Microsoft Partners Impressed By Windows Azure

Although Azure was widely expected, some solution providers were surprised -- and pleased -- by the frankness of Thompson's declaration. "This is the boldest prediction I've heard yet, and it certainly sets a direction," said Dave Sobel, CEO of Evolve Technologies, a Fairfax, Va.-based Microsoft Gold partner.

Microsoft executives at PDC said that ever since its Software Plus Services vision was hatched, the plan has been to offer all enterprise applications as services. In an interview with ChannelWeb, Stephen Elop, president of the Microsoft Business Division, noted that Microsoft is already running cloud services for large-scale organizations, in the form of SharePoint, Exchange, and Office Communications Server Online.

"It's hard for us to imagine any of our applications that don't have a strong client, server and cloud story to tell across the PC, the mobile phone, and the browser," Elop said.

Regardless of whether they were surprised by Azure, channel partners appear to be highly impressed with the services-related announcements Microsoft brought to the table at PDC.

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Andrew Brust, chief of new technology at twentysix New York, a New York-based IT consultancy, says the fact that Microsoft is building a Web-based environment and branding it as Windows shows that Microsoft wants to forever dispel the notion of Windows as a desktop dwelling entity.

"Microsoft is really looking at a stack here -- this isn't just a token gesture of throwing a few things online," said Brust. "They're really looking to build a low-level environment and the ancillary services and then applications. It'll be interesting to see how many of the facilities and features in the enterprise products are really going to be available in the cloud in the short term."

Azure clearly lowers the barrier to entry for a partner to offer Microsoft enterprise applications, but it's not a panacea for partners interested in getting into the SaaS space, said Adam Smith, director of marketing at Phase 2 International, a Honolulu, Hawaii-based solution provider.

"There are real challenges with technical sales, marketing, support, billing, and hand-tailored customization that are all critical to winning SMB clients in this space. Azure should also make it easier to integrate and extend Microsoft applications with a more tightly woven Web-based framework," Smith said.

Indeed, as Microsoft's services strategy continues to solidify, Microsoft's level of commitment to partners will take on added importance, Sobel said.

"So far, I've been less than impressed by Microsoft's Online Services, as it is certainly not partner focused in its current incarnation. However, Microsoft often takes a revision or two to align with the market," said Sobel.