Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) has been making quite a bit of noise over its new operating systems lately, and even a bit around virtualization, but when it comes to data storage products, there's been nothing but deafening silence.
Think about it: over the last 18 months or so there have been announcements about Windows Server 2008 and Server 2008 R2, Windows 7, Hyper-V, the Azure cloud platform, and plenty more besides.
But where in all this are the announcements about Windows Storage Server 2008? Or an update to Storage Server 2003? Or anything else of interest to storage professionals? Server 2008 had some interesting storage features, but the product is a long way from the bold vision the software giant was pursuing just a few years ago.
Arguably the only "new" storage product the company has released in the last couple of years was the consumer-oriented Home Server product — although under the hood it turns out that this is based on Server 2003, and in any case has no relevance to the enterprise.
So what's going on?
"Microsoft is going through a bit of a change at the moment, and there are probably quite a few internal battles being waged in the company about storage," said Roy Illsley, senior research analyst at Butler Group. "Right now they do not seem to be focusing on it, and I don't think that they think it is central to what they are doing."
If that's true, and past Microsoft behavior is anything to go by, then it's likely that the company has adopted a wait-and-see approach, watching the storage market before taking decisive action to play catch-up by acquiring a suitable player in the market.
A Cloudy Storage Future
One clue to Microsoft's thinking is a structural change that was reported earlier this month: The company has combined its data storage and Web services business units into a single group called the Business Platform Division.
At first glance, Web services and data storage is a puzzling combination. There may be any number of reasons why this new division has been created, but on reflection the most likely reason is that Microsoft is thinking strategically about one thing in particular: cloud storage services.
We know that Microsoft is at least interested in cloud storage; Bill Gates said as much in August last year in an exit interview in PC Magazine. And on the consumer side, Microsoft has been dabbling in cloud-based storage with its free Windows Live SkyDrive service, offering 25GB of storage to consumers who want it.
Then there's Azure, Microsoft's cloud services platform, which was announced at PDC in October, and details of which are still emerging. Last month, Microsoft said it plans to make SQL Server applications available on Azure as part of SQL Data Services (SDS) — possibly the first relational database service available in the cloud. "[W]e are announcing that SDS will deliver full relational database capabilities as a service," the SQL data service team blog announced.
But like cloud applications, and software delivered as a service more generally, cloud storage suffers from a number of well-known problems. The most critical is that many companies feel unwilling or unable to store their data in the cloud for security, privacy, control or regulatory reasons.
"Because of this, I think we will be seeing a lot of internal corporate clouds in the next three to five years as the technology matures," said Illsley. "On some areas like banking you'll probably see applications running on an internal cloud before storage, but in other areas storage is likely to go into an internal cloud before servers. Over the long term, we'll probably see a 60:40 split between internal and external clouds, and that includes storage clouds."
The implication of this is that Microsoft — as well as IBM (NYSE: IBM), HP (NYSE: HPQ) and CA (NYSE: CA) — will have to develop sophisticated add-ins to their management tools (System Center in the case of Microsoft) over the coming months to allow the operation and management of internal storage clouds.
When will that be? Right now that's anyone's guess, but don't be surprised if the deafening silence turns into a roar of announcements at some point in the next twelve months.
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