Does Microsoft's Azure plan in a multi-cloud world ominously echo its Windows-everywhere past?

Before iOS and Android usurped the PC by way of mobile, Microsoft's Windows operating system ruled computing. As a once Windows-centric world has now embraced iOS, Android and Chrome, Microsoft has positioned Azure as a Super OS that embraces these other platforms.

Microsoft envisions Azure as a cloud platform that will run the world's cross-platform apps, power tens of billions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, stream content like media and games and power intelligent edge devices. As a cloud provider second only to Amazon (AWS), and a company achieving billions of dollars of growth in its cloud business every year, Microsoft seems well on its way to its goal.

Still, Microsoft is trying to seduce the world into its Windows-for-everyone-and-everything like Azure-for-everyone-and-everything strategy. Despite Microsoft's leadership (second to Amazon) position in a multi-cloud world, AWS and Google Cloud Platform (GCP) are the preferred cloud services by many. Given this indisputable reality, perhaps Microsoft's approach to the cloud should be as collaborative as its Windows and other cross-platform efforts have become.

A multi-cloud world and a multi-platform precedent

The cloud wars are aggressive. The billions of dollars in revenue cloud generates, and the influence cloud leaders have on the evolving computing landscape are enticing rewards fueling this struggle. Cloud is the connective tissue that binds the evolving ambient computing landscape, mobile computing, Always Connected PCs (ACPC), app development and workload deployment, IoT, 5G-powered edge computing, and more. It is core to Microsoft's ubiquitous computing strategy.

It is interesting that when most people speak of the cloud, from consumers, IT professionals and tech writers alike, there is usually no distinction made between the various cloud providers unless it is necessary to do so to make a particular point. The clouds are often referred to collectively as "The Cloud." Our computing behavior carries us across different cloud providers as we move from work to home or between different apps and platforms throughout the day and blurs the lines between what cloud we are using – and we often don't care (or notice) as long as the job is done. For most users most of the time, the multi-cloud reality is experienced as a singular cloud experience.

In a multi-cloud world we increasingly experience "The Cloud" as a singular entity.

The multi-cloud world is here, it is complex and is integrated in the way enterprises do business, and how consumers experience the digital landscape; and like the multi-OS reality that changed computing forever – it's here to stay. As Microsoft had to change its "Windows-must-dominate-computing strategy to adapt to a multi-OS world, it must also temper its Azure-will-power-the-world's-computing vision with a sober acknowledgment that despite having a leading position, enterprises and consumers are using different cloud platforms. Thus, as Microsoft adapted Windows to work with iOS and Android and is pursuing an aggressive cross-platform app strategy – perhaps it should also aggressively pursue a cross-cloud strategy – like Google is doing.

Google's cross-cloud Anthos solution

This past April, Google announced its cross-platform cloud strategy, Anthos. Seemingly taking a page out of Microsoft's cross-platform playbook, Anthos allows users to run their Google-managed workloads on competing cloud platforms like AWS and Azure. Google's SVP of Technical Infrastructure at Google Urs Hölzle said, "The ability for businesses to run on multiple clouds is really a game changer."

Since Satya Nadella's tenure as Microsoft's CEO, the company has dramatically shifted its position related to collaboration with other companies and sharing its software, technology, and knowledge with others. Office on iOS and Android, open sourcing .NET, freely sharing what it learns of A.I. (opens in new tab), sharing its inclusion strategies in hiring people with autism and more have repositioned the company as less Microsoft-centric and more of a collaborator.

Despite this evolving legacy it seems Google beat Microsoft to the punch with a cross-platform cloud strategy. Still given Microsoft's new-found openness, clear cross-platform goals and its own investments in Kubernetes - the foundational technology for Googles Anthos – cross-platform cloud seems inevitable for Microsoft.

Microsoft should embrace all cloud platforms

As cloud computing continues to evolve and users continue moving across cloud services to facilitate their digital experiences and enterprises move workloads across different clouds via solutions like Google's Anthos, the perception of "The Cloud" as a singular platform, like the Internet, may begin to take greater root.

This may ultimately lead to cloud providers becoming more intentional and more aggressive with solutions that transcend the boundaries of individual cloud providers. Perhaps, like Google, Microsoft and Amazon will be pushing solutions that allow users to manage their workloads on rival clouds – and more. Microsoft's recent cloud partnership for gaming and more with Sony seems to be a step in the right direction.

For now, Microsoft is touting Azure as a platform-agnostic development platform, an environment that powers cross-platform apps, and Linux even powers many of its solutions. Still, when it comes to what cloud service will power the world's computing Microsoft seems to be wearing the same Windows-centric-type blinders that gave the company Microsoft-focused tunnel vision in years past. The cloud, in practice, isn't just a diversity of platforms, however; but in how we experience it and in how it is evolving, "The Cloud" is a singular conglomeration of Amazon-Microsoft-Google and others which is transparently serving us as a "singular platform". Microsoft must acknowledge this and as it invests to further Azure's footprint, it must also invest in aggressive cross-cloud efforts that bring its assets across other clouds, or rather other parts of "The Cloud."

