What does the legal battle between Salesforce.com and Microsoft really mean for the future of cloud computing?
By Tony Kontzer
Salesforce.com's move last week to launch a legal counter-attack against Microsoft seems to signal that software's old and new guards are ready to spar over who will have the most sway over the future of cloud computing.
Will it be Salesforce, perhaps the best-known pure cloud computing company out there, riding its "No Software" slogan to the top of the cloud computing heap? Or will Microsoft, the bully of the packaged software era, convince corporate America that its hybrid approach to the cloud is a better fit to meet their needs?
Of course, there are countless other companies that could just as easily lead the cloud computing charge -- Oracle, NetSuite, Rackspace, IBM -- but this is a case in which the "who" isn't as interesting as the "what."
Salesforce.com and Microsoft represent two differing cloud computing philosophies that many CIOs find themselves struggling to pick between.
For that reason, where each CIO's favor falls will depend on a number of factors, including:
- their business objectives related to cloud computing
- the cost pressures they're facing; the skill level of their IT teams
- their respective comfort levels with placing mission-critical data in a service provider's data center
- their general outlook on cloud computing
CIOs who view the cloud as a completely new computing paradigm - one in which every IT resource possible can be accessed via the Web -- will be pulling for Salesforce.com.
CIOs who remain convinced that the mission-critical systems they oversee must remain fully in their control are likely to feel comfortable with a Microsoft environment that protects them from the perceived security risks of multi-tenant servers.
At the heart of the matter is the growing debate over the relative value of public clouds (the Salesforce.com model) vs. private clouds (a component of the Microsoft model). The problem is, that debate's about as clear as -- pardon the analogy -- a thick, gray cloud (as this exploration of the topic by colleague Mary Jo Foley illustrates).
Ask a dozen IT executives to define the private cloud, and you'll likely get a dozen different answers. Is it simply a traditional IT environment with a Web-based front end? Is it a separate data center set up by a company to specifically serve up Web-based applications accessible from any device? Is it a private server and singular application instance managed by a service provider?
No matter how many times it's explained to me, I still have a hard time understanding what exactly a private cloud is, how it differs from the established approach to IT of serving up applications from a company-run data center, or whether there's really even such a thing.
More than anything else, it strikes me as a marketing shell-game designed to sell CIOs cloud computing training wheels, without the perceived security risks. But really, all they've embraced is virtualization.
And let's face it: the move to virtualization is more of technology tactic than a business strategy. Conversely, the move to true cloud computing, while clearly enabled by emerging technology, seems to me to be a strategic business decision. It's a commitment to a completely different methodology for delivering technology to users, and for managing and maintaining that technology.
In that sense, if the IT gods are just, Salesforce.com and its evangelistic CEO, Marc Benioff, will emerge from their legal scrapple with Bill Gates & Co. as cloud computing's top dogs. Even if they don't stay there long, maybe they will have helped push the industry toward a new era of business computing, rather than watching the courts rubber stamp the status quo.