Redmond Review

Winds of Change: Azure Is Breaking Through

Windows Azure may have been slow out of the gate, but Microsoft's efforts to make it more of an Infrastructure as a Service platform is starting to pay off.

Late last year, Microsoft proclaimed itself a "devices and services" company, and left a lot of people wondering what that meant. After all, the Surface line of tablets hasn't been especially popular in the marketplace, nor has Windows Phone. And Windows Azure, first announced in the fall of 2008, has seemed far behind Amazon Web Services, in terms of revenue, market share and mindshare.

The "devices and services" tagline seems forward-looking at best; at worst, it looks like a diversionary tactic to distract people from the mixed market reaction to Windows 8.

But after having returned from Visual Studio Live! in Chicago, and in light of recent news and developments, I'm feeling less cynical. I'm starting to see more traction for Windows Azure and I'm also watching a transformation in the .NET community that has changed my thinking dramatically.

Increased Momentum
A year ago, Microsoft announced many enhancements to Windows Azure, including the ground-breaking addition of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) offerings to the platform. It's taken a while, but many of those services have shaped up nicely and are now in general release. Additionally, Microsoft announced in April that Windows Azure has joined its club of $1 billion businesses, and in the days leading up to this writing, Microsoft has announced Windows Azure datacenters in Australia, China and Japan. The Windows Azure story is rounding out quite nicely.

There are other developments on the Windows Azure front, revolving around integration of Windows Azure with Microsoft server products. Windows Azure Active Directory integrates cloud and on-premises identity services; the newly released cumulative update 2 to SQL Server 2012 SP1 allows backups and restores to be run to and from Windows Azure Blob storage; and the Windows Azure Integration Pack for Orchestrator in System Center 2012 SP1 allows System Center to control cloud services, storage and virtual machines on Windows Azure. While these offerings are perhaps mundane, they are also very important, as they show increasing maturity in the Windows Azure platform.

But the Windows Azure momentum isn't just about the integration of cloud and on-premises assets in the Microsoft stack. Windows Azure also facilitates cross-platform agility for its customers and users. Windows Azure Mobile Services makes short work of building back-end services, push notifications and the like for mobile applications on any platform. The Windows Azure Service Bus integrates applications across platforms. And the Windows Azure ability to host Linux VMs, as well as its explicit support for Java, Node.js, PHP, Python and Ruby, are huge deals.

So far I've talked a lot about services, and not much about devices, but the two do tie together. This idea crystalized for me while I was at Visual Studio Live! Chicago (of which I'm co-chair). While at the conference, I noticed a couple of things. First, our cross-platform mobile talks, and especially one on pure iOS development, were extremely popular. Alongside that, our Windows Azure sessions were popular, too. The conference has had Windows Azure content for a long time now, but attendance for those sessions in the past was light. We kept the content in, because we felt it was important, and now the very same speakers are delivering their sessions to bigger and bigger crowds.

Windows Azure provides a meta-platform for a cross-platform world, and it uses Microsoft technologies to build that meta-platform. What the Visual Studio Live! experience drove home for me is that .NET developers are now consistently targeting client platforms beyond Microsoft; and interestingly, Windows Azure provides them with exactly what they need to do just that.

Devices from Services?
What I've decided is that Microsoft's services play is its devices strategy. It's not a strategy exclusively about Microsoft's device technologies (Windows, Surface and Windows Phone); rather, it's about devices in general. Is that a cop-out? Is it "cheating"? I don't think so. Surface and Windows Phone will likely continue to grow, but even if that happens very slowly, or doesn't happen at all, Microsoft nonetheless has a strategy for devices.

Today's tech market has evolved into one where mobile and cloud are driving things. Devising a meta-platform to accommodate that is what Microsoft is already doing, and should be doing. To the extent that it does so especially well with Windows, .NET and Microsoft developer tools, Microsoft is letting .NET developers work in today's wider technology world, without having to leave home.

What Windows Azure does is take the competitive platform threat from devices and turn it into an asset for its services play. I'm not sure if this is genius or if it's just a case of Microsoft having lemons and making lemonade. It doesn't matter,  though, because it happens to be the right strategy for today's technology landscape.


About the Author

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!

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