Microsoft steps up cloud momentum

At developer conference, Redmond announces production availability of Windows Azure and unveils new services running on its cloud platform.

LOS ANGELES--Redmond is making strides in its cloud strategy, officially releasing Windows Azure and announcing new capabilities that better integrate the experience of on-premise and cloud environments, Microsoft's senior executives said Tuesday.

Kicking off the company's developer conference here, Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie in his keynote address expounded on the company's vision of "three screens and a cloud", where PCs, mobile phones and TVs are connected by Web services, and urged developers to explore building apps that run across the three platforms.

From Tuesday, the company's Windows Azure cloud platform has been made formally available to a "handful of customers", including Automatic, the maker of blog engine WordPress Ozzie said.

The service will switch to production for all customers from Jan. 1, but actual billing is expected to commence from February, he noted, adding that the community technology preview (CTP) will continue until the end of the year.

Starting January 2010, Azure will be supported across pairs of data centers that perform automatic geo-replication of storage, said Ozzie. Its North American duo are housed in Chicago and San Antonio, while facilities in Singapore and Hong Kong, and Dublin and Amsterdam, will be tapped for deployment in Asia and Europe, respectively.

The Microsoft executive described Azure as a "vast homogeneous array of Windows Server hardware and virtualized Windows Server instances", where all servers are controlled by a new capability called Windows Azure AppFabric controller, which he likened to "an extension of Systems Center's management capabilities in the enterprise".

"With Windows Azure, Windows Server and System Center, there is one coherent model of managing this infrastructure-as-a service across Microsoft's public to private clouds and the clouds of our [partner-hosts]," he explained.

Echoing Ozzie's view that cloud computing is at an early stage, Microsoft's president for servers and tools Bob Muglia said the industry has over the past year, developed its understanding of cloud computing.

"One thing that has become really clear is the cloud is more than about infrastructure--it's also about an application model," he noted, adding that Microsoft sees the cloud as a next-generation application model.

Muglia said the company's Bing search engine runs on this model, operating on 100,000 servers to ensure the service remains always available and resilient. But, this makes the infrastructure complex and costly to manage, he said.

To work around this, he added, Microsoft built a network monitoring platform called Autopilot, which manages servers, network switches and other equipments within the data centers that support Bing. It supports capabilities such as dynamic capacity scaling and resource allocation, and automatic failure detection and recovery.

Azure borrowed this ability, making it available to Microsoft's customers, he said.

Andy Lapin, director of enterprise architecture at Kelley Blue Book, a U.S. provider of used car services, noted that with Azure and SQL Azure, data remains identical between on-premise and cloud environments. Joining in Muglia's keynote, Lapin said KBB maintains a single code base and Azure helps ensure data changes made in each of its two data centers are reflected across both facilities.

Martin Cron of Cheezburger Network, also an invited speaker during Ozzie's keynote, said Microsoft's cloud service allows the company--which operates user-generated communities--to scale up, as well as down, quickly as the sites typically experience spikes in Web traffic that eventually lead to a new audience base. Cron added that Cheezburger launched Tuesday a new site, oddlyspecific.com, that runs SQL Azure and Windows Azure.

More Azure capabilities
At the conference, Muglia also touched on Project Sydney, a network connectivity agent he said helps connect Azure and servers within enterprises. The feature will enter into beta in 2010, he said.

Microsoft will also be introducing virtual machine support in Azure next year, where businesses can create images from a set of predesigned Windows Server infrastructure and have full administrative access to manage them.

AppFabric, Muglia elaborated, helps create a "very easy to manage" infrastructure that automatically manages functions such as failover. It also provides database caching, which helps apps load faster by using a middle-cache tier to perform load balancing. The first beta of Windows Server AppFabric is now available, while the beta for Windows Azure AppFabric will be released next year.

Additional announcements made at this week's developer conference include:

Marketplace called Microsoft Pinpoint, for developers and IT service providers to market their apps and services.
Data-as-a-service codenamed Dallas, which is a uniform discovery mechanism built on Azure, with data sets from both commercial and public data sources such as NASA. Dallas is available through Pinpoint and is released as a limited CTP.
System Center Cloud, which will enter beta phase in 2010.
Windows Identity Foundation enters RTM (release to manufacturing phase), which allows developers to offer secure, simplified user access to both on-premise and cloud apps.

Vivian Yeo reported from the Microsoft Professional Developer Conference in Los Angeles, California.