Windows Azure - The Cloud Is Inevitable

Earlier this week Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect shared a piece of Windows history, offering the public a peak at the press kit which accompanied the launch of version 1.0 of the company’s proprietary operating system.

1985 was a pivotal year for Microsoft and for its Window platform, and now, with Ray Ozzie at the helm of the company, the software giant is going through another transition, from the desktop to the Cloud.

Just five years after Ozzie’s “The Internet Services Disruption” memo, the Redmond company has a fully functional Cloud platform based on Windows Server technologies, up and running.

Around the world, customers, developers and users are hearing more and more about Cloud Computing and about Windows Azure.

But is now the time for the Cloud? Microsoft’s answer is an unequivocal Yes!

“The cloud is kind of a term we use in our industry to describe the general remaking of the way information technology works from a world in which most computing has been done either in businesses or on PCs to a world in which computing is as likely to be done out in the Internet as it is inside a corporation's boundaries, it's as likely to be done on a phone or a TV-style device as it is to be done on a PC, and it is as likely to be balanced, taking advantage of the full resources and information of the world as it is only the specific knowledge that any one person or organization may have,” Microsoft CEO Steve Bellmer noted at the start of October.

“And that transformation is the cloud transformation, and it's got a lot of moving technical pieces and a lot of new business model opportunities.”

This last bit is extremely important, and businesses need to start paying attention or risk being left behind.

The Cloud means new opportunities, and brings new benefits in terms of cost, UX quality, scalability, security, privacy, etc. Of course, it also means that new challenges are also on the horizon, also related to details such as security, privacy, availability, etc.

The Windows Azure platform

Recently I had the pleasure of talking a bit with Sébastien Noël, Sr. Director DPE, Microsoft Central & Eastern Europe about Windows Azure, and Microsoft’s foray into the Cloud.

“At a high level you have three components of Azure. One is Azure itself which is about providing the computing power, storage and management tools.

Then you have SQL Azure, which is the second building block, a relational database, and then you have AppFabric which is an area where you manage the connectivity of your app with other services and access control,” he explained.

Noël made it extremely clear that the Redmond company went to great lengths in order to ensure that customers will be able to control the most minute details about their applications and services in the Microsoft Cloud.

Control is after all a determining factor when it comes down to convincing enterprise customers of migrating their on-premise apps, especially critical applications, into the software giant’s data center, into the Cloud.

Noël explained that there are challenges for Microsoft “especially in the enterprise side with all the things related to security, privacy and access control to the data.

“And this is where our long experience in the enterprise allows us to provide solutions and scenarios that the IT department can actually leverage, and make sure that they provide the control that their users want, the features that they want, while maintaining control over the data, the privacy and the rules around who what the rights to look at what.

“The concerns related to security and privacy are extremely important, because as soon as you have the data in the Cloud, you want to know, control and decide who has the rights to see your data, both from a consumer and enterprise perspective.

“You want to be sure that your medical data stored in the Cloud cannot be seen by anyone. You want to be sure that nobody can access your secrets of manufacturing stored in the Cloud. And this is something that we are extremely passionate about.

“That’s also the reason why some people want to work with the Cloud but maintain their data center on-premise.

“And we do understand that some companies, some industries, some sectors of industry, want have and control their data within their facilities. We respect this and work to make the transition from on-premise to the Cloud smooth, allowing customers to move applications from their data centers to the Cloud.

“On the long term we actually believe that eventually people will be more inclined to store more and more data in the Cloud because they will be more and more convinced that it’s a safe and secure way to get the data backed-up, managed, and that the maintenance of the data center is more efficient when it’s done on a large scale.

“This is what we’re trying to push across the industry, because in the end we know that it is going to lower the cost for our customers.”

Three screens and a Cloud

The next stage in the evolution of computing is much more than just about Windows Azure. It involves a complex vision which spans three screens (PC, TV and mobile) and the Cloud.

And speaking just about Cloud offerings, Microsoft’s collection of services is the most diversified and comprehensive compared to any rival, including Windows Azure, but also BPOS, CRM in the Cloud, Live@Edu, Office Web Apps, Windows Live, etc.

“Three screens and a Cloud is essentially the response to what the customers are asking of us,” Noël revealed.

“We see more and more what we call the consumerization of IT. Large customers are seeing people coming to their sites with devices capable of supporting things that these devices were not supporting in the past, and they need to answer to these needs.

“And the users themselves are asking various IT departments for data access, email access, services from every device from anywhere. This is on the enterprise side, on the consumer side it’s pretty much the same.

“You take pictures with your camera, you want to access those pictures from any kind of devices, whether it’s on your television, on your phone or on your PC. You do want to have access to this data, I’m talking about pictures, but it’s the same for music or for your emails.

