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Cloud Computing's Back Alley Brawl

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Jul 6, 2010


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Microsoft is taking a page from SCO's playbook, suing Salesforce.com over nine CRM-related patents on which it claims the CRM vendor is infringing. Clearly, both companies believe cloud computing is critical to their future. With the cloud landscape still forming, is Microsoft prepared to do whatever it takes to be chief kingpin?

When Microsoft turns into an alley thug, you can be pretty sure the company has something other than its server OSes on its mind. Recently, the company got itself into a right old barney with Salesforce.com, launching a lawsuit over nine CRM-related patents on which it claims Salesforce.com is infringing. The two organizations, let's not forget, are competitors in the cloud-based CRM space.

The lawsuit rather got Salesforce.com boss Marc Benioff's goat, prompting him to fire back:

"The reality is that these patent trolls are unfortunately just part of doing business and technology these days. They're basically the alley thugs. Every thriving economy has alley thugs and we do too."

Salesforce (NYSE: CRM) is a feisty, or should we say pugnacious, little company. In June, it kicked back at Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) where it hurts, claiming the company has violated five Salesforce.com patents with its Windows Server AppFabric for installing and provisioning apps on Azure, Windows Live Services including Hotmail and SkyDrive storage, .NET, Windows 7, Server 2008 R2, and SharePoint products and technologies.

If Microsoft and Salesforce.com were two naughty schoolboys then the teacher would come over, bang their heads together, and ask them what all this is about. "The cloud, sir," would be the correct answer.

The cloud is certainly important for Microsoft, which launched its Azure platform as a paid-for service at the beginning of this year. Since then, though, we haven't really heard a great deal about it. That's a bit odd, given the huge song and dance the company made when it announced Azure at its Professional Developers Conference back in October 2008.

But according to Bob Muglia, Microsoft's president of Server and Tools, Azure is progressing very nicely, thank you very much, with a good number of companies continuing to use the platform after charging was introduced in February.

He said:

Now there's a lot of people kicking tyres on it of course and they're continuing to do that, but we've seen a very high conversion rate [from the free to paid-for live service]. Where people are wanting to use it, they're continuing to use it. We have everything from small start-ups that are beginning to use it to do new things; we have departments within large companies that are using it for departmental things.

Microsoft is playing for the long term here, introducing new features without rushing to add new customers or to blow the Azure vuvuzela too much. That's because the company has got a great deal at stake: Azure infrastructure will be key to everything Microsoft does in the future, according to Quocirca analyst Clive Longbottom. "As such, Azure is not just important to Microsoft -- it is betting the farm on it," he said.

If you bet the farm and you get it wrong, you end up destitute -- UNIX server OS vendor SCO, for example, knows all about that. So Microsoft is wise to take it slow. Perhaps it has been listening to Scott Crenshaw, open source software vendor Red Hat's vice president and general manager of the cloud business unit. At the Red Hat Summit in Boston last month, he warned anyone who cared to listen that clouds are in the early stages of development, and no one knows what the best practices and technologies for clouds will end up being in two, three or four years time.

"This is not the time for customers to adopt a new architecture that locks them into a single vendor. That vendor may not be able to deliver, in the future, what is needed," Crenshaw said.

Of course, Crenshaw could just be saying that because as well as competing with Microsoft in the server OS space, his employer has just launched its own cloud strategy, Cloud Foundations, and therefore wants to thwart Microsoft's pitch.

Right now, this is a phony war. Microsoft, Red Hat, Salesforce.com and plenty of others are involved in the cloud, but it's too early for this posturing to break out into open competitive hostilities. That leaves all parties dissing each other's products in public, or slapping the occasional patent suit on the table. Or, in Microsoft's case, acting like the local alley thug.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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