How Microsoft's Azure and cloud services are shaping up

Cloud computing and Azure services will become integral parts of a Microsoft enterprise agreement, the company's developer and platform evangelist Mark Taylor tells ZDNet UK

Five months on from February's commercial launch of Azure, Microsoft has made a series of announcements designed to strengthen the development and hosting platform.

Monday's unveilings included an update to the Windows Azure software development kit (SDK), a new public preview of the SQL Azure Data Sync Service for syncing and distributing data among several datacentres, and SQL Server Web Manager, to develop and deliver cloud applications.

ZDNet UK spoke to Mark Taylor, the company's director of developer and platform evangelism, about Microsoft's whole approach to cloud computing, from infrastructure to data sovereignty, private clouds and licensing.

Q: Microsoft has been spending millions on expanding its infrastructure for the cloud, so do you have plans for datacentres in the UK?
A: We haven't announced plans for facilities in the UK, and you can imagine that in every major country in the world we are being asked that question. We are not ruling anything out or in at this stage.

But there will definitely be scenarios where customers say, "I just want my data in the UK and I'm not going to proceed if it's not". We have to make sure we find the right way of dealing with that.

Some government agencies require sovereignty of data. But then when you start drilling down and understand what needs to be in the UK and what doesn't and what could be in the EU — and also what premium you'll pay for data sovereignty — then many of those who start out insisting on a UK location actually agree on a compromise.

If they have some aspect of their computing that they can't put outside the UK, they might keep that on-premise or they might use a third party. We along with many vendors provide most of the tools you need to operate cloud services within a datacentre today, whether it is a third party's datacentre or a customer's one.

In AppFabric, there is a component for Windows Server that gives you a lot of this capability inhouse.

But the location of datacentres remains important to customers?
This is an evolutionary process and where we are going to end up in terms of the location of datacentres I simply don't know. It's something we are considering on an active basis.

But what we don't want to do is end up with customers finding that the cost savings they realised through multi-tenanted cloud services are negated by specific infrastructures, whether it is built by Microsoft or by third parties — when actually the need for data sovereignty is not necessarily as acute as it first may at seem.

So people will be charged a premium for insisting on data sovereignty?
If organisations — and I mean all of us, not just Microsoft — would be required to build datacentres in specific countries to service specific needs, then we lose the economies of scale and so do the customers.

Can you spell out what you actually have at the moment in terms of infrastructure?
We have our datacentre in Dublin that provides most of our cloud services throughout Europe, and we have a number of other datacentres that provide local services and also the resilience needed for us to provide our service levels.

We saw a figure of 21 datacentres for Azure. Does that make sense to you?
I hate to be obtuse, but all I can say is that we have above 10 and below 100 datacentres. The two aspects of this are that there is a security issue about locations of datacentres, and secondly, this is a moving target for us and so I wouldn't want to be too specific because any figure might well be outdated very quickly.

Since Azure's first appearance about 18 months ago, would you say fears about cloud computing, such as vendor lock-in and data security, are being addressed?
If you consider the cloud industry, you've got international players, a lot of managed service providers, and hosters that offer infrastructure as a service with some value-add.

With all those choices you have to approach the cloud just as you would if you were deciding to implement SAP and go through the same sort of due diligence. If I decided I didn't want to use SAP after a merger or a change in strategy, what would I get back? Would my data be a form I could use, is any investment I have made in skills and so on transferable?

There is a risk with these radically different approaches that cloud providers are offering that you can end up in a cloud service that offers you very little flexibility if you want to change that provider or interoperate in some way.

We spend quite a lot of time making sure customers go through this process and ask themselves, 'If I have gone to the cloud, is it a one-way ticket? Is that a risk I want to take on?'.

But have those fears about lock-in receded or become more pronounced?
Those questions are just being more commonly asked and that is only right. Whether or not the risk profile in answer to those questions outweighs...

