What's next for Microsoft's Azure cloud platform?

Summary:In the past year, customers and developers testing Windows Azure have been running primarily brand-new (and largely Web 2.0 style) apps on Microsoft's cloud operating system. But when will Azure be tuned to handle host legacy enterprise apps? And when and how will users be able to take advantage of some of the Azure technologies inside of their own "private clouds"?

In the past year, customers and developers testing Windows Azure have been running primarily brand-new (and largely Web 2.0 style) apps on Microsoft's cloud operating system. But when will Azure be tuned to handle host legacy enterprise apps? And when and how will users be able to take advantage of some of the Azure technologies inside of their own "private clouds"?

Microsoft officials didn't share dates for its next phases of the Windows Azure platform. But they did talk about some of their plans for their next steps with Microsoft's cloud platform during meetings and sessions at the company's Professional Developers Conference (PDC) on November 17.

Microsoft said the Windows Azure platform -- which is the Windows Azure operating system and the SQL Azure database -- is feature-complete as of today. (Officials said a few weeks ago that Microsoft wouldn't begin charging customers to use the platform until February 1, 2010.)

"Our initial focus on the platform was on enabling Web 2.0 customers to develop and run their apps on it," said Amitabh Srivastava, Senior Vice President in charge of Windows Azure. These kinds of applications are Xcopy-deployable, while older, legacy apps typically are not, Srivastava said.

Microsoft's next Azure steps -- which it will be executing largely in parallel -- will be to get existing, and typically more complex, line-of-business apps to run on the platform and to make it possible for customers to implement Azure technologies in their own data centers (a k a, to be able to create private clouds).

To enable existing apps to run on Azure, Microsoft is planning to make virtual machines (VMs) available to developers, which they will be able to customize and run their legacy apps inside them. Srivastava wouldn't provide a timetable or more details as to how or when Microsoft will do this. Apps running in VMs won't be able to take full advantage of the elasticity, multitenancy, and other cloud functionality, but they still will derive some benefits, such as automatic cloud backup for apps running on the Azure platform. (The name of this VM capability will be "Windows Server Virtual Machine Roles on Windows Azure," Microsoft execs later told me.)

On the private cloud front, Microsoft didn't have much new to say at the PDC. Microsoft officials have said in the past that Microsoft won't allow customers to run the Azure operating system in their own datacenters. Microsoft's main focus here continues to be to provide customers with software like Windows Server, SQL Server, Exchange Server, etc., for them to run in their own datacenters. That said, Microsoft isn't simply leaving the delivery of a private cloud solution to Amazon and other cloud competitors.

"Lots of the technologies we have in the cloud are things people want to run in their datacenters," Srivastava acknowledged.(He cited as an example the ability to run a scalable cloud-storage appliance on premises.)

Microsoft is working on a longer-term solution that would allow the company to offer datacenter containers that can be dedicated to individual customers, Srivastava said. That way, clouds can be customized for individual users and users will be able to manage these containers themselves. Again, Srivastava wasn't ready to talk about deployment specifics or timetables for this. That said, "Project Sydney" (Microsoft's newly announced connectivity offering for private datacenters and public clouds) shows the general direction where we are going," Srivastava said.

Microsoft officials made a vague reference in this morning's keynote to System Center in the cloud. I asked Srivastava if this meant Microsoft was looking to offer System Center as a Microsoft-hosted service, the way that it is offering Exchange and Office Communications Server as Microsoft-hosted offerings. That isn't the case, he said; instead, Microsoft has opened up the Windows Azure management programming interfaces so that System Center -- as well as third-party management products like HP OpenView -- can manage Azure-hosted applications.

Not everything about what's next for Azure is a longer-term direction. In sessions on November 17, Microsoft officials outlined some of the nearer term deliverables for Microsoft's cloud platform. The recently introduced content-delivery-network (CDN) support for blobs in Windows Azure's storage system is one of those deliverables. Another is a capability MIcrosoft is calling "Windows Azure Drive" (also known as Xdrive) which allows Azure developers to create a drive inside their virtual machines, providing them with an automatic back up capability. Microsoft plans to officially "turn on" Xdrive support in January, officials said.

Topics: Software, Data Centers, Hardware, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Storage, Windows

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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