Olivier Mangelschots is Managing Director at Orbit One Internet Solutions, a systems integrator based in Belgium that is deeply involved in Microsoft technology.
In this interview we cover:
- Identity management in hybrid environments
- The role of partners in providing customized cloud solutions
- SLAs and cloud outages
- Migrating to the cloud vs. building for the cloud
- Things in clouds work better together
Robert Duffner: Could you take a moment to introduce yourself and Orbit One?
Olivier Mangelschots: I'm Managing Director of Orbit One Internet Solutions. We have been in business since '95 here in a city called Gent, Belgium. Today, we have 18 people, and we mainly focus on developing web portals. We use technology such as SharePoint, Microsoft CRM, and Umbraco, which is an open source CMS based on ASP.NET.
We also try to help our customers realize the new world of work, making use of technology such as Microsoft Lync to be able to work from anywhere while staying in contact with their teams. We're really interested in the cloud and looking forward to this change.
Robert: You've been involved in building customer solutions since well before cloud computing. How have you seen the cloud impact the solution that you're providing to your customers?
Olivier: We've always tried to make solutions in such a way that the impact on the internal IT structure for the customer is as low as possible. Even as far back as 2000, the solutions that we've developed have mostly been hosted by us.
We try to minimize the need for customers to implement local servers, so they can focus on making the best use of the solutions instead of the technical infrastructure behind it.
Robert: Jericho Forum president Paul Simmonds says that new rules are needed for identity in the cloud and that passwords are broken. Can you talk about the challenges and solutions for identity management in the cloud? How is it different from traditional hosting?
Olivier: Identity is one of the key elements to make the cloud successful, and I think we've come a long way. Today, most cloud solutions are starting to incorporate identity management the way it should be done, using federated identity and single sign-on. In the past, an organization had to choose between doing everything on-premises or moving everything to the cloud.
It was difficult to have part in the cloud and part on-premises, because you had to manage users and synchronization separately. It was quite a pain. But now, large and small companies can move to the cloud and have centralized user management, so they are able to handle user services in a very transparent way.
It shouldn't matter for the users whether an application is hosted on-premises or hosted in a cloud at Microsoft or hosted at a partner, so long as everything is nicely integrated. Of course, the first thing the user notices is the fact that he has to enter a username and password, so that should be very transparent.
Robert: Customers can choose between cloud, on-premises, and partner hosting. How do you explain the differences between these options to the customers you work with?
Olivier: Cost is obviously one of the factors to take into consideration. Most customers are coming from an on-premises history, and by moving to cloud technologies such as Windows Azure, Office 365, and CRM Online they can save a lot on costs. Of course, one has to look at the complete picture: not only licensing, but also factors such as human resources, hardware, and electricity.
In addition to saving on costs, they can make things happen more quickly. If they want to deploy something new, they can do so in a matter of hours in the cloud, where they would need days, weeks, or sometimes months for an on-premises deployment.
Partner hosting is still very important, mainly because not everything is possible in the public cloud. There are certain limitations with Azure and Office 365, for example. The price is very affordable, but you get what's in the box, and partners can offer customization.
In addition to offering more personalized solutions with regard to technical features, partners can also provide customization in terms of service-level agreements, security considerations, encryption, and those sorts of things, which are very important for some organizations.
Robert: At EMC's recent conference, CEO Joe Tucci said that hybrid clouds are becoming the de facto standard. Can you talk a little bit about hybrid solutions that may use a mix of options?
Olivier: As an example, one of the things that is very easy to migrate to a public cloud is an organization’s set of Exchange mailboxes with contacts, calendars, and so on. The level of customization that users need is quite small, and most people are happy with the product as it comes out of the box.
If you move the mailboxes to the cloud, users typically don’t even notice. They just keep using Outlook and Outlook Web Access, synchronizing their phones as they need to. Still, it saves a lot of costs, as well as allowing many companies to have much larger mailboxes than they would otherwise be able to.
This is one of the mixed situations we see, where companies are moving part of their services to the cloud, such as Exchange mailboxes, while keeping, for example, SharePoints sites internally because they need some custom modules in there that are not available in the cloud.
Mixing and matching in that way can be a smart approach, because it allows companies to save costs while also being more productive and agile.
Robert: Following the recent Amazon outage where full service wasn't restored for about four days, are you seeing customers question the reliability of the cloud? What do you think is the lesson learned from that?
Olivier: Almost all companies are a bit scared of moving their data away to some unknown location, because they have less control over those systems. The event at Amazon was, of course, very unfortunate. The cloud on a massive scale is still very new, and certain technologies should really be considered to be in a beta phase.
I think we have to be realistic about the fact that in an on-premises situation, uptime is not guaranteed at all. Many organizations have far more than four days of outages a year because of human error.
Many companies are not ready today to move certain critical applications to the cloud. I believe that, as the cloud grows bigger and more mature, service-level agreements will be available from cloud systems that are far more demanding than those that are possible from on-premises situations.
