Early adopter spells out Microsoft Azure’s strengths and shortcomings

Microsoft Windows Azure customer builds 'technology that would not exist without the cloud'

Few people know Windows Azure as well as Joannes Vermorel. Here’s his take on Microsoft’s cloud platform.

With Microsoft celebrating the first birthday of Windows Azure, few people are as well equipped to discuss the cloud platform's strengths and limitations as Joannes Vermorel.

Vermorel, the founder and CEO of a software development company in Paris, France, called Lokad, jumped on the Azure bandwagon well before the service even went online on Feb. 1, 2010. Because Lokad decided to move most of its infrastructure from hosted servers to the Microsoft cloud, Vermorel and colleagues had to rewrite the company's application infrastructure, and began doing so at the beginning of 2009, when Azure was in beta.

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"It took more than 12 months to completely rewrite Lokad from scratch to have cloud-based technology," Vermorel said in an interview with Network World. "At the present time, we have a technology that would not exist without the cloud."

Vermorel, who blogs about his experiences with cloud computing, chose Azure over Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud, and says it was the right decision. "Microsoft was the first and only one to have a clear vision of the cloud that includes the tooling experience," he says.

Still, there are a few shortcomings Vermorel urges Microsoft to work on. Redmond recently updated the Windows Azure user interface to make it more attractive and intuitive, but the service console still lags behind those offered by competing cloud services, Vermorel says.

"It was abysmal. Now it's OK. So the trend is good," he says.

Specifically, the user portal lacked multiuser support, which it now has, and is still slow despite a significant speed boost, he says. Before the update, it was tedious to deploy and redeploy services, and "was not very task-oriented," Vermorel says. "It's a more usable interface but they can still do much more and much better."

Lokad's system analyzes sales and demand figures, giving customers the forecasts they need to manage supply and demand, to optimize inventory and staffing levels. For retail, this can mean figuring out which products to keep in the warehouses and at the stores. For banks, it could mean keeping ATMs and branch offices stocked with the right amount of cash.

Lokad, founded in 2008 with an emphasis on data mining and grid computing, has just 11 employees, so managing a large data center would distract from its core mission. At first, the company rented servers from a hosting provider, but "most of the time those servers were doing nothing." At the same time, the hosters didn't provide enough scalability, so "there was never enough processing power" when demand for Lokad's system was high, Vermorel says. Lokad had just half a dozen servers in the U.S. and Europe, and setting up a new server required a big fee.

This hosting model was already a big improvement over owning and managing machines directly, Vermorel says, but what Lokad really needed was the flexibility offered by cloud services. Lokad's system requires heavy allocation and de-allocation of computing resources. If Lokad needs a few thousand servers to run computations for an hour, Azure can provide that. Microsoft and Lokad have developed a tight partnership, with Microsoft naming Lokad its Windows Azure Platform Partner of the Year in 2010.

Vermorel, who is teaching a course on cloud computing at a university, notes that Amazon EC2 has some advantages over Microsoft's Windows Azure. If you have lots of legacy code, and perhaps multiple operating systems including Windows, Unix and Linux, Amazon is the better option for porting applications to the cloud, he says. Amazon is also well suited for hybrid environments involving some in-house resources and some cloud-based resources, he says.

Amazon EC2 is "the most versatile cloud solution," but "probably the least productive," he says.

Azure, even Microsoft notes, is not very well suited for moving existing applications to the cloud. Although Azure has begun offering virtual machine hosting, in general it provides less control over the underlying computing resources.

Azure abstracts away a lot of the complexities, but required companies like Lokad to start from scratch. But that's all part of the natural transition to cloud computing, Vermorel suggests. Applications have to be completely re-engineered to take advantage of the unique benefits offered by cloud computing, including the ability to scale and quickly ramp up performance.

"It won't work out of the box," he says, noting that you also have to write reliability and availability features into the application and optimize it for security in a world that is much different than the classic client-server setup.

Putting an app on the Web allows remote access from nearly every conceivable point, and that means "every single component has to be strong. If one of your components is compromised, the others shouldn't fall down."

One complaint Vermorel has about Windows Azure is the hourly-based billing. If Lokad can improve the efficiency of its own process, cutting a task down from one hour to 50 minutes, Microsoft will still charge the same price. Microsoft should implement per-minute charges to allow greater pricing flexibility, Vermorel says.

But there are other advantages. "Unlike classical Microsoft products," bugs on Azure are typically fixed within two months, Vermorel says. Lokad is using numerous Microsoft products in addition to Windows Azure, including C#, the .Net Framework, and SQL Azure.

Microsoft is taking customer feedback seriously and expects to keep improving Windows Azure, says Amy Barzdukas, general manager of server and tools marketing for Microsoft.

"I think that generally speaking we are very serious about taking customer feedback and continuing to iterate," she says. "We are constantly looking at the pricing models just as we are with the feature sets."

Microsoft has released numerous improvements over the first year, including the ability to host Windows Server instances, and high-performance computing capabilities.

To promote the 1-year anniversary of Azure, Microsoft is issuing a press release touting customers T-Mobile USA, Travelocity.com and Xerox. T-Mobile used Azure to create a mobile software application called Family Room, while Travelocity opted for Azure for an analysis tracking system that helps improve its website's functionality and capacity, and Xerox build its Cloud Print service on top of Azure.

"What we're seeing with these customers, is they're turning to Microsoft for speed, ease and familiarity," Barzdukas says.

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jbrodkin

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