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For three years, Sam Ramji was Microsoft’s point man on open source and Linux as its senior director of open source strategy, which didn’t make him the most popular guy in town in the world of community-built software. Ramji, however, is less likely to be such a lightning rod in his new job leading product strategy and business development for Sonoa Systems, a cloud computing services and API vendor in Santa Clara, Calif. Ramji, who has also worked as leader of technical product strategy at BEA Systems and as a software developer, joined Sonoa in late September. Ramji, who earned his Bachelor of Science degree in cognitive science at the University of California – San Diego, is an avid mountain biker, history buff and guitarist. He and his wife have two children and live in Marin County, Calif. He recently talked with technology reporter Todd R. Weiss about his move from open source into the world of cloud computing.
Q. Your last job was as the very visible leader of Microsoft’s open source and Linux strategy. Now you will lead product strategy and business development for a smaller, lesser-known start-up dealing with cloud computing analytics, management and cloud governance – why did you make this move?

A. There were a couple of compelling factors. For family reasons, my wife and I chose to move back to California. In that process I started looking at a number of changes. One was moving back to a Silicon Valley company and career. In that area, the next wave of innovation is all about the cloud. It’s a shift in how the IT economy runs much like we saw a shift in the economy in the 1990s going to the Web. It was definitely hard to move from my role at Microsoft. It was a great role and a challenging role. Now with several weeks at Sonoa under my belt, I have to say that I’m having a tremendous amount of fun.

Q. Does this transition mean that you think cloud computing is the ‘Next Big Thing’ for corporate IT, SMBs, VARs, resellers and the IT community? What is it that makes this so important?

A. The exciting thing to me is the adoption of cloud computing as a business practice by ‘traditional economy’ businesses like financial services as well as media and marketing companies. It’s when old-school organizations like insurance businesses see this as a way to grow that we are really hitting something of broad and large-scale value. The fact that this is transformative beyond Silicon Valley – that makes it interesting. Part of that is through APIs and the cloud. You look at APIs and how you can use them as cheap, reliable Web technologies to deliver services to your partners and customers and users. You can actually let all that be determined by your channel. When I was at BEA, I saw companies doing the same sorts of things, looking to find ways to make their services easier for their users and customers. Some companies started exposing a lot of their back end systems to other companies and partners directly through their APIs so that they could build their applications to connect. The cloud is to the Web as an indirect channel is to a direct channel. That means you can have your core business services consumed and remixed by companies that you may not have worked with before and that you may not have provided many services to in the past. That can then drive your business transactions, all by just sharing your valuable APIs. So you’ll get innovation from an indirect channel. You’ll get transactions out of business relationships you don’t even know that you have.

We help our customers understand these kinds of API business models, this power of business through the cloud. You can build new business … by opening up your APIs. Then you need to manage it, watch it, measure it, and reward those who are better at using it. If you’re doing a lot of transactions, you end up with a ton of data. We’re making that available. This is something that a lot of our customers are depending on us for. It’s becoming core for how they’re driving profits.

Q. When you were at Microsoft, was your role more as a liaison to the open source community or as a conduit to the IT reseller community, to keep them abreast of the happenings in the open source community and with Microsoft? What will your new role be at Sonoa in terms of the IT marketplace?

A. I think it was a combination of the two at Microsoft. My role was strategy and business development. Here I have the privilege of doing quite a bit of teaching. We have some important product and service models to explain to people. I think it’s important that thousands and thousands of businesses get themselves to be more profitable. When the broad economy finds out more about this technology, businesses will see that using the cloud will make them … more efficient … and profitable as well.

Q.  So how do you help Sonoa do this, to get their message out and work to popularize clouds and management? Is this a difficult sell to market these ideas to VARs and resellers and their end customers?

A. I think there are enough proof points out there. What we’ve learned is that these new models are different but that they’re highly profitable for businesses. It is a tough conversation when you typically say to someone, ‘Here’s a new technology that you should look at.’ But it’s not as tough when you tell them there’s something that can help what they’re probably already doing and here’s how you can use it more efficiently. That’s a pretty relevant conversation. We see ourselves as a provider of services to a growing segment of the economy. We are providing documentation, best practices and help. It doesn’t matter if there are customers who are using private or public clouds. We have customers who are doing both. It’s a management product. You can deploy it on your own server as a virtual appliance or use it as a hardware appliance that you can manage remotely. It’s also available as a service. I think about it as a highly scalable router for cloud APIs and cloud traffic. For the cloud itself, it’s an opportunity for all the VARS and resellers to do more with the Web than they have in the past. Instead, they’ll be able to do whatever best serves their customers. We’re at the point now that we’ve got enough business that we can’t serve all of the market by ourselves so we’re going to partner with more service providers to find ways to get our customers served.

Q. You mentioned that it will be critical for cloud APIs to be open and free for the market to fully embrace them and their importance in the next generation of business IT. What do you mean by that?

A.  Open and free are both crucial attributes in order for a market economy to grow.  There are many aspects of cloud computing but for the developers and users of cloud services, the atomic unit of the cloud is the API. In this world the free aspect isn’t typically interpreted as freedom, but as price. Freedom in the cloud, however, is more typically associated with data and your rights to move it from one service to another and this is a very important attribute. In the software industry open platforms have typically outperformed closed platforms in the long run due to the economies that develop on top of them, cementing those platforms’ place in a range of markets. Open APIs being used by many companies in the cloud are leading to increased usage and revenue due to new innovations by their partners and customers. Many companies are already doing this and seeing commercial success.