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Microsoft did a very credible job at its TechEd conference in New Orleans last week, laying out the technology roadmap and strategy for a smooth transition from premises-based networks/services to its emerging Azure cloud infrastructure and software + services model.

One of the biggest challenges facing Microsoft and its customers as it stands on the cusp of what Bob Muglia, president of Microsoft’s Server & Tools Business (STB) unit characterized as a “major transformation in the industry called cloud computing,” is how the Redmond, Wash. software giant will license its cloud offerings.

Licensing programs and plans—even those that involve seemingly straightforward and mature software, PC- and server-based product offerings—are challenging and complex in the best of circumstances. This is something Microsoft knows only too well from experience. Constructing an equitable, easy-to-understand licensing model for cloud-based services could prove to be one of the most daunting tasks on Microsoft’s Azure roadmap.

It is imperative that Microsoft proactively address the cloud licensing issues now, and Microsoft executives are well aware of this. During the Q&A portion of one cloud-related TechEd session, Robert Wahbe, corporate vice president, STB Marketing was asked, “What about licensing?” He took a sip from his water bottle and replied, “That’s a big question.”

That is an understatement.

Microsoft has continually grappled with simplifying and refining its licensing strategy since it made a major misstep with Licensing 6.0 in May, 2001, where the initial offering was complex, convoluted and potentially very expensive. It immediately met with a huge vocal outcry and backlash. The company was compelled to postpone the Licensing 6.0 launch while it re-tooled the program to make it more user-friendly from both a technical and cost perspective.

Over the last nine years, Microsoft’s licensing program and strategy has become one of the best in the high-technology industry. It offers simplified terms and conditions (T&Cs); greater discounts for even the smallest micro SMBs and a variety of add-on tools (e.g. licensing compliance and assessment utilities), as well as access to freebies, such as online and onsite technical service and training for customers who purchase the company’s Software Assurance (SA) maintenance and upgrade agreement along with their Volume Licensing deals.

Licensing from Premises to the Cloud
Microsoft’s cloud strategy is a multi-pronged approach that incorporates a wide array of offerings, including Windows Azure, SQL Azure and Microsoft Online Services (MOS). MOS consists of hosted versions of Microsoft’s most popular and widely deployed server applications, such as Exchange Server, PowerPoint and SharePoint. Microsoft’s cloud strategy also encompasses consumer products like Windows Live, Xbox Live and MSN.

Microsoft is also delivering a hybrid cloud infrastructure that will enable organizations to combine premises-based with hosted cloud solutions. This will indisputably provide Microsoft customers with flexibility and choice as they transition from a fixed-premises computing model to a hosted cloud model. In addition, it will allow them to migrate to the cloud at their own pace as their budgets and business needs dictate. However, the very flexibility, breadth and depth of offerings that make Microsoft products so appealing to customers, ironically, are the very issues that increase the complexity and challenges of creating an easily accessible, straightforward licensing model.

Dueling Microsoft Clouds: Azure vs. BPOS
Complicating matters is that Microsoft has dueling cloud offerings; the Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) and the Windows Azure Platform. As a result, Microsoft must also develop, delineate and differentiate its strategy, pricing and provisions for Azure and BPOS. It’s unclear (at least to this analyst) as to when and how a customer will choose one or mix and match BPOS and Azure offerings. Both are currently works in progress.

BPOS is a licensing suite and a set of collaborative end-user services that run on Windows Server, Exchange Server, and SQL Server. Microsoft offers the BPOS Standard Suite, which incorporates Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Office Live Meeting, and Office Communications (OCS) Online. The availability of the latter two offerings is a key differentiator that distinguishes Microsoft’s BPOS and rival offerings from Google. Microsoft also sells the BPOS Business Productivity Online Deskless Worker Suite. It consists of Exchange Online Deskless Worker, SharePoint Online Deskless Worker and Outlook Web Access Light. This BPOS package is targeted at SMBs, small branch offices or companies that want basic, entry-level messaging and document collaboration functions.

