Microsoft takes Exchange, SharePoint services to masses

Office Communications Server to be added later this year

Microsoft said Monday it will let smaller businesses use some of its key software applications over the Internet later this year, a sign of the company's rapid move to the Internet-centric computing favored by competitors Google and Salesforce.com.

Microsoft Monday is kicking off a beta program to introduce online infrastructure services around Exchange 2007 and SharePoint 2007 to corporate users of any size.

The company also plans to have a beta of Office Communications Server (OCS) available in the second half of 2008, called Office Communications Online, to round out its suite of online services, which will also include Web-based conferencing via Live Meeting.

 Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman, announced the online services during his keynote address at the opening of the SharePoint Conference in Seattle. In addition to the services announcement, Gates also said SharePoint has passed 100 million licenses sold, has attracted 17,000 user companies, and eclipsed $1 billion in sales. 

He also unveiled general availability for Microsoft Search Server 2008 Express, a free enterprise search engine introduced in November.

Gates also rolled out Silverlight Blueprint for SharePoint, which is designed to integrate interactive Web applications with SharePoint's content management capabilities. The Blueprint includes sample applications that combine Silverlight and SharePoint.

But it is on the services front where Microsoft is finally extending itself beyond the orchestrated engagements with larger companies and where it will make its most dramatic entry as a hosting company.

Over the past three years, Microsoft has been testing the services with customers that have more than 5,000 users, including Energizer and XL Capital.

Microsoft said Monday that list is expanding to Coca-Cola Enterprises, Autodesk, Blockbuster, Ceridian, Ingersoll-Rand and PFT-Medway.

Just last year, Microsoft pulled its services test out of incubation and created Microsoft Managed Services to offer online infrastructure services to large customers.

Now, it plans to offer the services to anyone. The initial beta will be private but will include thousands of users, according to Eron Kelly, director of online business services for Microsoft. The company is accepting applications for the beta program on its Web site.  

Kelly says Microsoft has developed a multi-tenant -ike architecture to help scale the applications but has not rewritten any code to incorporate multi-tenant capabilities like it did earlier this year with its Dynamics CRM 4.0. A multi-tenant architecture allows a single instance of the application to support individual deployments for multiple companies.

"We did not re-architect the products. What we have done is built some provisioning infrastructure and a provisioning platform and then an admin UI , and a common identity model that allows us to run Exchange and SharePoint, and then down the line OCS, in a multi-tenant manner. So at scale, we can serve customers at a smaller size," Kelly says.

Exchange and SharePoint services will be generally available in the second half of this year, Kelly says. OCS will be available in early 2009.

Users will manage the services through a single Web-based interface that allows service performance monitoring, adding and configuring users, submitting and tracking support requests, and managing users and licenses. Microsoft plans to host the servers and recruit partners as resellers and to add on services such as customizations, Active Directory synchronization or migrations.

CEO Steve Ballmer last year announced that Microsoft would have a services element for each of its shrink-wrapped software products as part of its software-as-a-service initiative being orchestrated by Ray Ozzie, Gates's replacement as chief software architect.

Microsoft is battling for a foothold in the Web 2.0 world of online services, a fight that includes a proposed $44.6 billion acquisition offer to Yahoo.

Microsoft also has been building data centers to house its hosting infrastructure, including a new 470,000 square foot facility in San Antonio, Texas, and a 550,000 square foot data center in Northlake, Ill., slated to open in April.

Microsoft said it will offer three licensing options for its online services, although it did not reveal pricing.

The first is a subscription license for Exchange individually or as part of a suite license including the other services. The second is a "step-up" license for those who already have the on-premise versions. Users can get credit for their software assurance licensing and use it toward service subscriptions. Finally, a User Subscription License will give client access rights to users regardless if they access the online service or on-premise service.

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