Windows Azure: Checking in on Microsoft's public cloud promises

Microsoft isn't sharing its public-cloud roadmaps like it used to. Last year, the Windows Azure team outlined its delivery plans in detail. Here's a look at what's there and what's still missing.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

It seems the Windows Azure team has taken a page from the Windows client team's book and is no longer sharing roadmaps the way it did just a year ago.

In October 2010, the team published a list of new Windows Azure and SQL Azure features that were set to be delivered between fall 2010 and the end of 2011. Since then, there has been no kind of similar update. Maybe the Windows management has decided providing public guidance would give competitors too much of a heads-up on Windows Server 8, as the Windows Server and Windows Azure teams are working in lockstep? (Given Microsoft already has delivered a developer preview of Windows Server 8, that argument seems kind of flimsy.)

Whatever the reasons, the Windows Azure team did share a diagram at the TechEd 2011 conference that showed some of the components of Azure that were still yet to be delivered. Features highlighted inside the dotted-line boxes -- applications App Marketplace, composite app framework, AppFabric integration (including BizTalk integration), SQL Azure Reporting Services, VM Role and Azure Connect ("Project Sydney") -- were not yet done as of late May 2011.

(click on the diagram to enlarge)

Since May 2011, here's what Microsoft has done to fill in the missing pieces:

App Marketplace: Microsoft added support for apps to the Windows Azure Marketplace this fall. (The marketplace featured data, but not apps, until recently.)

Azure AppFabric updates: BizTalk integration and composite app framework: Microsoft has been sending mixed signals about its future support plans for its BizTalk integration server. It sounds like the current gameplan is to do BizTalk v.Next for the cloud first. Based on the diagram above, a BizTalk service (part of Windows Azure App Fabric) is definitely coming, but I've heard no updates as to when. A CTP test build of Azure AppFabric including an "integration" feature is/was due in the second half of 2011. There have been a number of Azure AppFabric SDK updates in the past couple of  months; I'm unclear if BizTalk integration is in any of them.

SQL Azure Reporting Services: Last year, Microsoft said there'd be a Community Technology Preview build available to customers by the end of 2010, with the final release out in the first half of 2011. A "limited" CTP did go out, followed by a public preview -- but no new word on where the final version is, as of mid-October 2011. Update: Microsoft released another public CTP build of SQL Azure Reporting Services on October 13, but there's still no update on when the final will be ready.

VM Role: When Microsoft described this capability last year, officials talked about Azure being able to "construct VM Role images in the cloud." They also committed to providing a "VM Role" along the same lines as the existing Azure Web and Worker roles. Though VM Role exists in Microsoft literature and in mentions on its Web site, it seems to still be in beta only (best I can tell). I don't think there's been any update on the ability to construct VM-Role images in the cloud.

Server App Virtualization: A year ago, the Softies said that "Server App-V" (similar to the current client "App-V" offering, except for servers/cloud) would be out in CTP before the end of 2010 and available in final form in the second half of 2011. The CTP did go out on the last day of December in 2010. Earlier this year, word came down that Server App-V still was on track to be added to Azure before the end of 2011 (perhaps around the same time the same capability would be available via System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2012, which, last I heard, is set to RTM some time before the end of this year).

Networking (Connect): Announced in November 2009 as codename "Project Sydney," Azure Connect consists of several different components. The networking component of Connect, which allows cloud-hosted virtual machines and local computers to communicate via IPSec connectionsas if they are on the same network, still seems to be in beta, as of mid-October 2011.

Notably, the Azure team has been placing a lot of emphasis in recent months on providing tookits enabling mobile devices and PCs (iOS, Android, Windows Phone and Windows 8) to make use of Azure on the back-end. This wasn't a priority (at least an announced one) for the Azure team a year ago.

Microsoft was updating Windows Azure with new features about two to three times a year. I've asked officials if that timeframe will likely continue but have yet to hear back. I've also asked if there's any general guidance on what's on the Azure roadmap for the coming months. I'm doubtful officials will have more to share on that front, but if they do, I'll update this post. In the meantime, if any Azure developers have updates to share on any of the pieces I've called out above (or any longer-range Azure plans), I'm all ears.

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