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Cloud biz holds key to Microsoft’s earnings success

Wall Street will keep a close eye on Microsoft's cloud business when the tech giant reports first-quarter fiscal year earnings.

"Any speed bump on that front would be seen as a negative," FBR Capital Markets tech analyst Dan Ives told CNBC.com.

Microsoft has been transitioning from a primarily PC-based company into a cloud-based one, incorporating products like Azure and Office 365 into its commercial and enterprise business.

"Commercial cloud growth will be important to gauge the strength of the underlying business as well as the progress of the business model transition," Nomura Securities analyst Frederick Grieb said in a note Monday.

Indeed, Microsoft's momentum in cloud growth is expected to continue, said Brad Reback, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus.

"We believe the company continues to make steady progress in its cloud transition and expect Office 365 and Azure to be solid contributors to [the] top and bottom line for the next several years," Reback said in a note Sunday.

Microsoft posts its earnings Thursday. It is expected to report earnings per share of 58 cents on revenue of $20.96 billion, according to a Thomson Reuters consensus estimate.

Last quarter, the company beat on both earnings and revenue as its cloud business surged 106 percent year over year.

Two other elements on investors' radar are Windows 10 and Microsoft's new reporting structure.

On Oct. 6, Microsoft said that about 110 million devices were running the new operating system, which was unveiled earlier this year.

"While this number suggests strong initial adoption of Windows 10, we note that many of the users are likely due to free upgrades on existing devices and unlikely to have a major impact on revenues in first-quarter fiscal year 2016," Grieb said.

However, Ives contended in a note Sunday that "this is the only way to go" in order for Microsoft and CEO Satya Nadella to gain as many adopters of the operating system as possible.

As for changes to the company's reporting structure, Ives told CNBC.com they will provide more transparency, "but could make for a knee-jerk reaction on earnings."

The company announced in late September it will be reporting revenue and operating income on three businesses: Productivity and Business Processes, Intelligent Cloud and More Personal Computing.

Microsoft will be the second "traditional tech company" to report Thursday, following the disastrous earnings report this week from IBM.

Still, "if you compare Microsoft with IBM … it's a stark contrast," Ives said. "Right now, companies like IBM are facing massive headwinds because their business models are not equipped to successfully transition into the cloud as Microsoft."

IBM, also Dow Jones industrial average member, reported Monday quarterly earnings per share that were slightly above expectations, but its revenue came in below even the most pessimistic of Wall Street estimates.

—Reuters contributed to this report.

DISCLOSURES: Stifel Nicolaus and FBR Capital Markets act as market makers for Microsoft. Nomura does not.