Microsoft takes two big leaps into the cloud

The software vendor has been something of a sleeping giant on cloud computing. But with Windows Azure and Office Web, it's waking up.

Windows 7 made its public debut at Microsoft Corp.'s Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles last week. But it had to share the spotlight with two other technologies, both aimed at jump-starting Microsoft's cloud computing efforts.

The company opened the PDC by detailing Windows Azure, a cloud computing version of its operating system that will underlie an application hosting service designed to compete with Amazon.com Inc.'s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2).

Microsoft also said it's developing a set of applications called Office Web that has lightweight versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote for use in Web browsers. That move is meant to help it fend off competition from Google Apps and other suites of online applications.

"This is the big fish jumping into the pond," IDC analyst Melissa Webster said about Office Web — a comment that just as easily could have applied to Azure.

Microsoft isn't entirely new to cloud computing. For example, it currently offers Web-based services such as Windows Live and Office Live (described as an "online extension" of Office) to individuals and small businesses.

But Windows Azure is being pitched as a platform for moving corporate applications into the cloud. And Amazon has gotten a long head start with EC2.

Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software architect, said that work on Azure began two years ago, just before Amazon launched EC2 in beta mode. Amazon removed the "beta" tag on Oct. 23 and said EC2 was ready for production use. Microsoft, which released a preview version of Azure to PDC attendees, isn't saying when its service will go live.

Ozzie tipped his hat to Amazon for being first. But he said that Microsoft has "somewhat broader and different objectives" in developing Azure than Amazon did with EC2. Microsoft has to continue supporting its global network of software developers, Ozzie noted, adding that they will be able to use the company's .Net tools to build applications for Azure.

Nonetheless, cloud computing will require changes in IT departments. RedMonk analyst James Governor jokingly compared the cloud approach to "wearing your underpants on the outside of your clothes."

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