Microsoft's Azure cloud platform: A guide for the perplexed

Microsoft's Azure cloud platform: A guide for the perplexed

Summary: Now that the initial Microsoft PDC pixie dust has settled, developers are trying to digest exactly what Microsoft's cloud platform is. Here's my attempt to explain it.


Now that the initial Microsoft PDC pixie dust has settled, developers are trying to digest exactly what Microsoft's cloud platform is. Here's my attempt to explain it.

Microsoft layed out its "Azure" foundational infrastructure for the cloud during the keynote kick-off on day one of the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) here in Los Angeles. The goal of Azure is to provide developers who want to write applications that run partially and/or entirely in a remote datacenter with a platform and set of tools.

Microsoft did not disclose pricing, licensing or timing details for Azure. The company is planning to release a Community Technology Preview (CTP) test build of Azure to PDC attendees on October 27. (The CTP consists of a software development kit and access to Microsoft's cloud.

This is what Microsoft's cloud looks like, from an architectural diagram standpoint:

Layer zero (which is not on this slide) is Microsoft's Global Foundational Services. GFS is like the hardware abstractionlayer (HAL) in Windows. It is the lowest level of the software that interfaces directly with the servers.

Layer one is the base Azure operating system. This is what used to be codenamed "Red Dog." Red Dog was designed by a team of operating-system experts at Microsoft, led by Amitabh Srivastava, Corporate Vice President of Cloud Infrastructure Services. Dave Cutler, the guy who is credited as the father of VMS and Windows NT, was one of the lead developers on Red Dog. (I asked Srivastava what Cutler's role was with Red Dog and he said he focused heavily on how the hypervisor/virtualization technology could be made to scale across datacenter servers.)

Red Dog is what networks and manages the set of Windows Server 2008 machines that comprise the Microsoft-hosted cloud. At the highest level, Red Dog consists of four "pillars": Storage (like a file system); the "fabric controller," which is a management system for modeling/deploying and provisioning; virtualized computation/VM; and a development environment, which allows developers to emulate Red Dog on their desktosp and plug in Visual Studio, Eclipse or other tools to write cloud apps against it. The way Red Dog is architected is Microsoft only has to deploy Red Dog on a single machine and then multiple instances of it can be duplicated on the rest of the servers in the cloud using virtualization technology, Srivastava said.

"We do Xcopy to deploy on every machine. Each machine has its own cache," Srivastava explained.

Layer two is the set of building block services that run on top of Azure. Developers are not required to use these services and will be able to mix and match among them. The initial set of services include Live Services (a k a the Live Mesh platform); SQL Server Data Services (now known as SQL Services); .Net Services (formerly known as "Zurich"); SharePoint Services and Dynamics CRM Services. Developers will be able to build on top of these lower-level services when constructing cloud apps. SharePoint Services and CRM Services are not the same as SharePoint Online and CRM Online; they are just the platform "guts" that don't include user-interface elements.

(Another clarification: Layers one and two together -- the thing Microsoft calls the "Azure platform" -- is what was briefly known as "Windows Strata.")

Layer three are the Azure-hosted applications. Some of these are from Microsoft and include SharePoint Online, Exchange Online, Dynamics CRM Online. Others will be authored by third-party developers.

Over time, Microsoft is promising some bigger things from its cloud platform. First, the company has committed to delivering Microsoft-hosted versions of all its enterprise apps. So those rumors of Forefront Online and System Center Online that I'v been hearing about for months sound like they are on the drawing board. These Online services -- as well as all of Microsoft's Live services -- are being slowly moved to run on top of Azure. (Right now, the only Microsoft Live property hosted on Azure is Live Mesh. The next one that will be is Live Meeting, Srivastava said.)

So besides the obvious -- licensing, pricing and due date -- what else do you want to know about Microsoft's cloud infrastructure? Any holes you see so far?

Topics: Data Centers, Collaboration, Virtualization, Storage, Software Development, Software, Operating Systems, Microsoft, Hardware, Enterprise Software, Windows


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Head in the clouds...

    So, Microsoft "cloud computing" is another huge boon to IT Departments who want to hire more staff? I wonder if anyone will eventually wake up and realize that IT departments can usually be replaced by a dozen temp clerks and some triplicate forms?
    • Hire more staff??...triplicate forms??

      It moved the servers out of the server room...why would you need more staff? And how are triplicate forms going to handle the website of say an online retailer?
    • I guess you did not get hired

      for that IT job, did you?
      Your response indicates you may not fully understand the subject being discussed?
    • Wow... you don't get this do you?

      I was shocked to read your reply to this story... do you have a clue about what this represents and means for the future?

      I mean not to slam you, sorry if it sounds like that... but your way off course with your response here.
    • People already have.

      And that's why nobody likes having to use support services.

      Now if companies built quality products, nobody would need to call support, listen to people parroting immaterial nonsense off a piece of paper, and think that'll have their problem resolved.
    • Huh? Come into the 21st century

      Sure, that will work if you have a few hundred customers. When you get to the thousands, you will need more than a dozen full time clerks and a place to store all those triplicate forms.
    • Head in the clouds?

