Windows Azure sign-on: the problems with Live ID

Passport details being checked through a computer

We are all being encouraged to consume computer (and increasingly, storage) services in a pure on-demand manner.

If price is your sole priority then it is cheaper to use your weekly consumable budget to pay for your computing as you go, rather than save up and splurge on a new hot machine every couple of years or so.

There are a few things that need to be true before you can join this party. You need to have a reasonably stable revenue stream and you need to be findable, that's to say, your billing address needs to fit into a validation process which doesn’t mismatch with the expectations of your providers.

Ironically enough, those who need zero-footprint computing and cloud storage are more likely to be of no fixed abode. To be sure, this is traditionally a 'Bad Thing' in the eyes of a credit-rating agency or a landlord’s reference seeker – but I know several people whose skills and lifestyle has them spend three months in the Alps, three months in the USA and three months delivering someone’s ocean-going yacht from one nearby coast to the other: should they be treated with suspicion just for moving their Google Maps pushpin several thousand miles?

In order to illustrate my point, I am going to have to let you peep behind the scenes at Cloud Pro a bit and explain some of the dealings we have in the PR world. It's fair to see that there are some communication breakdowns between the technical press and the PR professionals dealing with them and this becomes apparent when dealing with cloud.

So, please bear that relationship in mind when I tell you all about my Live ID – or more accurately, Microsoft’s Live ID and Azure IaaS services.

First thing: anyone who wants to use an online paid-by-use part of the Microsoft empire needs a Windows Live ID. It seems from casual examination that this might be a Hotmail account login, but that’s not so -mine isn’t. You can use Hotmail as the basis for your Live ID but it’s not compulsory, and for reasons that will shortly become clear, I would suggest it’s a bad idea in any case.

Let’s be clear from the outset: none of this is about technology, but rather the dreaded “procedures”. It’s easy enough to stick with Hotmail if you are quite sure you’re going to have a short-term, throwaway relationship without any security hassles – but the instant any of those assumptions breaks down, using Hotmail as the basis of your Live ID world becomes a terrifying quagmire.

What possible technical barrier could there be, in 2013, about using a simple free Hotmail address as your point of contact? The hardcore techies will be nodding and the business types will be frowning, and neither will see the other’s perspective, or imagine that they should be converting their water-cooler conversations about being on hold to call centres, into anything more practical and immediate as a basis for a hard-nosed business decision.

The crossover point between gossip and strategy, between business and consumer, between my life as a Cloud Pro person and the regular Joe on the street is this: Microsoft, like all the other reputable Cloud brands, has a series of procedures they go through when there is any doubt or confusion about your access to your cloud resources. These procedures start with a series of automated email failovers – “please click on this link to reset your password” stuff – and then devolve down to, eventually, a telephone menu routing system which if you are very lucky, lands you with someone at the other end senior enough not to be stuck with a call-centre script.

All of these procedures take their cue from the traditional customer service world of pain and, to add insult to injury, all of them have to be hardened against all manner of smart, under-employed, ambitious “procedure hackers” and identity thieves trying to fill in the missing jigsaw piece in a partly assembled stolen identity picture by telling porky-pies on the phone.

My case in point is my Live ID, which I didn’t bother to create until we got an Xbox 360 and my partner became a midwinter Dance Central addict. Ornaments and heirlooms moved out of the way, she ran up a smallish bill on my Live ID associated credit card, with my blessing – a lot cheaper as a cure for seasonally affected disorder than a winter sun holiday, all told. So I left it there.

Fast forward to this year, and suddenly that casually acquired Live ID became a whole lot more important when I started fiddling with the first incarnation of the Azure IaaS system.

In a rapid-fire sequence of signups, I used my Live ID for a Windows 7.5 phone and a Windows 8 phone too, and then entered the same name and postcode in the (old) Azure portal as my account setup. Oops. In a dialogue I can’t re-find, and which I should have written down, some part of the system said “Aha! Are you the same bloke as this one we already have on file?” I foolishly clicked “OK”. And of course, the whole system dragged the card I had used for Xbox 360 into my Azure (gen1) persona- not what I wanted at all.

I’ve brought this issue up several times in Microsoft presentations, to the poorly disguised irritation of the assorted techies. They look both puzzled and irritated, and move on to the next question – “I don’t see how that could happen” they say, mainly because *their* Live IDs are *Microsoft* ones and represent a completely different route into the billing and ID management systems.

I’ve also brought it up with the PR bods who hand out some trial accounts – and now I am in a procedural nightmare. Several of them know me on one email address, while the longer-lived ones know me by my original Live ID one. The consequence of this is I have a Live ID embroiled in a lot of Aure(Gen1) resources, which I would rather not see brought into the picture with my new, shiny Azure(Gen2) persona that will be the basis of a lot of coverage of all the wonderfulness that arises from a carefully architected mix of Azure and on-premises Server 2012 R2 deployments.

You may think my example is an outlandish and isolated thing arising from my special status – I don’t think this is true. And even if it were, it exposes a fundamental problem - we’ve been told ad nauseam that the drive for cloud adoption has stemmed from technology-aware businesspeople within mega-corporates breaking out of the controlled world of bloated internal IT, and using their personal IDs to set up instant service-based IT resources.

If they have been able to do that with an email address and billing data that isn’t at their home address, then just as the current round of major service enhancements kicks in from Microsoft, the company has another issue to deal with. An issue that’s not based on a technological problem but one that can cause plenty of headaches.

This then is the new world of cloud. One where complaints about technology have been comprehensively overwhelmed by tedious, phone-menu punching, hold-music dominated billing wrangles.