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The company aims to offer IT directors an alternative way to buy software. Rather than pay for licences for software installed on site, an IT director will be able to buy Microsoft software on demand, paying on a per-use or monthly subscription basis.
Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, said, "The combination of software plus services gives customers advanced choice and flexibility in how they access and manage software."
Microsoft has introduced a new licensing model to support its online services strategy. New customers and customers without Microsoft Software Assurance can purchase Microsoft Online Services as a per-user subscription. Businesses with Software Assurance on their Microsoft Client Access Licenses will be offered a discounted user subscription.
If a business buys a subscription, Microsoft said users will be able to choose to run the software either via the internet, using Microsoft Online Services, or through access servers installed on site.
Analyst Gartner urged IT directors to begin evaluating the Microsoft service, as software as a service (SaaS) will become increasingly important for IT departments. Garter predicts that by 2012, 20% of businesses will be running the Microsoft Online Services for e-mail.
The Microsoft service would face several major challenges, said Matt Cain, a research vice-president at Gartner. "Providing large-scale SaaS for business requires significant expertise in high availability, security, multi-tenant architectures, network topologies and problem resolution. Furthermore, Microsoft is retrofitting its existing software to the multi-tenant server model. It will not be until the next version of Exchange (due in 2011) that its core products are better designed to run in a multi-tenant SaaS model."
Microsoft plans to offer Exchange Online and SharePoint Online together with Office Communications Online and Office Live Meeting as a suite of services or as individual service offerings.
A beta version of Microsoft Online Services is now available. The new services are scheduled to be available to businesses in the second half of the year.