How Microsoft's Azure and cloud services are shaping up

Summary: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...

Topics: Cloud


Toby Wolpe is a senior reporter at ZDNet in London. He started in technology journalism when the Apple II was state of the art.

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