Microsoft plays the PaaS card to better position its cloud platform

Summary:At the company's Professional Developers Conference in Redmond late last week, Microsoft execs fielded another new positioning attempt for its Azure platform. Microsoft is claiming to be the leading general purpose platform-as-a-service (PaaS) cloud platform.

Microsoft has used a number of different metaphors to explain its cloud-computing positioning and strategy over the past couple of years.

There was Software+Services. Then talk switched to three screens and a cloud. Earlier this year, there was "We're All In." And during the summer, there was talk of Microsoft as providing "IT as a Service" (a catch phrase a few of Microsoft's competitors have used as well).

At the company's Professional Developers Conference in Redmond late last week, Microsoft execs fielded another new positioning attempt. Microsoft is claiming to be the leading general purpose platform-as-a-service (PaaS) cloud platform.

Microsoft execs aren't saying the company is No. 1 in the infrastructure as a service (IaaS) or software as a service (SaaS) arenas. Microsoft does have offerings in both those categories, however.

IaaS is the cloud tier which provides developers with basic compute and storage resources. PaaS is more like full operating system/services infrastructure for the cloud. And SaaS is the cloud-hosted applications tier. IaaS players include Amazon (with its EC2 and VMware with VCloud. PaaS players, in addition to Microsoft with Azure, include Google (with Google App Engine) and Salesforce (with Force.com). In the SaaS space, there are numerous players, including Microsoft (with Office 365/Office Web Apps), Google (with Gmail, Google Apps/Docs), Salesforce and more.

"Platform as a service is where the advantages of the cloud are (evident)," said Amitabh Srivastava, Senior Vice President of Microsoft's Server and Cloud Division.

Another way that Microsoft is attempting to establish to differentiate itself from the cloud pack is by emphasizing that virtualization and cloud computing are not one and the same. At the PDC, Server and Tools President Bob Muglia told attendees that there's a difference between managing a virtual machine and "true" cloud computing.

"If you are managing a VM, it's not PaaS," said Muglia.

Even though Microsoft will provide a Virtual Machine Role capability, it is offering this to customers who want a way to move an existing application to the cloud, knowing they won't be able to take advantage of the cloud's scalability and multi-tenancy functionality right off the bat by doing so.

Windows in the Cloud

Since it first outlined its plans for Azure -- back when the cloud OS was known by its codename "Red Dog" -- Microsoft intended to build its cloud environment in a way that made it look and work like "Windows in the cloud."

Mark Russinovich, a Microsoft Technical Fellow who joined the Azure effort this summer, described Azure as "an operating system for the datacenter," during one of his presentations at PDC. Azure "treats the datacenter as a machine" by handling resource management, provisioning and monitoring, as well as managing the application lifecycle. Azure provides developers with a shared pool of compute, disk and networking resources in a way that makes them appear "boundless."

By design, Azure was built to look and work like Windows Server (minus the many interdependencies that Microsoft has been attempting to untangle via projects like MinWin). The "kernel" of Windows Azure is known as the Fabric Controller. In the case of Azure, the Fabric Controller is a distributed, stateful application running on nodes (blades) spread across fault domains, Russinovich said. There are other parallels between Windows and Windows Azure as well. In the cloud, services are the equivalent of applications, and "roles" are the equivalent of DLLs (dynamic link libraries), he said.

By the same token, SQL Azure is meant, by design, to provide developers with as much of SQL Server's functionality as it makes sense to put in the cloud. Microsoft's announcement last week of SQL Azure Reporting tools -- which will allow users to embed reports in their Azure applications, making use of rich data visualizations, exported into Word, Excel and PDF formats -- was welcomed by a number of current and potential Azure customers. (A Community Technology Preview of SQL Azure Reporting is due out before the end of this year, with the final release due in the first half of 2011.)

Microsoft also is working to deliver by mid-2011 the final version of a SQL Azure Data Sync tool that will allow developers to create apps with geo-replicated SQL Azure data that can be synchronized with on-premises and mobile applications. And the "Houston" technology, now known as Database Manager for SQL Azure, will provide a lightweight Web-based data management and querying capability when it is released in final form before the end of 2010.

Microsoft is rolling out a number of other enhancements to its Azure platform over the next six to nine months. Srivastava categorized some of these coming technologies as "bridges" to Microsoft's core PaaS platform, and others as "onramps" onto it.

One example of an Azure "bridge, according to Srivastava, is "Project Sydney." Sydney, now known officially as Windows Azure Connect, is technology that will allow developers to create an IP-based network between on-premises and Windows Azure resources. The CTP of Azure Connect is due out before the end of this year and will be generally available in the first half of 2011, Microsoft officials said last week.

Srivastava put new technologies like the coming Azure Virtual Machine Role, Server Application Virtualization and the Admin Mode (via which a team can work on the same Azure account using their multiple Windows Live IDs) as examplesl of "on ramps to Azure.

What else is cloud-bound? Go to the next page to find out

Beyond the two dozen or so Azure cloud features and enhancements unveiled last week, what's next for the Azure team? There was no update at the PDC on the Windows Azure Appliances that Microsoft will be providing to selected OEM partners and customers to enable them to provide Azure on-premises to large enterprise users. In July, Microsoft officials had said to expect the Azure Appliances to be available in production to customers before the end of this year.

It sounds like there also are some new identity-focused capabilities coming. That's one of the areas on which Technical Fellows Russinovich and John Shewchuck are currently focusing heavily.

"I've decided to go all in with the cloud," Russinovich said. When Windows NT architect Dave Cutler suggested earlier this year that Russinovich join the Azure team, Russinovich gave Microsoft's Azure platform a closer look, he said.

"For several years I head heard about the cloud stuff, but I thought it sounded kind of fluffy. After looking into it, and seeing how it was shaping up," Russinovich made the move. Russinovich, one of the foremost experts on the internals of Windows in the world, began studying the already-defined Azure model.

In addition to working on the evolving identity/fabric controller components of Azure, Russinovich also is doing a lot of thinking about service models for the cloud, he said.

"With Windows, the model is implicit," he said. "With Azure, you start with a declaritive model," Russinovich said. Because cloud applications are typically more complex, the cloud platform needs to be told what an application looks like so that it can be managed across update and fault domains. (The rough Windows-related complement to the cloud service model is System Center Virtual Machine Manager, he said.)

Russinovich isn't the only one drinking the "cloud Koolaid" at Microsoft. As officials said earlier this summer, the Softies are increasingly "leading with the cloud" when pitching new product offerings to customers and partners. This week, Microsoft is launching a "Cloud Power" ad campaign to emphasize that the cloud is a top priority for the company.

Topics: Windows, Cloud, Data Centers, Data Management, Enterprise Software, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Software

About

Mary Jo Foley has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications, including ZDNet, eWeek and Baseline. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). She also is the cohost of the "Windows Weekly" podcast on the TWiT network. Got a tip? Se... Full Bio

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