Microsoft Azure: Definitely Not Too Little, But is it Too Late?

Last week, I wrote off Microsoft as a real cloud-computing competitor, questioning why it remains on the sidelines while cloud leaders Amazon Web Services and Rackspace continue rolling out feature after feature. This week at its Professional Developers Conference, Microsoft made me eat my words … kind of. The latest details about Microsoft Azure fill in the information that’s been outlined over the last year, and paint a picture of a compelling cloud offering clearly distinct from anything else on the market. But Azure won’t be publicly available until Jan. 1, and a month and a half is a long time in the world of cloud computing.

What’s to Like: AppFabric, for One

Perhaps the biggest Azure news to emerge this week is the existence of Windows Server AppFabric. As the name indicates, Windows Server AppFabric will help users build application fabrics in their Windows environments to minimize the complexity of delivering enterprise applications as services. AppFabric achieves this through supporting RESTful or SOAP-based services, workflows and application-level monitoring. Additionally, AppFabric marks the first commercial presence of Microsoft’s distributed in-memory caching technology (codenamed “Velocity”). Its inclusion ensures that apps can scale at will without experiencing performance bottlenecks at the data layer.

Bigger news yet is that Windows Server AppFabric will be complemented by Windows Azure platform AppFabric later in 2010. The cloud version will feature the same management and deployment tools as the in-house version, so users will be able to port jobs between the two environments with ease. Similar offerings exist today (e.g., Appistry CloudIQ Manager, TIBCO-DataSynapse, GigaSpaces XAP and, to a degree, VMware vCloud) but the big difference is that Microsoft owns both sides of the equation, the internal and the external clouds.  This should mean a tight integration, better inherent performance between the two systems and, hopefully, fewer kinks to work out. (Should IBM actually build its public cloud, a connection between it and WebSphere XD would offer a similarly tight integration.)

Timing Still a Concern

But despite the fact that Azure looks a glowing blue orb of goodness, we’re too far away from its launch to know for sure. The cloud-computing services currently on the market have been tested in the public eye and appear to have worked out many of their issues. Azure is a more complex, holistic offering than its cloud counterparts, and one wonders if customers (or the press) — after all the hype and all the waiting — will cut Microsoft much slack should one of the cogs in its machine stop moving. Yes, Azure has been through beta testing, but it has yet to face the breadth — and volume — of applications and workloads that the public will throw at it.

Then there is the issue of the additional wait time until Azure is available. Cloud computing is a fast-growing market, and every month Azure remains under wraps is time that its available competitors will spend upgrading their offerings and, potentially, devaluing Azure. This week alone, AT&T announced its IaaS offering, Rackspace made file-serving a cloud service and Joyent raised millions of dollars (not to mention a show of support) from Intel and Dell. Rumors also arose that AWS intends to add Active Directory integration, adding to its Azure-undercutting strategy that some suggest was the reason for the Amazon Relational Database Service. Windows Azure platform AppFabric won’t be available until late 2010, giving its competition plenty of time to optimize their offerings and establish tighter alliances with public-cloud partners.

Externally, at least, Microsoft appears to have gotten it correct with Azure, but we won’t know for sure until January at the earliest. In the meantime, the cloud computing market will continue to grow around Azure, perhaps making a flawless execution of Microsoft’s strategy essential to Azure’s success.

Question of the week

What are your thoughts on the prospects for Microsoft Azure?
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  1. Derrick, I had the same perspective as you prior to last week, and I was also in attendance at the PDC. I was very, VERY impressed with the completeness and clarity of the Azure family of technologies and platforms. What added to the story immensely was the amount of substance and capability added to Silverlight 4 in its role as the “last mile” of the cloud story. I think the overall platform, particularly the ability to run virtually unmodified applications on-premise or in the Azure cloud is compelling. One other positive was the work being done on “Sydney” to provide a secure connection to/from the cloud and on-premise applications and content. One negative was the fact that the Azure service bus remains “cloud only” and will not be available as part of AppFabric or for use behind the firewall. I think this is a big mistake, and hopefully one that can be addressed in the coming months.

    No doubt there’s a lot of work to do to get the pieces of the vision implemented, but I think Microsoft has done a very impressive job in the past year moving it forward.

    A few last pieces of the puzzle that I would love to hear, which would completely round out the end-to-end story, would be:

    – Comprehensive HTML 5 support in IE9
    – 99% functional parity between Silverlight on all platforms/browsers
    – Native oAuth and other federated authentication support in Azure
    – Lightweight collaboration services for video/audio/chat/presence with corresponding Silverlight components (the MS unified communications story is too big, heavy, and administration intensive)
    – Consumption monitoring on the cloud side to prevent individual rogue client applications/consumers of data and services to run up your Azure bill (similar to the click abuse in early Google days)
    – An application delivery story for non-Microsoft mobile devices

    That said, ^^^I think what we’ve been provided with in beta form [with Azure] is more than adequate to build a very compelling set of applications, and we’re seriously considering doing just that. We were (are) very close to leveraging a LAMP/Adobe stack, but last week really complicated that decision!^^^


    1. I can’t disagree that Azure appears to be an almost-revolutionary cloud offering, my only concern is that everyone else is building momentum with actual customers and that they’re rolling out new features at breakneck paces. Playing catch-up in mindshare and adoption could be difficult.

      Having said that, it looks like Microsoft is set up to capitalize on Azure.

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