Microsoft has pledged $1bn worth of cloud resources to organisations that it judges to be working for the public good.
The company’s Philanthropies, Research and Business Development divisions will donate the cloud services over the next three years to organisations such as non-profits and universities.
Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer at Microsoft, explained in a post on the Official Microsoft Blog that the initiative has the simple purpose of using cloud as a “vital resource” to address problems across the world.
“Cloud services can unlock the secrets held by data in ways that create new insights and lead to breakthroughs, not just for science and technology but for addressing the full range of economic and social challenges and the delivery of better human services,” he said.
Smith added that Microsoft expects to donate $350m worth of cloud services in 2016 to organisations working for the public good, and to provide cloud services to 70,000 non-governmental organisations by 2017.
Microsoft will offer a mix of cloud services, including the Azure cloud platform, which will enable organisations to access Microsoft’s data centres around the world and develop and run applications that tap into the platform's compute and storage resources.
The company will also extend the Azure for Research programme that offers cloud computing and storage to research faculties and universities.
The Azure for Research programme currently serves 600 projects across six continents, according to Smith, and Microsoft has plans to expand this by 50 percent.
Microsoft's Enterprise Mobility Suite will also be on offer to allow non-profits to manage devices, data and applications across a range of platforms, and CRM Online will be made available to "worthy" organisations to maintain relationships with beneficiaries and charitable donors.
Microsoft will increase its Office 365 non-profit programme, which currently provides Word, Excel and Outlook. This will be boosted with Power BI, the company’s visual analytics software, so that organisations can carry out business intelligence activities.
A cynic could argue that the company’s pledge is a marketing exercise, given that it is not offering a direct cash donation or any hardware products, and will not give anything away other than a small proportion of its vast data centre resources.
However, the subscription costs of buying into cloud services can be hefty, and free access to Microsoft’s cloud services could provide flexibility and infrastructure outsourcing while bypassing the need for perpetual expenditure.
Microsoft is not the only technology company offering internet-based services for free to worthy causes. Facebook's Internet.org initiative is an ambitious project to bring free internet access to remote parts of the world.
However, Internet.org has come under fire for not conforming to net neutrality and giving Facebook and related partners an uncompetitive advantage over local companies.
Microsoft may need to be careful in how the firm proceeds with its philanthropic offerings, or the provision of free cloud services could be seen as a way to snare organisations into its cloud ecosystem, where they may need to pay for the services once the $1bn fund runs out.
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