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In-Depth

Tales of Partner Successes in Microsoft's 'Cloud OS'

The combination of Windows Server 2012, System Center 2012 SP1 and Windows Intune have given Microsoft partners new opportunities to expand their businesses into the cloud. Here are a few examples.

Cloud
Alan Bourassa has a double identity in his job at EmpireCLS Worldwide Chauffeured Services.

On the one hand, he's the chief information officer for a luxury limo service with more than 1,000 employees that offers chauffeur services in about 700 cities around the world. With more than 30 years in business, the company has established a polished reputation that attracts senior executives of Fortune 500 companies shuttling to airports and Hollywood celebrities on their way to the red carpet at events like the recent Golden Globes.

In other words, Bourassa runs an IT operation with global enterprise requirements, including hardware and software for three datacenters. Through the lens of the Microsoft ecosystem, that makes EmpireCLS a high-level customer for Microsoft and a potential customer for Microsoft partners.

At the same time, Bourassa is the CIO of EmpireCLS, the startup, Software as a Service (SaaS) provider offering a proprietary dispatch and reservation system to other ground transportation companies. Looked at that way, EmpireCLS is becoming a Microsoft partner itself.

SaaS on the Rise
EmpireCLS manifests a predicted result of trends toward cloud -- the emergence in the SaaS channel of vertically focused companies with highly specialized expertise. Many observers expected that some of those companies would turn their proprietary solutions into SaaS offerings for other companies in their own industries. The recent release of Microsoft System Center SP1 puts a finishing touch on a set of integrated technologies, including Windows Server 2012 and Windows Azure, that Microsoft calls the cloud OS. It's that environment that EmpireCLS and other forward-looking companies are using to broaden their own definitions of what their businesses do.

"Over the last several years, we've been transforming our business from just a luxury ground transportation company to a world-class hosting provider, targeting and specializing specifically in the ground transportation segment," Bourassa said in a January news conference organized by Microsoft for the System Center SP1 launch.

"We now offer Software as a Service for our proprietary dispatch and reservation systems that we built, and Infrastructure as a Service to those companies specializing in the ground transportation industry," he said. "We took an existing software asset from our company and developed it and used it in a business model with our intellectual property and capital to make a public cloud offering to build on that model for our cloud services to maximize our original software investment."

"Over the last several years, we've been transforming our business from just a luxury ground transportation company to a world-class hosting provider, targeting and specializing specifically in the ground transportation segment."

Alan Bourassa, CIO, EmpireCLS

Last April, EmpireCLS allocated about 90 percent of its datacenter resources for the legacy business and 10 percent for the new SaaS business. Since then, EmpireCLS has crossed the milestone of 550 customers and vendors on its combined private, public and Windows Azure cloud services offering.

In another year, the company has said it expects the split of its cloud OS dedicated to private versus public use will be 50-50.

And as go the datacenter resource allocations, so go the revenues. The luxury chauffeur business may have taken 30 years to reach its current revenue levels, but executives have high hopes for online services such as the dispatch/reservation system and other offerings, such as BeTransported.com, an online rate-shopping ground transportation service.

"We actually expect that over the next several years, more than 50 percent of our total revenue is going to come from this new business transformation and venture," Bourassa said.

The possibilities for new business for EmpireCLS came about during a technical transformation of the company's datacenters from pure Unix shops to the Microsoft platform. EmpireCLS started standardizing its datacenter on the Windows Server 2008 OS in 2008. A year later, EmpireCLS upgraded to the R2 release and began using Hyper-V to virtualize its operations. Other important Microsoft technologies for the company at that stage included live migration, Cluster Shared Volume (CSV) features, System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) 2008 R2 and Remote Desktop Services for virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).

The first release of System Center 2012 allowed EmpireCLS to create the scalable private cloud that began to allow the pooling, provisioning and de-provisioning that would let the company create its new hosting-style businesses without adding IT staff.

"Without Microsoft's total cloud vision, we'd never have been able to have accomplished this. This has allowed us to expand our business model and to become a public hosting provider in the cloud," Bourassa said.