By contrast, Azure is a cloud platform offering that contains all the elements of a traditional application stack from the operating system up to the applications and the development framework. It includes the Windows Azure Platform AppFabric (formerly .NET Services for Azure), as well as the SQL Azure Database service.

While BPOS is aimed squarely at end users and IT managers, Azure targets third-party ISVs and internal corporate developers. Customers that build applications for Azure will host it in the cloud. However, it is not a multi-tenant architecture meant to host your entire infrastructure. With Azure, businesses will rent resources that will reside in Microsoft datacenters. The costs are based on a per-usage model. This gives customers the flexibility to rent fewer or more resources, depending on their business needs.

Cloud Licensing Questions
Any cloud licensing or hybrid cloud licensing program that Microsoft develops must include all of the elements of its current fixed premises and virtualization models. This includes:

1. Volume Licensing: As the technology advances from fixed premises software and hardware offerings to private and public clouds, Microsoft must find ways to translate the elements of its current Open, Select and Enterprise agreements to address the broad spectrum of users from small and midsized (SMBs) companies to the largest enterprises with the associated discounts for volume purchases.
2. Term Length: The majority of volume license agreements are based on a three-year product lifecycle. During the protracted economic downturn, however, many companies could not afford to upgrade. A hosted cloud model, though, will be based on usage and consumption, so the terms should and most likely will vary.
3. Software Assurance: Organizations will still need upgrade and maintenance plans regardless of where their data resides and whether or not they have traditional subscription licensing or the newer consumption/usage model.
4. Service and Support: Provisions for after-market technical services, support and maintenance will be crucial for Microsoft, its users, resellers and OEM channel partners. ITIC survey data indicates that the breadth and depth of after-market technical service and support is among the top four items that make or break a purchasing deal.
5. Defined areas of responsibility and indemnification: This will require careful planning on Microsoft’s part. Existing premises-based licensing models differ according to whether or not the customer purchases their products directly from Microsoft, a reseller or an OEM hardware manufacturer. Organizations that adopt a hybrid premises/cloud offering and those that opt for an entirely hosted cloud offering will be looking more than ever before to Microsoft for guidance. Microsoft must be explicit as to what it will cover and what will be covered by OEM partners and/or host providers.

Complicating the cloud licensing models even further is the nature of the cloud itself. There is no singular cloud model. There may be multiple clouds, and they may be a mixture of public and private clouds that also link to fixed premises and mobile networks.

Among the cloud licensing questions that Microsoft must address and specifically answer in the coming months are:

• What specific pricing models and tiers for SMBs, midsize and enterprises will be based on a hybrid and full cloud infrastructures?
• What specific guarantees if any, will it provide for securing sensitive data?
• What level of guaranteed response time will it provide for service and support?
• What is the minimum acceptable latency/response time for its cloud services?
• Will it provide multiple access points to and from the cloud infrastructure?
• What specific provisions will apply to Service Level Agreements (SLAs)?
• How will financial remuneration for SLA violations be determined?
• What are the capacity ceilings for the service infrastructure?
• What provisions will there be for service failures and disruptions?
• How are upgrade and maintenance provisions defined?

From the keynote speeches and throughout the STB Summit and TechEd conference, Microsoft’s Muglia and Wahbe both emphasized and promoted the idea that there is no singular cloud. Instead, Microsoft’s vision is a world of multiple private, public and hybrid clouds that are built to individual organizations’ specific needs.

That’s all well and good. But in order for this strategy to succeed, Microsoft will have to take the lead on both the technology and the licensing fronts. The BPOS and Azure product managers and marketers should actively engage with the Worldwide Licensing Program (WWLP) managers and construct a simplified, straightforward licensing model. We recognize that this is much easier said than done. But customers need and will demand transparency in licensing pricing, models and T&Cs before committing to the Microsoft cloud.