Windows in the cloud: Redmond announces Azure

LOS ANGELES — Microsoft Corp. headed further up into the cloud on Monday with the announcement of its new Web tier offering, Windows Azure.

Thousands of Microsoft developers gathered at the annual Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles to hear about what chief software architect Ray Ozzie called “Windows in the cloud.”

“This is a significant extension of our computing platforms, including Windows Vista and Windows Server,” said Ozzie. “It’s the lowest-level foundation for building and deploying high-scale services, and offers an automated service management system to handle the whole lifecycle of a cloud-based service.”

Windows Azure is not software, but a service run on a vast number of machines on Microsoft’s own data centres, said Ozzie, with a community technology preview being released Monday to conference developers. “It’s the system with the highest economical, highest available, and most environmentally responsible way of hosting things in the cloud, and will constitute a much larger Windows service platform,” he said.

“Once you think about it, it really is something that changes things very, very profoundly,” said lead analyst Warren Shiau of the Toronto-based Strategic Counsel. “Software companies are thought of as making code, which is sort of ephemeral, and intangible, but when they go out and build this cloud structure, it becomes a company that owns a lot of capital like equipment, data centres, and buildings.”

Pricing for space in this cloud will be based on application resource consumption and the specific service level Microsoft agrees to provide, and will include a variety of offers and service levels across the different markets, according to Ozzie.

As it scales out, Microsoft will be adding more of its services on to Windows Azure, including Live Services, Microsoft .NET Services, Microsoft SQL Services, Microsoft SharePoint Services, and Microsoft Dynamics CRM Services. “It’s the new operating system for the cloud that we have designed from the ground up,” said cloud infrastructure services corporate vice-president Amitabh Srivastava.

In terms of pick-up, said Shiau, adoption will come as supplemental to on-premises software implementation until cloud-based computing becomes more ubiquitous. And, as for time frame, Microsoft isn’t talking, although building such intensive data centre infrastructure could take a while.

High availability and familiar code-sets were two of the benefits being touted. “At the heart of Windows Azure is our fabric controller, which manages the lifecycle of your deployment,” said Srivastava. “The fabric controller views everything that can be managed and shared with the services that run there. When you want to change your service, you specify the design and state and the fabric controller very carefully makes the necessary changes. The fabric controller manages services, not just Server. This is a crucial point because it allows us to automate the lifecycle of a service.”

The cloud kicks in security-wise, too, with high redundancy, said Srivastava, pointing out that data will be replicated across multiple machines. “We’ll use adaptive reputation, caching, and load balancing so users can have high availability under varying loads with no user intervention,” he said.

The new service-based operating environment, said Ozzie, allows developers to use their existing skills and code.

For example, said Srivastava, “the fabric controller will maintain scaling, allowing you to concentrate on your business logic. You can write, test, and debug your code on your machine using familiar Visual Studio technologies, so there’s no need to deploy to the cloud for testing.”

This is a key part of Microsoft’s strategy in luring its customers into the cloud. Said Shiau: “If you think of the width of their install base, they may talk about it all the time, but they talk about it for a reason, but it does make it more likely that customers would move towards them as a platform.”

The company is also attempting to soothe any developer fears of code clashing, said Shiau, who pointed out that Eclipse and PHP were cited as being able to tie into Windows Azure. He said, “The tools and languages are familiar, and, they say, ‘Anything else that’s popular will tie into us, so choose us as your platform,’ and in reality, this will fit the marketplace.”

This will be aided by the slew of enterprise products Microsoft’s taking to the cloud. Microsoft SQL Services — which will offer database services and reporting — was demoed with senior vice-president of server and tools business Bob Muglia and warehouse management solution provider RedPrairie Corp. vice-president Shawn Davison, who got up to demonstrate how to create a one-button product recall, courtesy of Windows Azure.

A live management console allowed users to trigger a local on-premise recall that then goes into the cloud and is sent out all to the partners. The console can then track that members are receiving the messages, and that the products are being put on hold locally, as well as monitor the post-mortem.

“And all this is being stored in SQL Services,” said Davison.

Also announced were Microsoft .NET Services (which aims to stabilize costs and aid small IT staffs by offering services-based implementations of .NET framework workflows and access controls), and Microsoft SharePoint and Dynamics CRM Services.

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