Microsoft steams into services era with Azure

Company says OS, platform set table for next 50 years of computing

LOS ANGELES -- Claiming to set the stage for the next 50 years of computing, Microsoft this week unveiled a cloud operating system and a complementary slate of developer resources that will become the core of its services platform and provide an online delivery option for all its current software.

The Azure Service Platform, which includes the cloud operating system called Windows Azure, defines the scalable back end that will support the services portion of Microsoft's software-plus-services strategy, which it has been laying out in bits and pieces over the past three years.

The platform is the coming-to-life of the well-known Internet Services Disruption memo that Ray Ozzie penned three years ago (and recalls in a recent interview) before becoming Microsoft's chief software architect. The memo laid out how Microsoft needed to embrace software plus services to remain relevant.

The Azure platform, which has at its core a highly tuned operating system two years in the making, is no less than Microsoft's largest bet yet to achieve that relevancy as it moves into a market already active with cloud environments from Amazon, Google, IBM and others.

"[Azure is] designed to be the foundation, the bedrock underneath all of Microsoft's service offerings for consumers and business alike," Ozzie said last week when introducing Windows Azure at the company's annual Professional Developers Conference (PDC). "The systems that we're building right now for cloud-based computing are setting the stage for the next 50 years of systems, both outside and inside the enterprise."

Chart of Microsoft's Azure Services Platform layered approach.

Ozzie showed a confidence and energy rarely seen in his public appearances as he tried to engage the developers Microsoft needs to woo to make the Azure services effort successful.

The Azure platform finally provides the confluence point for a number of loosely related cloud technologies Microsoft has been developing, including Live Mesh, the Identity MetaSystem and Microsoft Online Services.

Those infrastructure and application services, which complement the Azure operating system, will hook onto the Azure platform to enrich its development environment and provide core services to online applications.

Microsoft's effort, however, is not without major challenges. The Azure Services Platform is a work in progress and only at the preview stage; the platform is initially tied predominantly to Microsoft's technologies although it is promising openness; and Microsoft has to succeed in wooing an army of developers to embrace it.

"The approach to the Azure Services Platform follows a well-known pattern; coming late to the party, Microsoft must make up now by enticing developers to embrace this new platform and creating the 'killer-apps' needed to make Azure a success," said Felix Gaehtgens, a senior analyst at Kuppinger Cole.

"There are currently very few established dominant vendors in this space, and whilst some customers are experimenting, very few businesses have already bet the farm on a specific cloud platform. Microsoft has a history of being able to turn the ship around and catching up quickly when it wants to."

Microsoft is also working on front-end clients to help turn the ship.

In addition to introducing Azure for the back end, Microsoft also highlighted front-end tools at PDC. It provided a glimpse of Windows 7 and introduced online Office Web applications in the mold of Outlook Web Access that can run on a PC, a phone or a browser.

The Windows 7 demos focused more on slick user-interface refinements and consumer features rather than enterprise tools, but the software is still in a pre-beta cycle.

The Office Web applications provide online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. While not as full-featured as the desktop versions, the online applications let users create, edit and collaborate on Office documents. They also plug into the services model through the sharing and synchronization of information across devices fostered by Microsoft's Live Mesh, itself a component option via the Azure platform's Live Services.

Microsoft also showed coming versions of Visual Studio 2010, introduced its Live Framework that will help developers build applications that run across PCs, phones and the Web, and highlighted its Oslo modeling tools that will be key to developing applications for the Azure era of Windows.

Developers were optimistic about the possibilities. Companies such as Red Prairie, which develops supply chain management software, showed at PDC a prototype product recall application using the Azure platform and its SQL Services feature.

Other developers are trying to get their hands around where and when they could move to the cloud.

"We could look at moving certain data or services or CPU-intensive calculations and operations to the cloud, but we have to prove the data is secure," said Edwin Kusters, an IT consultant with Hot ITem in Amsterdam. He said privacy laws in the Netherlands would be a big factor in what sorts of operations may move into the services realm.

He said the Azure platform has to get "more concrete" so he can better understand where he can go with it.

Azure and the Azure Services Platform are indeed a first implementation with a community technology preview out now and a wider beta testing coming in the next few months. Microsoft expects the platform to roll out live in the second half of 2009.

Unique to the operating system is its Fabric Controller, which makes data-center resources appear as one big pool to ensure service availability even if individual servers fail. The Controller also lets users upgrade services on the fly.

"It sounds to me like they have re-invented VAX clusters on top of Windows," said Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC. "They are in effect creating a single system image in fabric."

With that, Gillen says, will come application design considerations. "You are moving from an OS API to a service-oriented API. You become more married to the fabric than the OS."

Microsoft is using the fabric design to tout a scale-out model using more boxes rather than the scale-up model of increasing CPU and memory in individual boxes. Microsoft has worked exclusively with Dell to develop customized hardware for the Azure operating system and the fabric design that will run in its data centers.

The infrastructure services layer of the Azure Platform provides a range of services including Live Services such as Hotmail and Live ID that developers can choose to use with their applications. The layer also includes SQL Reporting and Analysis services at the heart of a database for the cloud, and .Net Services pulls in features such as the federated identity services of the Geneva platform introduced at PDC.

In addition, Microsoft is providing the core business service engine from Dynamics CRM and the collaborative engine in SharePoint as two other basic services on the infrastructure layer. Microsoft plans to add more to the layer over time.

On top of all that, Microsoft will run its current online services including Exchange, SharePoint and Office Communications Server. Over time, Ozzie reiterated Microsoft's commitment to re-architect all of its shrink-wrapped software and provide hosted versions that run on Azure.

"In some ways this is a brave new world that looks a lot like the old world," said Amitabh Srivastava, vice president of the Windows Azure team and co-developer of the Azure operating system. "It is an evolutionary process."

Some experts say that evolutionary process is helping fuel a new energy at Microsoft that bodes well for the development of Azure and gives Microsoft a good chance this time of delivering on its promises.

"Suddenly they look focused as a company and I'm seeing them execute as a company," said Rob Enderle, president of the Enderle Group and a long-time follower of the company. "The last time I thought they were focused as a company was with Windows 95."

While acknowledging Microsoft is still in the promises stage, Enderle says the focus makes a big difference for the customer base and for Microsoft's attempt to battle competitors.

"They want to kick butt on Apple and Google. The sleeping giant is awake and they are angry."

Learn more about this topic

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