Windows Azure: The Loose Ends Come Together
On June 7, Microsoft introduced its revamped Windows Azure cloud computing platform to the world. While not a total reboot, Windows Azure now does a lot more and welcomes customers from a variety of platforms more warmly. No matter what we may have thought about Corporate Vice President Scott Guthrie's relocation to the Windows Azure team, we see now that, under his leadership, that team delivered. The new Windows Azure represents a new outlook from Microsoft on the industry, and will change its image in the industry for the better.
There are a slew of changes and new features in the Windows Azure platform, but there's a single "meta" change to be observed. With the old Windows Azure, Microsoft imposed an array of requirements and set about convincing customers that the benefits of Windows Azure justified those requirements. The new Windows Azure employs a strategy of outreach and inclusion. Microsoft is no longer asking developers and customers to change their mindset, their platform or their strategy. Instead of making customers accept things on faith, Microsoft's inviting developers of all stripes to bring over what they've got and make themselves at home. Microsoft's cloud has gone from the Spanish Inquisition to "mi casa es su casa."
Windows Azure used to require developers to work in a Windows Server environment, and adhere to a Platform as a Service (PaaS) development pattern. Now Windows Azure supports Infrastructure as a Service (Iaas) virtual machines (VMs) running Windows or any of several distributions of Linux. In the old Windows Azure, small sites had reasonable but nontrivial costs, requiring dedicated compute instances, and they had to be tailored to the Windows Azure platform. Now those same small sites can run in a free, shared-hosting environment using a development model that works on-premises as well.
Have a PHP site that uses MySQL and Memcached? Come on down! No longer do you have to rewrite your code to work with SQL Azure and the "Velocity" distributed cache (even if the latter is being used under the covers). The MySQL database, by the way, can be provisioned as a PaaS amenity -- so even if you prefer IaaS for your application, you can still take advantage of PaaS where it makes sense, and that goes for NoSQL as well as MySQL. As you peel away the layers of the Windows Azure story, it keeps getting better, rather than exposing some gotcha or other.
Best of all, these new deployment, language and data options seem to be first-class citizens in the Windows Azure society. The IaaS VM images can easily be spun up, scaled out, snapshotted and moved from and to on-premises servers (or even to other cloud providers). Linux VM images aren't just thrown out there, either; in fact, they're the basis for partner offerings, such as the Cloudant flavor of CouchDB.
Partners in Cloud
Speaking of partner offerings, the quantity and diversity of them on the Windows Azure platform now is remarkable. To have the CEOs of Twilio and RightScale play prominent roles in the Windows Azure announcements was really impressive. To have companies like 10gen (the force behind MongoDB) on board sets new precedents. Even big data companies like Datameer are working with Microsoft now to make sure they're Windows Azure-compatible.
Don't look now, but Windows Azure seems to be a place that lots of hot tech companies want to be. This gives Windows Azure "street cred" it never had before. It also gives Microsoft street cred it never had before. The companies mentioned previously are not typical Microsoft-affinity organizations, not by a long shot. They're mainstream companies in the era of the cloud, NoSQL and big data, and are supporting Windows Azure for reasons of pragmatism, not blind allegiance.
Windows Azure's improvements over its previous incarnation's feature set parallel the improvements of Office 365 over the Business Productivity Online Services cloud. With credibility and depth in Software as a Service, IaaS and PaaS, Microsoft has probably the best "well-rounded" cloud story in the industry.
Building up that story is still an investment for Redmond, but the time when the cloud represents a big chunk of the company's revenue may be getting closer than we think. The reinvention of Windows Azure could be a real cornerstone in Microsoft's reinvention of itself -- something crucial for a company born during the 8-bit computer days of the 1970s. Reinvention will stay crucial, too, and Guthrie seems to know that. Hopefully he'll set a precedent at Microsoft and further renaissance will ensue.
Andrew Brust is Research Director for Big Data and Analytics at Gigaom Research. Andrew is co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press); an advisor to NYTECH, the New York Technology Council; co-moderator of Big On Data - New York's Data Intelligence Meetup; serves as Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; and is conference co-chair of Visual Studio Live!