... the cost benefit is still ultimately something that customers have to make up their mind about. But what's interesting is the way the service is being used in ways that we didn't expect.

Can you give an example?
RiskMetrics, a customer of ours, is a business doing financial simulations using a big grid of computers. It has a hefty investment in hardware. Even though their grid is utilised 24 hours a day, they are limited by the number of nodes.

So they've come up with a routine that turns Azure instances into nodes. They obviously only pay for those nodes while the simulation is happening. Putting parallel processing or grid computing into a cloud has always been a scenario, but never one we'd thought we'd lead with.

But, in fact, they instantiated 2,000 compute units in Azure to form a grid. There're not many grids of that scale in the country or certainly in the world.

And to come back to my question about lock-in...
Perhaps if you are a startup or in the web 2.0 business, then the concept of lock-in might not be so important than if you are a PLC with a number of divisions. So what we're beginning to see that cloud services becoming appropriate for different kinds of businesses.

How have you seen interest in private clouds evolve?
There is a great deal of interest in this. But blogger David Chappell said recently that if you're running a private cloud and it's running on your hardware and your network and your datacentre, you are actually leaving on the table all the cost-benefits of cloud computing. Obviously the great thing about the cloud is that stuff is paid for by someone else, and you just buy it when you need it.

Conceptually, private clouds are a strong idea, but financially you have to be very smart about it. But I do think that one thing that is emerging is the higher degree of self-service that cloud computing within an organisation can enable.

So some of our customers that are taking a cloud-type approach will offer something like an app store so that you will be able to instantiate, install and run applications within that environment, delivered through that cloud service. You cut down on some of the traditional ways you've done IT and you can realise cost savings with private clouds.

Another angle is having a hybrid, which would be a dedicated cloud service but still within a public-cloud environment. So in other words you could potentially partition off electronically and physically a number of resources and dedicate that to a particular customer.

So what we'll probably see is that out of the purist view of private cloud there will be a move to this hybrid model where you will have some private clouds and then you'll have these dedicated areas within public cloud services.

If you are trying to encourage organisations to use Azure, are you working on making your licences more compatible with cloud computing?
You will see cloud computing and Azure services begin to be an integral part of an enterprise agreement or other licensing vehicles from Microsoft. So customers will get similar economies of scale to the ones they currently enjoy.

It will be as part of your menu of options that you take when it comes to an enterprise agreement, you'll be able to take Azure units and storage units and message units as part of the deal and there would be similar volume discounts available as if you were buying physical copies of the software.

But do you recognise that that might look very complicated to a customer?
Well, yes. One of the challenges we've always got is to make sure licensing is as simple as possible. But one of the things that we also want to make sure is that we recognise that from an application perspective one size doesn't fit all.

At Microsoft, if you're not talking about the cloud, you're very much behind the times.

If you are using an application that is very database-intensive, then we don't want to charge the same to people who have an application is perhaps more media-intensive. There should be the opportunity for them to pay different prices. That's why we've separated components within the Azure environment, which again means paying for what you use.

You shouldn't have to pay for a whacking big database if that is something that you don't need. On the other hand if you've got something that is relatively trivial from a compute unit perspective, then you don't need to pay for 10,000 servers sitting there.

Has the cloud affected the way Microsoft operates?
I've been around a long time and I remember the famous Bill Gates memo about the internet — I think it was about 1995. He said that every single product group needed to show how they would embrace or complement the internet. So everybody went away to work on this.

Now of the 40,000-odd people in Microsoft who work on development, about 70 percent are working on how the software we're building interoperates or works in the cloud. But what we'll find is that it's like the internet: we're surging at the moment to get everything to what will then become the normal way of operating.

It's remarkable how quickly the company is orienting itself towards this. Inside the company, certainly if you're not talking about the cloud, you're very much behind the times.

Now we use 'cloud' as the collective word that takes in everything from the 23 million Xbox Live subscribers through to some of these major organisations, such as Coca Cola, which are putting line-of-business applications up into the cloud.

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