Windows Azure: Inside Microsoft's cloud computing strategy

Developer tools will be the key to Azure's success, says Microsoft chief

Developer tools will be the key to Azure's success, says Microsoft chief

Microsoft's cloud computing push Windows Azure was only launched six months ago and while it is still early days for the technology, Azure has already attracted thousands of users and could prove central to the software giant's future technology plans.

Azure is Microsoft's cloud computing platform which provides its users with scalable computing power and storage, as well as a number of other online services hosted on Microsoft datacentres.

While Microsoft has offered online services for some time with consumer products such as Hotmail and Windows Live, Azure aims to boost its software-as-a-service presence to cater to its enterprise customers who are looking to push their computing infrastructure out into the cloud.

Azure was launched as a paid-for service in February and although Microsoft isn't giving exact uptake figures, president of server and tools Bob Muglia recently told silicon.com that many businesses are continuing to use the service after its initial period as a free service ended.

"Now there's a lot of people kicking tyres on it of course and they're continuing to do that, but we've seen a very high conversion rate [from the free to paid-for live service]. Where people are wanting to use it, they're continuing to use it," he said.

According to Muglia, Azure is being used by a wide variety of companies.

"We have everything from small start-ups that are beginning to use it to do new things; we have departments within large companies that are using it for departmental things," he said.

Customers include risk management business RiskMetrics Group which is using Azure to deal with peak loads on its computing infrastructure. When demand for analysing data outstrips the company's in-house computing capability it is able to be increased using Azure.

Another user is Irish airline Aer Lingus, which is using Azure to create an interactive web application that integrates route maps with the reservation and booking process. As the app runs on Azure, it can be scaled up or down depending on demand.

bob muglia announcing azure pricing

Microsoft's Bob Muglia announcing more details for Windows Azure at the Worldwide Partner Conference 2009
(Photo credit: Microsoft)

Other big names using Azure include car maker Kia Motors, budget airline easyJet, outsourcing company Wipro and Siemens. While Microsoft is coy about exact user numbers, Microsoft UK MD Gordon Frazer, told silicon.com there are "literally tens of thousands" of Azure users in the UK with some organisations using it for production processes as well as development.

According to Muglia, the parts of Azure being most commonly used are the operating system itself and the SQL Azure relational database technology.

But compared to the likes of Amazon Web Services, Rackspace and Salesforce.com's Force.com, Windows Azure is...

...the new kid on the block and has some catching up to do: Quocirca analyst Bob Tarzey puts Azure fifth in terms of user numbers with Amazon ahead by some way.

This is mainly due to the relatively short time that Azure has been available but also the fact that Microsoft hasn't done a huge amount to get organisations to use Azure, according to fellow Quocirca analyst Clive Longbottom, with the company preferring to get a few key customers to use it while continuing to develop the technology in response to customer feedback.

But Microsoft clearly has designs on making Azure a much more significant cloud platform in the future: Microsoft is saying now that almost everything it does in the future will be based on the Azure infrastructure, Longbottom said.

"As such, Azure is not just important to Microsoft - it is betting the farm on it.

"It needs to have a massively elastic means of meeting the needs of users at both the consumer and the business sides of things, and it recognises that even if the corporate datacentre continues to exist, its usage will be different, with a hybrid datacentre/clouded model becoming the norm," he said.

azure

A self-contained server unit on display at the Professional Developers Conference last year
(Photo credit: Ina Fried/CNET)

One significant difference between Azure and the more established cloud players is the option of accessing application developer tools. Azure includes various developers' services including relational data storage and querying system, SQL Azure, and tools to help build applications on .NET, PHP and Java.

Azure also has Live Services, a set of technologies for handling user data and application resources to help with the building of social applications. Live Services includes Mesh Services, which synchronises data across devices and applications, as well as ways to build functionality around identity, presence and search.

In contrast, Amazon essentially provides the computing grunt on which to run virtual machines - known as infrastructure as a service - while Azure's additional developer tools make it a platform as a service, as users can both build applications and run the finished products on it.

It's these developer tools that Azure offers which Microsoft hopes will give it the edge against its more established infrastructure-as-a-service rivals.

Bob Muglia believes the company needs to keep working on developing these services...

...saying: "[Azure is] a mature-released product but there's still a lot of work to be done. The list of features to add to Windows Azure is very long."

Microsoft is updating Azure every couple of months to make sure it's as compatible with as much technology as possible, is easy to use and can meet the expected increase in demand that will be placed on it, Muglia said.

"We're building all of these services and all of these facilities into the core platform. You don't have to be a high priest of Silicon Valley to write a cloud application on Windows Azure."

Among the requests for additional functionality from users have been services already seen on the on-premise Windows Server operating system, such as the recently introduced identity federation tools.

Other features have been added since February including different sizes of SQL Azure databases and virtual machines (VMs) - ranging from a single processor core with 1.75GB RAM and 250GB hard disk to VMs with eight core processors, 14GB RAM and 2000GB of hard disk space.

There are also plans to add collaboration application SharePoint and Dynamics CRM to the services available on Azure platform.

New services in the pipeline include reporting functionality for the various applications within Azure. Reporting has already been introduced for SQL Azure but Muglia says this will soon be extended to other applications to allow users to keep track of usage and demand.

A more complex project is focusing the encryption of data as it is entered, processed and taken out of Azure, while still allowing developers to query the data - the development of which Muglia describes as "not exactly rocket science - but it's close".

The constant demand to develop its Azure and other cloud computing technology, such as the Business Productivity Online Suite, has also prompted Microsoft to change its engineering processes.

"Our engineering processes have to change pretty substantially because instead of moving to deliver a piece of software every two to three years, we have to instead focus on how we can do a much more regular cadence of technology delivery. It's really the difference between when you ship something and you're done, to where you ship something [and] you're just beginning the process because you've got to maintain and run that service," Muglia said.

"It is a very different approach and it's one that we're either transforming or have already transformed our engineering organisation to really focus on," he added.

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