I took part in a one day conference today on cloud computing. It took place at the Harvard Club in Boston, which was an interesting choice to have the event. I had never been to the Harvard Club before, and I enjoyed the history displayed all around me. I did not wear a coat and tie, and when I saw people in the parking lot dressed up I thought it might be the type of place where they were going to hand me a clip-on when I walked through the door. Thankfully they didn’t.

There was quite a lot of valuable information shared today. Each time I attend events pertaining to Microsoft’s cloud computing services I come away with a deeper understanding of where they are taking us. I think this is partly the result of the fact that more times you hear something the more it becomes familiar and understandable. The other reason is that as the months go by it becomes easier for others to understand what Microsoft is doing as well, including Microsoft themselves. In fact, I would say over half of the audience today were Microsoft employees. I bumped into Rob Walters, for example, as well as a handful of other Microsoft employees looking for a deeper understanding of what services their company is looking to provide.

So what did I learn today? Well, I’m glad you asked. Here are some of the items.

So Many Layers

There are a lot of layers at play here, and a lot of acronyms to go with them. You have software as a service (SaaS), platforms as a service (PaaS, which makes me think of Easter eggs), and infrastructure as a service (IaaS). In there you find Azure (Windows and SQL), Sharepoint, Exchange, Office Communicator, and LiveMeeting. You can be in the cloud, host your own cloud, or have a hybrid model. Microsoft has said that every product they have will be offered as a cloud service eventually, which warrants mentioning here as that is going to dramatically changed the future state of IT over the next 5-7 years.

Time and again the speakers today did a very good job at describing all of these layers and the various ways that we could use existing cloud services to enhance our shops as well as lower overall IT costs. Not just the costs of hardware, mind you, but also lowering the costs associated with development of software. We heard lots of stories about how a traditional project that would take six to nine months could be done in six to eight weeks because you were streamlining the ability to get the right hardware in place in a timely manner.

And anyone that has trouble getting hardware delivered from a vendor can certainly understand the value in that. If cloud services were only about a data center it could be valuable itself, but toss in some software and you really have something to take notice. With platforms and software thrown in you get the ability to quickly change your needs to shifting market trends, not to mention the occasional need for you to handle spikes in usage without needing to purchase expensive hardware.

Point of No Return

The funniest moment of the day was when a question was asked regarding a “reverse-migration”. See, Microsoft will do whatever they can in order to help migrate you to their services. But they really don’t have a lot of interest in helping people migrate off of the cloud. To be fair, I certainly understand why they wouldn’t want to spend much time in helping people migrate away, and that’s fine. The point that was driven home was that once you decide to start using their services it is not easy to decouple yourself from them. So, if you do decide to go into the cloud, you might as well understand that your decision is final.

Think of going to the cloud as if you were having children. Once you have them you can’t put them back.

Corporate Tech Lags Behind Households

One of the sessions was on social computing, which was an (almost) clever way to get me to attend a session on Sharepoint 2010. I love the collaboration tools that they are shoving into Sharepoint, I really do, but I’m not certain that I will get to use them anytime soon. Why is that? Because companies are slow to adopt new technologies.

Remember when going to the office meant that you got to play with “cutting edge” hardware and software? I sure do. At some point in the past fifteen years that has changed. These days, our phones are usually more cutting edge and capable than our desktops at work. And the younger people entering the workforce each year don’t think of social computing as a novelty. No, for them, it is an expected behavior. Facebook account? Expected. Use Twitter? Expected. Have or read a blog? Expected. So for Microsoft to be including those tools in Sharepoint makes sense, but it will be five years before I see them adopted and used in mainstream corporate America.

Ask the (Male) Experts and Get Answers Even If They Are Not an Expert

At the end of the day there was an ‘Ask the Experts’ panel discussion. I looked up from my tiramisu and saw nine men sitting in chairs. That’s right, the first thing I noticed is that there was no woman on this panel. Not sure why, but that stood out quite a bit, especially since there were at least a dozen women from Microsoft in attendance (out of maybe 100 people total), I would like to think one of them had some expertise in cloud computing that they could have been invited onto the panel. Anyway, as the questions went along, someone asked a question on SQL Azure. And then I noticed something else.

Everyone sitting in a chair started turning their heads to look at each other. I went down the line and noticed that there was no SQL expert on the panel! I immediately turned to Rob and said “You’re the only SQL expert in the room, perhaps you should go up and answer the question.” One of the experts started to answer the question and I had a hard time keeping my mouth shut. The question? “How do you connect to, and develop against, SQL Azure?” The answer?

“You simply use the same tools you use right now.”

Um, well, technically that could be considered correct, with a salesman-esque type of leniency, I suppose. When I heard the answer I turned to Rob and said “Wow. He really glossed over a LOT of details with that answer.” I really didn’t want to let this go. My mind was telling my mouth to start asking other SQL Azure questions. Things like:

“Is there a limit to the size of a database?” (Yep.)

“Can I take a backup of my database?” (Nope.)

“You guarantee 99.9% uptime, but will you guarantee me a specified I/O per second?” (Nope.)

“Will you roll back a SQL patch if I need it?” (Probably not.)

And so on. I refrained from asking any questions because I knew I would just be a PITA. Yeah, that’s right, I held my tongue. I know. I can’t believe it either. But I didn’t want to scare anyone and I didn’t want to upset my hosts and I didn’t want to be escorted from the Harvard Club until after they raffled off the xBox.

Overall this was a very good day filled with a lot of valuable information, and I am thankful for the opportunity to attend. I hope to attend 3-4 other events this year that are dedicated to Microsoft’s cloud services, as things tend to change frequently and I want to keep informed on everything Azure has to offer. I do believe that it is where our industry is heading.