Super Service Pack
A service pack release is usually a relatively minor milestone on a Microsoft roadmap. System Center 2012 SP1, however, is not your standard service pack. System Center 2012 SP1 lights up much of the functionality of the cloud OS. One major way it does so is that it's the first version of System Center 2012 to support Windows Server 2012.

At the January System Center news conference, Mike Schutz, general manager of product marketing for Microsoft Server and Tools Business, detailed some major features of System Center 2012 SP1, many of which benefit the partner-provided hosted cloud -- one of three definitions of cloud in the cloud OS (private, public and hosted).

"Things like multi-tenancy; storage virtualization; network virtualization, which provides the foundation for software-defined networking; and all of the great capabilities that Windows Server delivers are now brought to bear with System Center 2012 SP1, including the support for non-Windows operating systems and multi-hypervisor environments," Schutz said. Calling System Center a "hybrid cloud management solution," Schutz noted that it provides many ways to manage applications and resources across a customer's datacenter, a hosting services provider's datacenter and a Microsoft datacenter running Windows Azure.

Bourassa detailed a number of ways that putting EmpireCLS onto the full cloud OS, with System Center 2012 SP1 in command, is helping with the company's operations.

One is VMM, which is managing hundreds of hypervisor workloads through one pane of glass. "The saying now in our company is, 'We don't build servers anymore; we build hypervisors and we build private and public clouds,'" Bourassa said.

The company is using System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM) for backup and recovery protection, Windows Azure backup services to protect data in the public Microsoft cloud, System Center Service Manager for user ticketing, System Center Orchestrator for reporting on issues, and System Center Operations Manager for alerting any issues before customers see them. "This has allowed us to maintain an uptime of seven nines, which until now has been unheard of in the industry," he said.

Hosting Ecosystem Grows
While EmpireCLS is a new hosting services provider, existing hosting providers are finding benefits to the cloud OS, as well. "We already have an enormous ecosystem of hosting services providers that can participate in the cloud OS -- [more than] 14,000 use Windows Server today, [more than] 8,500 use SQL Server and [more than] 5,500 use Exchange," Schutz said.

One hoster finding benefits is Applied Innovations Corp., a 14-year-old company based in Boca Raton, Fla., that caters to developers, designers and agencies.

Applied Innovations CEO Jess Coburn committed to Hyper-V and System Center in 2009 after comparing the capabilities and roadmaps of the VMware Inc. and Microsoft platforms. Four years later, he's expecting the System Center 2012 SP1 upgrade will help his business, which runs 35,000 domains for 10,000 customers on 2,500 servers, 90 percent of them server instances virtualized on Hyper-V.

"The cloud is redefining our business and our industry," Coburn said. "When in the past we saw that we were deploying these Web workloads, and that's been a major focus of our business, now that we've started deploying cloud we're starting to see what our customers host transition from Web to more enterprise-type workloads."

Even as customers change what they host with Applied Innovations, the hoster itself is expanding its own business based on its infrastructure.

"Last year, we acquired another company, and that company focused exclusively on building a channel business of partners that delivered managed services to small and medium businesses. And they're one of those businesses that deployed these enterprise IT workloads that were traditionally on-prem," Coburn said. "In the last three months, we've seen that business grow by 25 percent, and I believe by delivering more services that are exposed in Hyper-V and System Center, we'll be able to grow that further."

Specific features of System Center 2012 SP1 that are useful to Coburn include the ability to leverage Hyper-V Replica to offer disaster recovery services, network virtualization and the Service Provider Foundation.

The flexibility offered by the new Windows Azure Services for Windows Server also creates big opportunities, Coburn suggested. "Because of this new service, we'll be able to stand up an elastically scalable cloud hosting environment that will allow our shared hosting customers to get the same benefit of the cloud that previously was only available to our managed cloud customers," he said. "And for us that's really exciting."

Whether it's longtime hosters, such as Applied Innovations, or new entrants to hosting, such as EmpireCLS, the cloud approach is creating new business opportunities for companies willing to commit the resources.

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