      Wow.. triplicate forms? how did you get on the internet from the 1950's? I suppose your business of buggy whip manufacturing can probably be supported by three or four temps and pen and paper.
  • Not your father's PDC keynote topic

    More than anything else, having this topic lead off Day 1 of the PDC is indicative of the sort of developer that Microsoft thinks the "D" in PDC represents these days, which is apparently an enterprise developer in a small-to-medium-sized business. Azure strikes me as basically a datacenter outsourcing play. It is an attempt to extend the reach of SQL Server. To me it seemed out of place for a PDC. Especially the section at the end on Dynamics CRM. Hello? This is not Tech-Ed. I really felt like this was Microsoft saying "Let's use Day 1 of the PDC to market our datacenter outsourcing play to PDC attendees". Some of us ISV's in the audience develop tools that compete with parts of Azure. This is Microsoft's inherent conflict of interest: Here they are having a conference for ISV's, yet at times Microsoft seems to want to be the only ISV.

    Azure will be interesting when it is a shipping product that companies can install in their own datacenters and it is not tied to SQL Server.

    Maybe I'm cynical, but for me, the PDC starts tomorrow.

    • Azure will never ship...

      I understand your plite in that you want to see some more generalized help towards trad. ISV approaches to solving customer needs... howver the "D" in today's PDC is exactly what Developer Microsoft is shaping too.

      If your an ISV, Azure is a platform to offer your end solution to a wider base, on a scalable platform that can work great for customers of 5-5,000+ users.

      Azure will never 'ship' it is the cloud platform that is hosted by Microsoft. Parts of your solution might reside on premise at the customer site, tied to whatever database you want... but could interact with solutions that were developed with Azure, live on Azure and Run on Azure. Also, to add part of your solution, being a Hyrbid could have been developed and live on Azure while part lives on premise... or your entire solution could be developed on with Azure and run on Azure.

      Make sense?
      • Plight

        What sounds intelligent loses its effect when my old eyes see such errors. To me the argument is lost in seeing the error. Use simple words if you don't have time to make it right. I understand your situation; you want to share your opinion.
        Does that make sense?
        • Spelling?

          So my spelling error is what you chose to write about? Are you serious? I guess not... because if that is your focus and issue, man you for sure... whatever man. Sorry your old eyes had to read my spelling errors... geez, and what about the content buddy?
          • That's the point

            You are and want to appear to be intelligent and insightful so don't be lazy.
          • Point taken

            I admit, I can be lazy when it comes to spell check. I get in a hurry to write the thoughts that are in my head... and I get into what I am writing, and forget about it honestly.

            But point well taken... :-)
          • P'lite

            Very p'lite guys. :)

            Anybody notice Ms. Foley's use of the spelling 'layed'?

            "Microsoft layed out..."

            ...not in the dictionary ;)
    • your father's PDC

      This sounds like a repackaging of Oracle's Grid computing, yes, no?
  • I'm curious to know... ISP's offering Windows/SQL Server boxes are going to respond. Will they 'sub out' services from MS? And how will web developers and ISV's feel about there IP ending up in an MS datacenter?
    • Now we are getting to something...

      ... Here we have a good set of questions. How will services offered by Microsoft Partners, etc. change because of this? How will this be accepted by the community?

      Also to the next thing... what about IP? What about Security? Do we trust the host?

      These are things, fundemental things that will need to be addressed, that are in some forms, not such a technical answer is needed, but a concept or institutional answer.
      • Transport thoughts

        Since this appears to be an implementation of RPC in some nature, I expect that the base comm and security would be from that protocol. If within an MS ADS, DCOM would probably be used. Between externals, like a b2b, would require some sort of embedding or tunnelling. Each of these base proto's have there own security and authentication issues, so if Azure rolls out, I would expect that one effect would be products that reduce the comm to a separate, single, ACL friendly proto. This will probably have a proprietary security scheme. I'm just guessing with all of this, but it seems likely.
        • RPC/HTTPs.

          Outlook uses it, ActiveSync Uses it, RDP2008 uses it.

          I could definitely see Azure using it.
      • skillaid, you just hit the nail on the head!

        [i]What about Security? Do we trust the host? [/i]

        The enterprise is not yet ready to accept Cloud
        Computing in the sense offered by any current
        provider. Over and over and over again we see where
        applications and services that we thought secure leaks
        data critical to the operation of the business and the
        privacy of employees and customers. This is evident in
        the Gap thefts and even in the World Bank where data
        perceived to be secure was not only accessed but acted
        upon as well; costing the victims millions of dollars. In
        almost every case these leaks were due to Windows or
        an application within Windows.

        And now Microsoft yet again wants us to trust them
        with critical internal functions and services.

        Microsoft really needs to drop back and punt. They
        need to start from scratch and design software that is
        inherently secure, functional and efficient. Until then, I
        and many other users will avoid Microsoft as much as