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FORZA AZURE

This week at is PDC event, Microsoft, as I’m sure you’ve heard (you heard it here last), announced their long planned entry into the cloud computing space. Called Azure, it represents Microsoft’s answer to competitive cloud platforms from the likes of Amazon, Google, and others.

This was a critical product, because to date the cloud has been – EC2 alphas of Solaris and Windows aside – exclusively Linux. Which was a situation less than desirable for Microsoft. Because though we might reasonably debate just relevant cloud platforms will be to enterprises, it would be tough to argue the assertion that they are important. Critically so. Which is why you’re seeing virtually every major vendor on the planet – Microsoft obviously now included – scramble for their own cloud vision.

Thus far, these visions are almost surprisingly unique in their differentiation; few of the offerings are of the “me too” variety, which is positive from a customer choice perspective if potentially negative from a customer substituability and lock-in standpoint.

Azure is no exception to this trend, as is manifests Windows in a cloud format distinct from the Windows cloud implementations enabled by Amazon or VMware. To explore why, let’s go to the Q&A.

Q: To begin with, are there any disclosures to make?
A: Yes. Microsoft is a RedMonk customer, as are other vendors with cloud ambitions or offerings such as Cloudera, Dell, EnterpriseDB, IBM, Red Hat, Sun, and so on. The full list of RedMonk clients is available here.

Q: For those readers that may not have read the news in detail, can you summarize the nature of the offering?
A: Certainly. Azure is a base platform with several available service components layered on top of it, that can be consumed in an ad hoc fashion. Specifically these service components are: Live Services (incl. “Mesh”), .NET Services (ACL, workflow, service bus, etc), SQL Services (a query engine), Office Sharepoint Services, and Microsoft Dynamic CRM Services. Last, there is a layer of directly available, discrete applications rather than building blocks (Sharepoint Online, Exchange Online, etc). These are built upon Azure, a unique and not generally available flavor of Windows that was designed for the custom datacenters that Microsoft has constructed.

The occasionally awkward naming aside, these services offer developers and ISVs the fundamental building blocks necessary for constructing applications.

Q: Ok, so there are a lot of cloud offerings: how does this compare to the current slate?
A: It is highly differentiated from Amazon’s EC2/S3 paradigm, which preserves in the cloud traditional notions of machine instances and so on. In terms of the development style it compels, it is most similar to Force.com or Google’s App Engine, both of which eschew the instance in favor of a fabric. Rather than plan for capacity using machine instance metrics, fabric cloud developers simply deploy to the platform, which – in return for the user surrendering substantial control – assumes the burden of scaling.

As was the case with Google App Engine, there will undoubtedly be much debate on whether this is a good or a bad thing for developers: while the removal of scaling concerns eases their responsibilities slightly, it also introduces a learned helplessness.

But irrespective of the debate, the model that Azure follows is one increasingly popular in the cloud.

Q: Is Azure innovative?
A: Well, as Steve Mills said at a recent IBM conference, to some extent none of the cloud platforms are precisely innovative, since many of the concepts have been with us for decades – services bureaus was his example. And to some extent, Microsoft is a follower in this market, with Amazon – by Ozzie’s own admission, being for a time the only one perceiving and attacking this market – the early pioneer, followed by Google, Saleforce.com and others.

That said, the level of cloud to local IDE integration that Microsoft has been able to achieve is impressive, and signficantly differentiating at present.

Q: How so?
A: Well, first we have to look at the existing landscape of cloud development and deployment tools. Which, frankly, aren’t good. The development experience that I’ve sampled from Amazon and App Engine is inconsistent, and frequently underdocumented. Nor are there seamless integrations back to development tools, which is why we’re starting conversations in that direction.

Put bluntly, it could be said that today’s cloud platforms are succeeding in spite of their tooling, rather than because of them.

Against this backdrop, then, it’s nothing but logical that Microsoft would leverage its development strength and position – Visual Studio having set for years, in my opinion, the development tooling benchmark. Still, their execution in Azure – at least from the briefing and demo that I’ve received, is impressive.

Unique to the marketplace – at least as far as I’m aware – Microsoft will offer the developers to build against a local version of the cloud. It will obviously be more resource limited than the real thing, but building locally and deploying remotely will significantly shorten the development cycle. Even better for Microsoft developers, Visual Studio users will literally be able to right click components and deploy them to Azure. Even better, as Sam discusses, there are POCs extant detailing construction with Eclipse and deployment to Azure.

All in all, I expect the development experience to be one of, if not the biggest, draws for Azure.

Q: What is Microsoft’s credibility like vis a vis cloud platforms, and scaling them successfully?
A: That’s unclear at present. The market perception is mixed, because Microsoft’s Live properties – most notably search – underperform their competition significantly in traffic metrics. The question is, as it was put to me by a developer this week, is whether or not building and hosting datacenters is or will soon become a Microsoft core competency.

Q: And what would Microsoft’s answer to that be?
A: They would presumably begin with some of the Live numbers. In the deck they presented to me, they said they see the following volumes for their hosted offerings: Live Search queries (2B/mo), MSN page views (10B/month), Live ID authentications (30B/mo), Messenger messages (240B/mo). How those compare to, say, Google is – at least to me – unknown. But they are sufficiently big numbers to quell the basic doubt.