This is also where partner hosting can come into play. You can combine certain things in the public cloud for very affordable mass-usage scenarios while putting specific, mission-critical solutions at a partner that will do a custom replicated solution.
In the long term, I believe that the public cloud will come in several flavors, including an inexpensive mass market flavor and a more enterprise-focused flavor with high levels of redundancy and availability, which will cost more.
Robert: Lew Moorman, the chief strategy officer at Rackspace, likened the Amazon interruption to the computing equivalent of an airplane crash. It's a major episode with widespread damage, but airline travel is still safer than traveling in a car. He was using this as an analogy to cloud computing being safer than running data centers by individual companies. Do you think that analogy holds up?
Olivier: I think it does in certain scenarios, although not all. But I think you're absolutely right that when an airplane crash occurs, it garners a lot of attention, even though statistically, it is far safer than driving a car.
If a big cloud goes down, that’s a major news story, and everybody's talking about it. But actually, this almost never happens, and a very large scale public cloud can be much safer than environments run by individual companies.
At the same time, there is always a balance between how much you pay and what you get for it. I don't think it's possible to get the service with the maximum possible guarantees for a very low fee. If you're willing to pay more, you will get more possibilities.
Azure is a nice example, because you can choose what geographical area your data and services will be running in. And you're completely free, as a developer or as an architect, to create systems that are redundant over several parts of the Azure cloud, which allows you to go further than what's in the box.
Robert: Customers aren't always starting from scratch, and sometimes they have something existing that they want to move to the cloud. Can you talk a little bit about migration to the cloud and things that customers might need to be aware of?
Olivier: This is a major issue today. For certain services, migration to the cloud is more difficult than it should be. The issue is going to be addressed step by step. First, of course, you need to have the cloud. Then you can start building migration tools. When I look, for example, at Microsoft Exchange, it's very easy and there are lots of good tools to move from an on-premises or a partner-hosted solution to the cloud.
Azure, I think, is a completely different beast, and you can’t just take an application and put it on Azure. To make it really take advantage of the Azure opportunities and added value, you need to redesign the application and make it Azure-aware. That can take quite some time to do, and it's a long-term investment for product developers.
Robert: As more people move to the cloud, there's the chance to integrate one cloud resource with another. I know you've been thinking about the combination of Office 365 and Azure. Can you tell us your thoughts on that?
Olivier: The combination of Office 365/Dynamics CRM Online with Windows Azure is a very interesting thing. For example, we have customers using CRM Online, which is kind of out of the box, you get what's in there. We combine it for them with custom Azure solutions to do things that are not foreseen in CRM.
To give you an example, there is a company called ClickDimensions that has an email marketing plug-in for Microsoft CRM. You can send out mass e-mails to people from CRM, and there is tracking functionality about who opens the e-mail and who clicks on your website. You have a whole history about your prospects and your leads.
Actually, all this is running in the Azure cloud. It's all custom-developed, and it's always up, piping this information through to your CRM system. This is a nice combination of using out-of-the-box standards, shared hosting products such as Office 365, and CRM Online, combined with custom-developed solutions running in Azure. You get the best of both worlds.
Robert: At Microsoft, we see cloud as a critical back-end for mobile applications. You probably saw the recent announcement around our Toolkits for Devices that includes support for the iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 7. Do you have any thoughts around the combination of cloud and mobile?
Olivier: I don't really have special thoughts, although cloud and mobile, of course, work very well together. On the other hand, I think that any application is nice to have in the cloud, and the nice thing about the combination of cloud and mobile is making sure it's available from anywhere, since mobile users can be coming from anywhere in the world.
It's very difficult to know when you roll out a mobile application how much people are going to use it, and hosting these kind of things on the cloud makes very much sense, because you can cope with the peaks, you can cope with identity issues, and you have a nice kind of platform to start with.
Robert: Was there anything else that you wanted to talk about or any other subject you want to discuss?
Olivier: Today, I see Azure as a tool kit, or a large system to build new applications and solutions, so the group using it is mostly developers and other technical people. It would be nice to see a layer between Azure and other scenarios, where Azure is the engine and Microsoft or other partners create front ends for it.
To give you an example, if I want to host simple websites running a CMS solution, I can choose any of a number of partners that have management modules that allow me to easily configure the website, hit start, and it's running. It would be great to see an integration between for example Microsoft WebMatrix and Azure, allowing less technical people to get their website running in Azure in a few clicks.
These extra layers on top of Azure are a big thing for partner opportunities, but I also think that Microsoft should also participate to speed up things. I see Azure as the first big infrastructure step, we are just at the beginning!
One thing that developers might be afraid of is that if today you build an application specially for Azure, you're going to use the Azure tables, the Azure way of doing message queuing, and so on, making it very hard to move away from Azure.
Of course, today, Azure is only available through Microsoft, but I think it makes sense in the future to have the Azure platform also available in custom flavors through service providers that are competing with one another on innovation and pricing.
Of course, Microsoft probably doesn't want to give everything away, but there are a lot of partner models. It will be interesting to see how this will evolve in the future.
Robert: Very good. Thanks, Olivier.
Olivier: Thank you.