Ballmer Buttons Down for the Enterprise

The SteveBallmer look was missing. The obligatory sweater or open-neck shirt was gone.

MicrosoftCorp.’s president and CEO had a buttoned-down task in front of him at theEnterprise 2000 launch late last month, so he wore a jacket and tie for theoccasion.

The jobfacing Ballmer was to sell IT executives on the idea that Microsoft is seriousabout the high-end of the enterprise market, and on the idea that Microsoft,with its reputation for desktop system crashes and Blue Screens of Death onWindows NT servers, can be trusted with the company jewels in the data center.

Not an easytask. Many of Ballmer’s jokes fell flat before the audience in San Franciscoand in telecast locations around the country.

The keyelement of the Enterprise 2000 launch was Windows 2000 Datacenter Server,Microsoft’s first operating system optimized to scale past eight Intel-basedprocessors.

Microsofthas a decent technology story to tell this time. With Datacenter’s headroom andgood performance on Intel Profusion eight-processor boards, Microsoft for thefirst time has a way to compete with the low end of the Unix/RISC spectrum.

The highend of enterprise scalability will remain beyond Microsoft’s reach for now. Ifyou need proof, look to Sun Microsystems Inc.’s release a day after theEnterprise 2000 launch: the new UltraSPARC III processor and its surprisingspeed of 900 MHz.

But thetechnology story is only step one.

Ballmeralso made the financial case. While making the obligatory statement thatMicrosoft has been in the enterprise space since hiring Windows NT architectDavid Cutler from Digital Equipment Corp. long ago, Ballmer clarifiedMicrosoft’s view on the emerging importance of the enterprise to its own bottomline.

Microsoft’sdominance in client software makes it difficult to grow its revenues in thatarea. Microsoft’s enterprise business is entering its phase of most rapidgrowth, Ballmer told the audience.

Thismessage is largely intended for investors, but there is a message here for ITexecutives as well: Microsoft has always put its efforts where the money is,and right now it sees the money in the enterprise.

As much asanything, enterprise data center sales depend on reputations. Microsoft needsto show the enterprise that it has a massive service infrastructure is inplace, and that it will be responsive.

Ballmersaid Microsoft has 7,000 people dedicated to enterprise services with most ofthem brought on board in the past couple of years.

For thefirst time, Microsoft is building the army of service personnel to put its“skin in the game,” as Ballmer phrased the requirement of enterprise customers thatMicrosoft get personally involved in deployments.

The companyalso is relying on its partners to help support enterprise customers. Microsoftis relying on its partners’ reputations -- Unisys Corp., Compaq Computer Corp.,Hewlett-Packard Co., and others -- to win the trust of enterprise IT.

Thecornerstone of the Windows 2000 Datacenter Server marketing pitch is theWindows Datacenter Program. The joint support program will consist of eachpartner OEM setting up Datacenter support centers co-staffed with Microsoftengineers that have complete access to source code to handle all aspects ofsystem support for customers.

The jointsupport queue and on-site response elements are aggressive and ambitious. Itall looks good on paper. What remains to be seen is how well it works inpractice. The model competes with the true single-point-of-service contact thata competitor like Sun can offer.

I wouldn’twant to be the first CIO to sign up and explain the decision to the CEO when mybusiness found the inevitable chinks in the system’s reliability and newsupport model. But I wouldn’t want to be the last one either, explaining to theCFO why paying more money for a completely proprietary system is a good idea.