TechEd conference finds Microsoft pitching hard on Windows 8, cloud OS

ORLANDO, Fla. — Microsoft wants its customers to know two things: that Windows 8 is ready for the enterprise and that it has products and services for creating flexible hybrid cloud environments — a cloud OS.

Those are the two big messages the company pushed at its TechEd North America 2012 conference here, where some parts of those ideas resonated with customers, but others were met with skepticism.

“Move development to the cloud? That’s a pretty good idea,” said Andre Beaupre, president of Groupe ABI, a data center consultancy in Montreal. He was embracing Microsoft’s spin that Windows Server 2012 plus its upgraded cloud offering, Azure, equals a cloud operating system that can boost capacity on the fly as needed for developers.

Microsoft also says its cloud OS can front-end applications while keeping data those apps use safe at corporate sites, and that it supports moving entire virtual servers — including Linux servers — in and out of Azure.

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As for Windows 8 being ready, its radical shift toward touch and Metro-style, graphics-heavy apps had customers at the conference wondering whether the end users they serve will see enough value to climb the learning curve for the new OS. “I don’t know how it’s going to be accepted,” said Steve Williamson, a sys/ops manager at Santa Fe College in Gainsville, Fla., with about 22,500 students, faculty and staff. “I’ll probably wait in it until I get some internal push for it.”

Microsoft trumpeted its two big pushes at 90-minute keynotes attended by most of the 8,600 customers the company says attended its annual conference, which was celebrating its 20th year.

The cloud OS framework is built around Windows Server 2012 and Azure, both of which have significant new features.

The OS analogy goes like this: Operating systems manage hardware and are the platform on which applications run. A cloud OS, then, manages the hardware at the scale of a data center and provides the varying platforms on which applications run.

Microsoft is saying Windows Server can manage the physical resources, including pulling them together from a pool of whatever resources are available – in traditional data centers, private clouds and public clouds.

Server 2012 is much more powerful, said Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, president of Microsoft’s server and tools business. The server, due out later this year, sports up to 320 logical processors per server and 4TB of memory, and up to 64 virtual processors and 1TB of memory per virtual machine. These big numbers, plus the fact that the final preliminary version of Server 2012 is powering the production network for the Bing search engine, indicate a significant upgrade to and stability of the platform, he said.

As for Azure, it recently added support for virtual machines — including some flavors of Linux — making Azure an infrastructure-as-a-service provider, not just a platform-as-a-service provider. This ability to shift entire virtual machines in and out of the cloud under the control of Windows Server 2012 is one upside of cloud OS, Nadella said.

Despite its potential, some customers are leery of the cloud OS. Putting sensitive applications and data in the cloud still makes him nervous, said Tomasz Tomala, a database administrator with DeLaval Operations, an international maker of dairy industry machinery. “Pushing data outside our sites in some cases could be dangerous for me,” he said.

The answer to that, said Nadella, is moving application front ends to the cloud but keeping the data they use in private facilities, and Tomala ceded that might work. “The front end could go to the cloud, no problem,” he said.

As for Windows 8, it has to clear a high bar set for it during a keynote by Antoine Leblond, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of Windows Web Services. He called the OS “enterprise-ready by design” and “a better OS than Windows 7″ — something customers feel they have little proof of right now.

In his pitch for Windows 8, Leblond highlighted the touch features of the operating system and how consumers are shifting away from desktops to laptops and tablets, both of which lend themselves to touch user interfaces. And, he noted, Windows 8 can support keyboard and mouse as well as Windows 7 applications. Users can opt for a traditional desktop interface over Metro as well, although it’s modified and some features, notably the Start button, are missing.

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The horizontal scrolling of the Start menu where apps are displayed as individual rectangles called “tiles” is too busy and made more so by “live tiles” that constantly update data about the app, said one application developer for an electric utility. “It felt like information overload,” he said. He asked that his name not be used because his company doesn’t allow talking to media without clearance.

He was fresh from a TechEd class on Web programming for Microsoft environments, and said he purposely avoided sessions about programming for Windows 8 because he’s unsure if his company will move to the OS anytime soon.

[Photo below: Hands-on at the lab at TechEd 2012]

But Chad Hester, a software architect for Hobby Lobby Stores, craft and hobby retailers with 516 stores in 42 states, had just attended a Windows 8 programming class, and was favorably impressed.

He liked the idea of live tiles and could imagine a Windows 8 application that tallies the day’s sales in real time and displays the current total on a live tile so the store manager can easily find the information.

Based on what he knows about Windows 8, he suspected developing for it will be faster than developing for Apple’s iOS. The company spent 12 weeks developing an iPhone app for its customers, and Hester thought that with Windows 8 a similar app could be developed in eight.

He said the use of C# and HTML to program Windows 8 makes it a familiar environment for him to work in.

Jay Wazurkar, an architect for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, was also just coming out of a Windows 8 developer session feeling upbeat about the OS.

He said he likes new features supported by Windows 8 such as touch and linking applications so they can share data. “It’s an open concept that treats data so it can be consumed through other channels,” he said. That involves a programming task called contracting, and he needs to work on that. “I think it’s a tricky concept,” he said, a concept that he needs to learn for the day when his company adopts Windows 8.
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