Windows Azure: A look back and hints of what's ahead

It was a busy year for the Microsoft public cloud team in 2012. And 2013 is shaping up to be another fast-paced one on the Azure front.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

This past year was a busy one for Microsoft's Windows Azure team. And next year seems to be shaping up as an equally fast-paced one for the groups building, maintaining and selling Microsoft's public cloud platform.


In January 2012, I posted a roadmap with which Microsoft had provided some of its partners, listing many of the planned Azure features slated to roll out in the coming months. Looking back on that now, it seems like the Softies made good on pretty much all of the listed promises.

Arguably, the biggest announcement of the year for Azure was the addition of persistent virtual machines, allowing users to run Linux and Windows Server on Microsoft's cloud. (The persistent VM capability is still in "preview," with no word as to when it will be deemed "final.") With that addition, Microsoft took on infrastructure-as-a-service kingpin Amazon head-on.

Bill Hilf, General Manager of Azure -- and former Linux point man at Microsoft -- said the Azure team began putting in place the people and the infrastructure to enable this year's Azure updates over a year and a half ago.

Hilf said the team had a few fundamental priorities for 2012. First off, it wanted to make Azure the cloud-development platform of choice for the .Net faithful. Visual Studio .Net is still "the fastest, best and most enjoyable way" to build Azure apps and will continue to be, Hilf said.

At the same time, however, the team also wanted to expand the appeal of Azure to non-Microsoft tech users and developers. Microsoft added support for PHP, Python, Java and full-stack solutions, meaning things like MongoDB, caching technologies, the ability to use Macs to write and deploy on Azure. But as Hilf understood from his years working on Linux, support needed to go beyond press releases and check-box items.

"We had to get deep in these communities to provide real stuff they wanted, like Github publishing, open, RESTful endpoints and Linux on VMs (virtual machines)," Hilf said.

In spite of the play Microsoft gave its Linux and Windows on VM announcement, it remains committed to building out Azure as a premier platform-as-a-service (PaaS) play, Hilf said. Microsoft's contention is PaaS still provides users the best economic value and best way to scale. He said Microsoft's investment in PaaS "is as strong as ever," and pointed to Azure Media Services, which provides live streaming and video-on-demand, as a proof point for potential payoff.

Up Next: Service-level agreement options, prepackaged app stacks?

Going in 2013, Microsoft will continue to emphasize the availability and importance of a hybrid public/private cloud, Hilf said. The message is users can opt for cloud deployments in their own datacenter, in Windows Azure and/or using third-party hosters and have all of these work together. Hilf called this guarantee "an insurance policy" for customers, as well as a differentiator between Azure and cloud offerings from Amazon and Google.


"This (hybrid) approach is one of our most valuable assets," Hilf said.

Hilf said to watch for Microsoft to do some "creative things" around service-level agreements for enterprise customers in the coming year.

"If you can run apps better and more reliably than us, run it in your own datacenter," Hilf said as a tease. "And many enterprises do run very efficiently already."

(Could this be the resurrection of Microsoft's "Azure in a Box"/Azure appliance strategy? Perhaps.)

Hilf also said the Azure team is evaluating what customers may want in terms of prepackaed application stacks on Windows Azure. Would users be interested in Microsoft providing SQL Server on a persistent Windows Server VM on Azure, for example? If it's good enough for Oracle....

Hilf didn't have anything new to say about how and when Microsoft plans to allow users to take applications they build specifically to run on Windows Azure and move them back into their own datacenters. He did acknowledge that this is something users do want, but that the timing and strategy for this is still up in the air. Microsoft's recently announced strategy to make some Azure capabilities available to hosters on Windows Server is a first step in this direction, Hilf said.

"Strategically, we want to enable PaaS applications to come back to on-premises datacenters. Our 'CloudOS' strategy means we ant to enable consistency," he said.

Moving Microsoft's core services to Azure: The dream is still alive

One of Microsoft's goals for Azure remains to make it the platform upon which many, if not most, of Microsoft's own services run, Hilf confirmed.

"In the long term, we want all of our first-party services to be on Azure," Hilf said.

Currently, there are a number of Microsoft services that don't run on Azure, including Office 365, Dynamics CRM, Bing, Hotmail and Xbox Live. But many of Microsoft's more recently introduced services -- HealthVault, So.cl, Team Foundation Service, Bing Finance, Bing Sports -- already are running on Azure.

"Some of these (not currently on Azure) are really complicated systems, but parts of them do run on Azure," Hilf noted.

He said Microsoft is continuing to make headway on this front, and that the recently-enabled  federation between Active Directory and Windows Azure Active Directory is a step along the path.

While a cloud-deployment and -servicing model implies more rapid update cycles, Microsoft's enterprise experience has given the Azure team an appreciation for process, Hilf said.

"We are still doing things like security and compliance in a very rigorous way," even in the cloud, Hilf said. "It doesn't pay just to go fast to get there first."

The motto for the team in 2013 and beyond, Hilf said, is "to "go slow to go fast."


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