Microsoft's Windows Azure: What a difference a year makes

In some ways, Microsoft's Azure cloud operating environment doesn't seem to have changed much since the Softies first made it available to beta testers almost two years ago. But in other ways, Azure has morphed considerably, especially in the last 12 months.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

In some ways, Microsoft's Azure cloud operating environment doesn't seem to have changed much since the Softies first made it available to beta testers almost two years ago. But in other ways -- feature-wise, organization-wise and marketing-wise -- Azure has morphed considerably, especially in the last 12 months.

Microsoft started Windows Azure (when it was known as "Red Dog") with a team of about 150 people. Today, the Azure team is about 1,200 strong, having recently added some new big-name members like Technical Fellow Mark Russinovich. Over the past six months, the Azure team and the Windows Server team have been figuring out how to combine their people and resources into a single integrated group. During that same time frame, the Azure team has launched commercially Microsoft's cloud environment; added new features like content-delivery-network, geo-location and single sign-on; and announced plans for "Azure in a box" appliances for those interested in running Azure in their own private datacenters.

In the coming months, Azure is going to continue to evolve further. Microsoft is readying a new capability to enable customers to add add virtual roles to their Azure environments, as well as a feature (codenamed "Sydney") that will allow users to more easily network their on-premises and cloud infrastructures. The biggest change may actually be on the marketing front, however, as Microsoft moves to position Azure as an offering not just for developers but for business customers of all sizes. (There's more on that in Part 2 of this post, published on Thursday August 12.)

Senior Vice President of Microsoft's combined Server and Cloud Division, Amitabh Srivastava, has headed the Windows Azure team from the start. Srivastava said Windows Azure is still fundamentally the same as when his team first built it. At its core, it consists of the same group of building blocks: Compute, Storage and a Fabric Controller (providing management and virtualization). MIcrosoft's latest "wedding cake" architectural diagram detailing Azure looks almost identical -- at least at the operating system level -- to the team's original plan for Red Dog:

Most of the work that Microsoft has been doing on Azure for the past year has been quiet and behind-the-scenes. The team regularly updates the Azure platform weekly and sometimes even daily. By design, there are no "big releases" of Azure. The Azure team designs around "scenarios," not features. Some scenarios -- like the forthcoming VM role -- can take as long as a year or more to put together; something else, like a more minor user interface change, could take less and show up more quickly.

All these little changes do add up, however.

Next page: The Red Dog puppy grows up

Roger Jennings, cloud expert, blogger and author of Cloud Computing with the Windows Azure Platform, crafted his version of the Azure cake diagram, at my request. Jennings included not just the core platform, but a number of the related add-ons that have been announced for Azure. (Click on the image below to enlarge.)

A number of these new components -- and maybe some new tidbits on Azure batching and lifecycle management, I hear -- are expected to be on the agenda at Microsoft's upcoming Professional Developers Conference in late October.

Bridging the cloud-on-premises gap

Over the past year, "the (Red Dog) puppy grew up," Srivastava said. "But our idea, even from the beginning, was to build something for the enterprise. Our goal from Day 1 was to make it available to developers, but we also knew the enterprise was where the money is."

The "Azure for the enterprise" idea may have been there, but Microsoft officials were cagey (and/or confusing) about exactly how the company planned to make Azure available to the enterprise. It wasn't until July 2010, when the team unveiled its vision for the Windows Azure Appliance, that Microsoft's private-cloud strategy became less fuzzy.

"We said we'd give our partners the (Azure) technology, but we didn't say how," Srivastava said. "We did say it wouldn't be a bunch of bits on a CD."

Pulling all the required pieces together for the Windows Azure Appliance is the job of Corporate Vice President Bill Laing and his team. Laing, who was the Corporate Vice President of Windows Server before the reorg, has been a colleague of Srivasta's since the 1990s, when both worked at Digital Equipment Corp.

As the original Red Dog team consisted primarily of Windows Server guys from the get-go, the combining of Server and Cloud seems to be progressing relatively smoothly on the development/engineering side of the house from what I'm hearing. (Microsoft is even building a bridge across highway 520 between the Windows Server and Windows Azure buildings to make collaboration between the two teams even easier.)

"The IT pro point of view is what I brought to this," Laing said. "Azure originally was a developer platform. But as we started to talk to customers and partners, they wanted to know if they could have Azure in their own data centers."

If Azure's original incarnation was a developer platform and phase two will be an enterprise platform, what's phase three? Laing said it's about scalability. Once Microsoft rolls out the Windows Azure Appliance to its initial set of partners (Dell, Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard and eBay), each of those organizations will be running an Azure cloud with different value-added services on top. Microsoft also will be filling out the platform with additional services and capabilities, akin to what it does now with Windows Server and its various roles, Laing added.

"Instead of six datacenters, Azure can be in 600 datacenters," Srivastava said. "But they'll be running the same underlying stack in all of these places."

What has made this kind of private-cloud deployment more tricky than just shipping out a bunch of servers running Windows Azure is the "service-model" concept that has been part of Azure since its inception. (Microsoft history buffs may remember Microsoft's original "Dynamic Datacenter Initiative"; Windows Azure is the manifestation of many of those same notions.)

The idea behind the service model is Azure should be able to provide customers and partners with auto-configuration, deployment and overall management. It should be able to calculate how many Web front ends and how many back-ends are needed to run an application or service and automatically provision those, Laing said. This is where advances in app-server virtualization and systems management will come into play in the not-too-distant future.

"IT pros have been overwhelmed by managing this infrastructure," Laing said. Microsoft believes Azure can make it easier.

In part 2 of this post, ' consider Microsoft's marketing challenges as it moves to a cloud-centric "IT as a service" strategy, plus what's next for Azure customers, including Microsoft itself.

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