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The recently announced joint Hewlett-Packard/Microsoft Application-to-Infrastructure Model Partnership has intriguing possibilities for both companies and their respective and overlapping installed customer base. However, it remains to be seen how quickly and efficiently the two industry giants can deliver products and market the merits of the solution. Now $250 million is huge investment even for two high tech powerhouses like HP and Microsoft. So we know this is a serious committment.

To recap, HP and Microsoft said they will invest $250 million into their Frontline Partnership. The deal aims to deliver full, integrated stacks that support Microsoft’s Exchange Server and SQL Server, including management, virtualization and cloud implementations. The resulting product offerings will consist of pre-packaged application solution bundles that incorporate the aforementioned management and virtualization capabilities. The two companies said the pact calls for them to partner on engineering, R&D, marketing and channel sales.
Still, the announcement left many industry watchers with more questions than answers. As my colleagues Charles King and Merv Adrian noted in their Breaking News Review in the January 14 special edition of Charles King’s Pund-IT, HP and Microsoft “have worked closely for years, share tens of thousands of common customers and channel partners and have long supported each other’s interests.”
So what’s new about this announcement? That question should be answered during the coming months. A $250 million investment is considerable even for two high technology titans. It now remains for HP and Microsoft to execute on their promise to produce solutions that thoroughly integrate the two companies’ infrastructure and applications stacks to ship pre-configured and optimized solutions for Microsoft’s Exchange Server, and SQL Server, virtualization, cloud computing converged infrastructure and pre-packaged application tools.
But perhaps the most immediate and daunting challenge is for HP and Microsoft to deliver a product roadmap that also includes specific details about the pricing, training and services the two firms will commonly deliver. Above all, companies must market and sell this deal to the legions of skeptics. The high tech industry has witnessed numerous high profile partnership deals announced amidst much industry fanfare never to be heard from after the initial press releases.
Remember the Cisco Systems/Microsoft Directory Enabled Network (DEN) initiative of the late 1990s? No. Not many people do. Announced with great fanfare, this dream team was supposed to incorporate the functionality of Microsoft’s Active Directory into Cisco routers and provide network administrators with a more comprehensive means of managing various devices on their network. In reality, the Cisco/Microsoft DEN initiative was a partnership on paper only. There are dozens of similar examples. Hence, the skepticism that greets such announcements is understandable.
This is all the more reason for HP and Microsoft executives to follow up on last week’s announcement with quick, decisive action and not just more fodder for the PR Newswire. For example, when can we expect to see the first fruits of the so-called “deeply optimized machine environment” that will provide turn-key, pre-packaged and pre-integrated server, application, networking and storage solutions? Who are the specific target users and how will they benefit? How will Microsoft and HP license and service these products? Those are just a few of the questions that need to be answered.
Non-Exclusive Partnerships Sometimes Make Strange Bedfellows
The partnership also has especially intriguing implications for HP which now has pacts in place with all of the major virtualization providers, including Microsoft’s biggest rival, and VMware. The new HP/Microsoft Application-to-Infrastructure is a non-exclusive three year partnership. It’s worth noting that HP already has a deal in place with VMware, whose ESX Server is the market leader in server virtualization. Microsoft also gets a boost from this deal. Microsoft’s Hyper-V has been gaining ground, particularly among small and mid-sized corporations. However, it has a long way to go to catch up to ESX Server’s installed base, particularly among large enterprises, so this pact helps keep Microsoft competitive. Additionally, HP also delivers a full suite of management solutions that integrates VMware’s vCenter offering with HP’s Insight management product. HP and Microsoft intend to similarly integrate HP’s Insight and Microsoft’s Systems Center. So again, this helps Microsoft broaden the appeal of its virtualization appeal to its existing base and makes it a more attractive solution for prospective customers.
The partnership with Microsoft put’s HP in the proverbial cat-bird’s seat: it now has a full line of its own servers that runs all the VMware products and similar plans to support Microsoft’s SQL Server and Exchange Server. This gives HP the ability to offer a full line of integrated hardware and services customers their choice of virtualization vendors, while remaining agnostic.
From Microsoft’s perspective, the partnership with HP also has immediate value: it allows Microsoft – at least on paper – to keep pace with VMware, by working with HP, a top OEM hardware vendor and services provider, which is no mean feat. Former Microsoft executive Paul Maritz who now runs VMware is intent on rejuvenating that company and he knows that the way to solidify and expand VMware’s influence is to increase its stake in management and applications. Just last week, VMware purchased Zimbra, the open source Email and collaboration unit of Yahoo for a rumored $100 million. Not coincidentally, Zimbra describes its Collaboration suite as the “next generation” Microsoft Exchange server.
Microsoft clearly felt the need to respond in kind.
The plethora of technology and partnership deals such the HP/Microsoft Application-to-Infrastructure pact, serve as a reminder of the intensity of the IT industry’s competitive landscape – particularly in burgeoning markets like virtualization and by extension, nascent markets like cloud computing. No vendor can afford to rest on its laurels. They must continue to upgrade their product and services offerings to keep pace with the competition.
Microsoft and VMware will continue to try and top one another, and HP is the beneficiary of this ongoing rivalry. Let’s hope the end users are also winners, too.