Some MSPs remain skeptical of Microsoft's cloud computing strategy. But give Microsoft credit: Cloud Channel Chief Gretchen O'Hara addressed more than 100 managed services providers earlier today, during a Cloud Computing panel at the N-able Partner Summit in Scottsdale, Ariz. Here are perspectives from O'Hara and highlights from the panel discussion.

Let me set the back story: Earlier this week, Microsoft announced its Office 365 cloud initiative, which is a SaaS successor to Microsoft BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite). The Office 365 announcement triggered some fear, uncertainty and doubt among MSPs attending the N-able Partner Summit. And as loyal readers know, I've sometimes criticized Microsoft for failing to attend MSP-centric events. MSPs understand recurring revenues so they should be Microsoft's first cloud partner target, I've asserted.

Still, Microsoft's O'Hara impressed me during a meeting back at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC10) in July. And when she confirmed plans to participate in the cloud panel at the N-able Partner Summit, I realize that O'Hara really is determined to have a two-way dialog with MSPs. She's not hiding from the cloud debate. She's engaging it. That's impressive.

Key Observations

Today's cloud panel also included key representatives from Avnet Technology Solutions, CA Technologies, Google and Rackspace Hosting. I'll be back later with broader panel thoughts. But here's what struck me about O'Hara.

1. Same Question, Different Day: During multiple MSP-centric conferences, I've heard attendees express concerns about turning over customer control to Microsoft's BPOS and cloud teams. Moreover, some MSPs worry that Microsoft's cloud team will eventually abandon channel partners.

O'Hara described how Microsoft is offering a range of training and education to get MSPs started in the cloud. (Sorry I don't have all details at my fingertips; I was busy moderating the panel and took mental notes rather than written notes...)

Also, O'Hara mentioned:
  • Cloud Billing: When a cloud invoice reaches an end-customer, it can include the partner's name on it.
  • Management Dashboard: O'Hara described how BPOS currently includes a dashboard where MSPs can manage their customer accounts, so it's not as if MSPs are blind to customer details once a customer is set up on BPOS or the forthcoming Office 365 (scheduled for 2011 debut).
  • Early Leaders: O'Hara pointed to Microsoft's new SMB Cloud Champions Club, a program that offers rewards, incentives and training to partners that embrace Microsoft's cloud offerings.
  • Recurring Revenues: O'Hara assured partners that they will earn perpetual recurring revenues from customer deals, as long as the customers remain on Microsoft's system. (One MSP in the audience had asserted that the recurring revenue annuity ends after the third year of a cloud customer engagement.)
2. Calm Demeanor: When faced with questions from skeptical MSPs, O'Hara didn't blink and she didn't get defensive. Instead, she pointed to a few examples of MSPs and VARs that are succeeding in with Microsoft's All In cloud strategy.

Did O'Hara fully address the skepticism in the room? Certainly not. But was she willing to go back and forth, sharing Microsoft's view while respecting tricky questions from the audience? Absolutely yet.

Changing Times, Changing Approach

Microsoft was particularly aggressive this week, reaching out to IT media to see if there were additional questions about the Office 365 strategy. At the same time, Microsoft is generating more and more social media -- blog posts -- to help keep their side of the story out in front of the media, partners and customers.

Do I agree with all of Microsoft's moves? Absolutely not. I've certainly expressed my concerns about Microsoft's cloud strategy. Also, for some MSPs, the lack of cloud billing control is a real issue that won't go away.

But here's the other side of the story: O'Hara doesn't seem to be going away, either. She's been involved in Microsoft's channel cloud strategy for the past three years. And she's increasingly stepping onto the stage to share Microsoft's vision while answering attendee questions.

In my mind, that's progress.

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