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

  • I don't see cloud services going anywhere and I don't see any big company investing billions over billions to set up servers with similar reach as Google/Amazon/Microsoft. Well, you never know, Trump blocking tech companies from buying from American companies could ultimately lead to an open source cloud service, but right now Microsoft is in a good place. And I am sure if they have to reimagine themselves, they will do it again. Their R&D team is 10 years ahead of today, they are pretty competent at anticipating the future trends. But of course they can fail (mostly because they are too early, that's why they play the long game with HoloLens). Great article.
  • To make money you have to have people use your product. That's it. It's the backbone to many things and that's cool. That's a smart business. Windows is still important though everything is not running on iOS and Android. That's the only silly thing I thought about was in the article. Sure, everyone has a smartphone running Android or IOS. That doesn't mean Windows or PC is not around. We just have expanded our computing needs.
  • Thanks for the comment, but I never said that Android and iOS ran everything or that Windows is not around. What I said was that prior to iOS and Android Windows was the primary nearly default computing platform; mobile computing via iOS and Android have changed that. Many things like email, messaging, light gaming, light document editing and more that used to be done nearly exclusively on Windows PCs are now done very frequently on smartphones and iPads - or said another way iOS and Android. That has taken a big chunk away from the Windows-centric world that pre-existed iOS and Android. Many developers have turned their attention to these platforms that are powering the computing that is in our pockets and is always connected. This is one of the points this article was highlighted, not that Windows is gone, but that it's position, even with 800 million Windows 10 install base, as the world's OS is no longer the reality we live in. The point I'm stressing is that we are now in a multi-OS* world where other OSes beside Windows have a very relevant place and Microsoft had to make Windows 10 adapt to that reality by working well with those OSes and that as a parrallel we are in a **multi-cloud world and Microsoft should make Azure work well with other clouds as well.
  • Eh, as a consumer I find the cloud practically useless. I use one drive to sync files, and with the right software, I could probably do that on the local network. I don't really stream outside of youtube, I prefer everything to be local.
    I mean I see the usefulness for certain applications, especially multi-site business. And I can see the idea of the graph as a means of user control of data and online permissions (which would have to be centralized). But as yet I don't see the argument for decentralisation for Microsoft. They are 2nd. If they were third maybe. Right now they can set the standard. Create new features others end up adopting. If they make everything agnostic they lose some of that creative power. Cross compatibility is usually an underdog play. Google did it, back when they needed it, and now are arguably aggressively anticompetitive. Apple even tried their hand at it when they were nearly bust. At least, there's something strategic about cross compatibility; PWA for Google for eg, they want to ditch Android eventually for their own OS (be it chrome or fuschia), and PWA will smooth that. Perhaps there might be some play in a selective crossover, and certainly, I can see the use for consumers (see the many apps than sync between cloud storage services). Personally, of everything I hear about cloud development, Microsoft's vision is at least a little exciting, because it most resembles locality - machine takes the load, and the network takes the light lifting. The idea of centralized information that has user controls has some function. Whereas Google and Amazon's vision centres mainly on everything occuring offsite, services run on some server. Call me old fashioned, I like to own and control things. If I own a device powered by the intelligent edge, the data is local, the processing is local, and the cloud operates as connective tissue. If I own a cloud-based amazon or google device, it's a glorified terminal machine.
  • Most consumers don't even notice "The Cloud" (there is no such thing as "The Cloud". It's just someone else's computers) when they are using it, and that is the idea. It should be transparent to the end-users.
    Azure is pretty OS agnostic when it comes to it's functionality, and that is what the Business Clients demand.
    The entire concept of SAAS (Software as a Service) and now NAAS (Networking as a Service) is what Azure (and the other vendors) are all about and frankly, Azure is still catching up to AWS when it comes to hosting Apps, while being ahead of them on NAAS. Google is pretty much only concerned about Google and only give lip-service to anyone else's apps.
    Admittedly, you have conflated applications (Office 365) with platforms (Azure) which is not really the case. The other vendors do the same thing (Google Apps anyone?) and you don't mention them.
    Azure will let you run just about anything on the platform you want to run, however you want to run it. The fact that they run their own software stacks better (SQL Databases, and Windows OS's especially) is because the other app vendors won't optimize them for any Cloud but their own (Oracle for example.)
    With the containerization they support, you can have huge numbers of light-weight apps now, and even spin them up and down dynamically (that is where all this is going.)
    Where Microsoft is leading, is in the regionalization of their Azure data centers, specifically having many more of them all over the world. This allows them to keep data close to the users and comply with local data laws.
  • In the space that I develop software in, the workstation my application runs on requires a Nvidia Quadro P5000 compute card, a Nvidia Quadro M4000 visualization card, and 48 GB of RAM. These workstations cost a fortune. The cloud offers the possibility to spin up computing resources in a more cost effective, and flexible manner. I think having an open cloud service API would be advantageous so that if you didn't like the pricing of AWS, Google, or Azure, you could switch to a different cloud back-end without having to impact your services code too much.
  • Microsoft just today announced a partnership with Oracle Cloud to provide direct connections between Azure and Oracle Cloud.
    This will allow you to run your Oracle applications (or anything else that requires an Oracle DB back-end) in Azure while keeping the Oracle DB in Oracle Cloud. (Oracle realizes they will never have the breadth and dept of Azure's data centers so this will keep them relevant.)
    I expect this will be the first of more upcoming partnerships with the other Cloud providers for interoperability reasons.
    AWS and Google however have little incentive to partner with Microsoft though so don't hold your breath on those partnerships.