“The three screens is the reality today, out approach is to basically connect the three screens and make sure that they are talking to each other via a common denominator, which is the Cloud.

“We do believe that we can add a lot of value by offering common ground and a common platform so that each of these devices connect and are in sync all the time.”

Windows Azure benefits

When it comes down to actual benefits, Microsoft will offer an interminable list from interoperability, to lower cost, scalability, ease of deployment.

Of course, it’s crucially important for the company at this point to get as many customers, vendors, developers, users as possible in migrating, developing, and running apps in its Cloud.

The benefits that Windows Azure brings to the table will help convince customers to leverage the Cloud platform more and more, essentially having Windows Azure sell itself.

But the software giant is trying to kick start adoption, with Steve Ballmer’s recent tour of Europe, with a range of special offerings across various markets, and with upcoming events such as PDC 2010 and TechEd Europe.

“Typically, we start the discussions with enterprise customer with non-critical applications. We basically get them to try Windows Azure very quickly and once they realize the simplicity of migrating the apps, then they realize that they can move all applications to the Cloud,” Noël added.

“Because it is so easy to migrate apps from an on-premise data center to the Cloud what we started to see are scenarios where for an app the customer know that it’s going to be a peek of demand at some point.

“The apps can be configured so that they deal with peaks in demand, since the platform will automatically request additional resources, and leverage the computing power that we offer to make sure that the peak in traffic is dealt with. Apps can do dynamic load balancing and use the Cloud for extra capacity whenever it’s needed.

“And this is extremely powerful, because of our side we’re running on such as scale that we can offer huge amounts of computing power at a very competitive cost.

“We support lots and lots of frameworks, PHP, Ruby, etc. Applications built in .NET are easiest to migrate. If they’re built in .NET from the beginning the migration of apps is done in a matter of days if not hours.

“But se support PHP as well, there are lots of apps running on Windows Azure that have been written in PHP, and that shows our commitment to interoperability.

“From a developer perspective, everything that runs on your Visual Studio environment is supported in Windows Azure.

“If you have a Java app for example it is very easy to have the same Java code run in the Cloud. We’re trying to make it very easy and transparent for people to use our data centers and the computing power that we have.

“The main benefits of Windows Azure are around manageability and the simplicity of deployment, the cost is obviously one big advantage, integration with other enterprise services.

“The real benefit in the end is about having massive amounts of servers managed extremely efficiently with a super-efficient use of the power. The overall goal is to provide the huge amount of computing power at a very cheap cost.

“In the case where you have a load peak, huge workload that’s coming either predictably or unpredictably, the Cloud and Windows Azure helps you manage those peaks because you offload the computing capacity to the Cloud.

“In the cases where you start a business, or you start an application, and you don’t really know whether it’s going to be successful or not. Typically we see lots of startups that are very interested because they can get started without buying a huge data center.

“They can just put their app in the Cloud and if it will be successful they can pay for the computing power they need, if it’s not successful, then they haven’t wasted a lot of cash paying for data centers that in the end are not being used.

“All the scenarios in which demand is not stable and predictable are amazing scenarios for Cloud computing.”

Customer adoption

At the start of October 2010, while in Sweden, Ballmer emphasized that 50% of the Fortune 500 companies are already using one of existing Microsoft Cloud services.

But at the same time, even though Windows Azure is still a very young platform, over 10,000 paying customers are already leveraging it since launch in combination with additional Cloud offerings such as SQL Azure, Ballmer revealed.

"The cloud is inevitable,” Ballmer said.

“Cloud Computing will fundamentally change the IT-industry. The question that remains is how fast this will happen. We are still at the beginning. But I tell the customers: Now is the time to jump on the bandwagon. From 2012 on more than 90 percent of Microsoft developers will work on applications and technologies for the cloud.”

Noël revealed that in his perspective there are no other companies out there offering a Cloud platform that can truly rival Windows Azure.

“I think that we are quite unique,” he said. “The example we typically use is Amazon. Amazon is a very good competitor because they’ve also understood the power of Cloud computing.

“However, when you set up with Amazon you basically get a virtual machine, and you’re left with all the management, updating, upgrading, and maintenance of that machine just as if you’d have the server running under your desk.

“I don’t think that there’s an equivalent on the market today where a vendor is managing the entire backend of you application so that you don’t have to worry about it.

“That’s the difference and the reason why we try to make it clear to our customers and partners how we think about the Cloud. Because people tend to think about the Cloud as just application delivery for the browser, but it’s actually more than that.

“The way we like to think about it, is basically around infrastructure as a service, meaning you provide a virtual machine, you provide a server, that’s what Amazon is doing. Then you have platform as a service, which is the game that we are in with Azure, so you provide the ability for a customer to post an app and not have to worry about the infrastructure that’s underneath.

“And then there’s software as a service that runs of on the platform.”


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