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Early adopter spells out Microsoft Azure's strengths and shortcomings

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

By , Network World
February 01, 2011 12:26 PM ET
Joannes Vermorel

Network World - 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.

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