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At the Professional Developers Conference in Microsoft's Redmond headquarters this week, CEO Steve Ballmer and colleagues announced various new capabilities in Windows Azure, the platform-as-a-service offering whose success or failure will be crucial toward Microsoft's long term prospects in cloud computing.
While the PDC crowd is largely pro-Microsoft, those developers who are already building apps on Windows Azure give the service good reviews for its developer services and scalability.
"Windows is an operating system for a machine. And Windows Azure is an operating system for a data center," says Chris Hewitt, a developer at Readify, an app development consulting company in Australia.
Azure is ripe for innovation, Hewitt says. "There isn't really anything else out there that's similar to it. When Windows came out, Microsoft didn't know what was going to run on it, and they don't know what's going to run on this."
To win the cloud computing market, Microsoft will have to contend against the likes of Google's App Engine, and the VMforce partnership between VMware and Salesforce.com. Both of these are in the platform-as-a-service (PaaS) space, which provide developer-friendly tools for building and hosting Web applications.
But Microsoft also has to prevail against Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud. An infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) offering, Amazon EC2 provides access to pre-configured virtual machine images, whereas PaaS provides abstracted views of the underlying infrastructure. PaaS minimizes development complexity but allows somewhat less flexibility and portability of applications.
Microsoft believes platform clouds, rather than infrastructure clouds, are the way of the future, and Hewitt is inclined to agree.
"Absolutely, 100%," Hewitt says. "I don't want to deal with any of that stuff," he adds, by which he means the burden of managing virtual machines.
Hewitt's excitement is also due to the ability to scale up applications on as-needed basis, and to pay as you go. If a Web application proves popular, you just "turn up the knob" to handle more traffic. If it's not as popular, you leave things as is and don't waste the money, he says.
Azure's scalability also attracts developer Barry Stahl, who works for U.S. Airways in Phoenix.
"You just don't want to run into the scalability scenarios that kill so many startups," Stahl says. "For me, just being able to deploy it out there and know I can scale unlimitedly, that gives me a peace of mind."
At PDC, Microsoft announced new Azure features called the "Windows Azure Virtual Machine Role" and "Server Application Virtualization," which let developers run Windows Server 2008 R2 instances in the Azure cloud, and transfer application images to Azure.
While the ability to run Windows Server instances in Azure is reminiscent of Amazon-style IaaS, Microsoft describes it as less an embrace of the IaaS model and more of an "on-ramp" that lets developers move existing apps from their data centers to the cloud and get the advantages of PaaS. Beta and preview versions of the Virtual Machine Role and Server Application Virtualization features will be available before the end of 2010.