But more relevant, perhaps, is the volume of the investment in datacenters. They’re going up fast, and each is a half a billion dollars. During our briefing, it was also mentioned that the hardware deployed is actually unique, with customized and proprietary board designs built in partnership with AMD involved.

None of the above guarantees competence in scaling the services and keeping them available, of course, but it does indicate commitment to those ends.

Q: What is the pricing of the offerings?
A: The specifics were not made available to me, and I don’t believe are known at the present time. In dicussing the models, however, Microsoft stated their intent to keep things simple, and accessible, with even free, ad supported models potentially available. But we won’t know how this compares until the pricing is disclosed, and it will be interesting to see how aggressive Microsoft is. Both as an indication of how elastic they think the demand is for their cloud offering, as well as their confidence in same.

Q: How compelling is the platform to non-MSFT developers? What about web standards and open languages?
A: Well, the CLR implemenations of dynamic languages aside (while interesting and useful, these are not mainstream in the way that, say, PHP is), the offering is predictably Microsoft centric. Thus the platform is a natural fit for Microsoft developers, and a somewhat unnatural one for everyone else.

That said, the service is very REST friendly. As Microsoft’s Jon Udell says:

Note also that you don’t have to use any Microsoft technologies to work with these Azure services. The demo program used LINQ, WCF, and — for the Live Mesh stuff — a wrapper library that packages the API for use by .NET software. But any technology for shredding XML and communicating over HTTP will work just fine.

Which is good news not only for Microsoft customers, but those who will be compelled for whatever the reason to work against Azure applications and stores.

Do I expect Azure to be an overwhelmingly compelling proposition for the non-Microsoft developer audience? In certain cases, perhaps, but not on a volume basis given the nature of the offering. But it will, at the very least, be interoperable.

Q: Aside from your assessment, who are the target audiences for the offering?
A: According to Lauren Cooney’s Q&A, the particular audiences anticipated are:

  • Large enterprises and ISVs who need to extend existing on-premises applications to the cloud to increase scalability, reliability, and interoperability while reducing costs and management overhead.
  • Web 2.0 developers and small ISVs who want to take advantage of a rich, highly versatile Web-based platform to build scalable, available applications for the web.
  • Hobbyists and students who want a platform that provides an easy way to start developing Web-based applications.

Personally, I think the above is a little optimistic, at least in the short term. Enterprises, for example, will need time to deconstruct and evaluate what is effectively a different development paradigm. Web 2.0 developers, meanwhile, are as a rule a.) heavily reliant on LAMP and b.) heavily reliant on Macs (which don’t run Visual Studio natively). And so on.

But in spite of that, Azure will find a large audience if only by virtue of Windows’ massive market presence.

Q: How easy will be it for Microsoft developers to transition to Azure from current enviroments and vice versa?
Q: On the first point, reportedly not difficult. When I spoke with him, Mark Rogers said simply, “Any managed code that runs on .NET is welcome in our cloud.” While the translation to that environment will undoubtedly pose challenges, much as Amazon EC2 users have to learn the storage and persistence mechanisms unique to that offering, it’s probably that most .NET developers will have little difficulty leveraging Azure. One obvious example is the SQL Services offering: the terminology and design points are non-standard: databases rougly equate to “authorities” and tables to “containers.”

Extracting applications from it, however, to deploy locally is likely to prove challenging, not least because the learned helplessness mentioned above.

Q: When is Azure going to be generally available?
A: The launch date is to be announced at MIX in Q2 of 09, with commercial availability targeted for the following quarter.

Q: What is your ultimate view of Azure, then, of what it means to the cloud landscape?
A: Microsoft’s entry, while imperfect, is highly credible, and particularly in the development experience, ups the bar significantly. Which, in my view, is great news for customers, because there’s nothing like competition to keep you moving. Much of the success or failure of Azure will be a function of pricing and models, but as presently constituted it is effectively guaranteed an audience as few other vendors are. As such, I’m with Dion when he says that Azure is “a wake up call to Adobe, Google, Yahoo!, Amazon, IBM, Sun, [insert other developer / platform players] to get kicking.”

Competition is a wonderful thing. And not just for us analysts.

Categories: Cloud.

Tags: , , , ,

  • http://www.webmink.net Simon Phipps

    “Extracting applications from it, however, to deploy locally is likely to prove challenging, not least because the learned helplessness mentioned above.”

    Masterfully understated (and no mention of the potential to move to a competing cloud). Let’s face it, Azure is designed for eternal lock-in; the Freedom to Leave wasn’t even in the rushes, let alone left on the cutting room floor.

  • http://redmonk.com/sogrady sogrady

    “Masterfully understated (and no mention of the potential to move to a competing cloud).”

    To your first point, perhaps, but I think that at present Microsoft is not particularly unique in this regard. While it’s easier to migrate away from Amazon than Azure or App Engine or Force.com, there are difficulties even there.

    Regarding the second, you’re correct, but in making the point it probably would have been worth mentioning that it would be easier to move away from Azure than, say, Force.com. At least you have the potential to use widely embraced languages rather than a unique stack.

    Ultimately, the problem of cloud standards and substitutability is both widespread and likely to become more so. Which is why we’re working on it.

  • http://www.webmink.net Simon Phipps

    Agreed on both points. But if the analysts don’t mention them, what chance is there the vendors will? As I just tweeter to James, my big fear is we’ll all be too awed by the opportunity to protect our freedoms.

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  • Roy Schestowitz

    Stay away from the cloud, unless it runs on your own Web server.

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