As of February 1, Microsoft officially jumps into the cloud-computing frey and now is charging customers for developing and running apps in its Azure cloud.
(Update: Microsoft's Azure team said charges actually won't commence until Tuesday February 2, in order to sync up billing across time zones. "Microsoft will begin charging for Windows Azure and SQL Azure starting at 12:00 AM February 2, 2010 GMT to ensure that customers and partners are not charged for their free usage in the month of January," said the team in a February 1 posting annoucing Azure general availability.)
Microsoft has been working on Azure for more than three years; beta testers have been kicking its tires for more than a year. With Azure, Microsoft is attempting to recreate its Windows ecosystem in the form of a utility. Today, developers and customers can develop and deploy on the Windows Azure operating system and make use of the SQL Azure hosted database. In the coming months, Microsoft will make available to developers its Azure AppFabric Web-service utilities. And as 2010 progresses, Microsoft is slated to make available to developers and customers more of the on-premises "private cloud" complements to Azure.
While many (including yours truly), describe Azure as Microsoft's "cloud," Microsoft actually has many different public and private clouds. Very few Microsoft properties are currently hosted on Azure. Those that are include Live Mesh, Microsoft's HealthVault service and its energy-monitoring Hohm service. Mega-scale services like Windows Hotmail and Xbox Live don't run on Azure. Neither does Microsoft's hosted Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, CRM Online, its Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) or its Danger services for mobile devices. Microsoft hasn't provided a timetable as to when (or definitively if) it will move these services to Azure.
Microsoft officials say that there already are "tens of thousands" of apps and services running on Azure, a total which includes everything from pilot "hobbyist" apps, to full-fledged commercial ones. (February 1 is the cut-off date, by the way, for those with Azure Community Technology Preview accounts to decide wehther they are going to upgrade to paying account ; Microsoft is advising userswho don't want to subscribe to export their data pronto so it won't be deleted.)
But is Azure really ready for prime-time, as Microsoft flips the commercial switch?
Cloud expert and author of Cloud Computing with the Windows Azure Platform (Wrox, 2009) Roger Jennings says yes. He's been running a Windows Azure Table Sample Project he created and has been seeing a majority of 100 percent uptime weeks.
"I’ve been happy with the capabilities and performance of the SQL Azure Database, as well as the free supporting applications for it, such as George Huey’s SQL Server Migration Wizard and the Sync Framework Team’s SQL Azure Data Sync tool. Both tools export schemas and data from on-premises SQL Server databases to SQL Azure in the cloud."
Early Azure customers have tended to use Azure for "cloudbursting," notes Directions on Microsoft analyst Rob Sanfilippo, via which Microsoft's datacenters provide overflow capacity to add to what customers currently have available on-prmises, so as to be able to handle peak demands without having to make permanent infrastructure investments.
Azure is still "a fledgling platform," Sanfilippo says, "and it will take large deployments and time to prove its scalability, stability, and security. It doesn't yet offer administrator control of a Windows Server virtual machine like Amazon currently does, but this has been promised for later in 2010 with an upcoming 'virtual machine roles' feature. Advanced features of SQL Server such as reporting and analytics are not yet available with SQL Azure (again, promised for later), and the previously promised Workflow and Live Services components have been delayed. Improvements could also be made by providing more online administration tools and closer parity with Microsoft's on-premises products (yes, these are promised too)."
Developers have a number of tools for not only migrating existing apps to Azure, as Jennings points out, but also for developing new apps from scratch. Microsoft has been working with a variety of partners to make open-source tools available for Azure -- everything from Eclipse, to PHP. Silverlight can be used for SQL Azure clients, "but most Windows Azure devs probably will stick with ASP.NET Web roles for now, move to MVC with Visual Studio 2010, and Silverlight as they come up to speed with it next year," Jennings says.
Microsoft faces some big competitors in the cloud, ranging from Amazon, to Google, to Salesforce, to IBM. It also already is facing pricing pressures, with developers pushing the Redmondians to offer a lower-end, hosting-centric pricing to compete with ISPs (as opposed to the full-fledged operating-system-centric infrastructure that Azure currently is). Microsoft still has yet to articulate exactly how it and when it plans to mirror its public-cloud Azure environment for customers who want and need to keep their data in-house. (Microsoft has said it plans to offer a public-to-private cloud. And it still has a lot of behind-the-scenes work to do to get its reseller partners onboard with Azure.
MIcrosoft is counting on developers and customers wanting more, not less, in the cloud. Microsoft is banking on coders wanting a (mostly) familiar operating environment, middleware and development infrastructure whether they are writing apps that can run on-premises, in the cloud or both. Now that the meter is running, we'll see whether devs and users agree....