manage the infrastructure.

People who are building on Azure say the slow adoption is more about general fear around privacy, security and reliability of moving to the cloud, rather than what Microsoft is offering compared with its competitors.

"We believe this is one of the finest platforms that Microsoft has got, and they got it right the first time," said Rajesh Gupta, global head for the Microsoft practice at InfoSys, a large technology company based in India.

Gupta says he wants to see Microsoft evangelize the cloud.

"Microsoft needs to take a leading role in terms of championing the adoption of cloud technology," he said. "There needs to be a forum joining hands."

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

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