Microsoft Aims for the Clouds With Windows Azure

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Oct 29, 2008

Paul Rubens
8.36 am, October 26, 2008. Ray Ozzie unveils Microsoft's Azure cloud computing platform during his keynote at PDC. Within seconds, Azure gains sentience and wages war on the entire human race. Judgment Day.

OS Roundup: As the changing paradigm of cloud computing renders Microsoft's desktop operating system model less relevant, the company is attempting to adapt. Will its final destination be cloud nine or the blues?

That's a slight exaggeration of the facts. What really happened on Monday at the Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles was that Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software architect, finally spelled out how the company plans to prosper in a connected world where its desktop operating system and productivity suite cash cows are looking increasingly less relevant. The answer is Azure (not Strata, as many commentators had predicted — who says Apple is the only one who can keep a secret?).

But what on earth is Azure? The latest Windows operating system for the cloud? A services platform? A service running on a vast number of machines in data centers initially in the United States? The kernel of Microsoft's cloud platform? How about a scalable hosting environment? Confusingly, it was called all of those things at various points during the keynote.

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Actually, Ozzie first mentioned it like this: "Windows Azure is a new Windows offering at the web tier of computing."

"Offering"! It's a tell-tale sign that Microsoft doesn't really know what to call Azure when the best it can come up with is "offering." Still, it was announced to applause, and Ozzie then went on to outline his grand vision of The Road Ahead. "We are now setting the stage for the next 50 years ... We are laying the groundwork ... designed for a world of horizontal scale ... most economical and most environmentally friendly ... designed for iteration," yadda, yadda, yadda, before ending with a gentle let down: "hosting services in the cloud."

Is that it? Azure is just Microsoft copying Amazon and its Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2)?

To be fair to Ozzie, he was big enough to acknowledge Amazon for its pioneering work in offering cloud services. "I tip my hat," he said. "All of us will be standing on their shoulders," he went on, paraphrasing the saying "Dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants."

Sounds better than "Redmond giants standing on the shoulders of amazons," I suppose.

It's actually not surprising Microsoft is leaping into the cloud. Google's cloud-based office, its cloud-based e-mail services and its Chrome Web browser threaten Microsoft simply by providing alternatives to its desktop-based products, while Amazon has been patiently building up its cloud service. Until now Microsoft has just been dipping its toe in the cloud, so to speak. I've been wondering what on earth Microsoft's "software and services" mantra was meant to mean for the past year or two. Surely a rebadged Hotmail and a rather dodgy and ineffective OneCare anti-virus solution wasn't it?

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Up to now there has been no coherent cloud strategy from Microsoft. Only last week Jim Zemlin, the executive director of the Linux Foundation, commented on this absence. Talking to The Register's Gavin Clarke, Zemlin said: "Hosted software, clustering, high performance computing, call it cloud computing or whatever you want, I think that is an area that Microsoft is very weak," adding "they are late to the party ... Linux has a head start and while Microsoft will have an offering there, I think they've got a long way to catch up."

The announcement of Azure indicates Microsoft has finally arrived at the party, and being Microsoft there's no doubt it expects to waltz right in, have a dance with all the prettiest girls, and then take a seat at the head of the table and help itself to a very large slice of the cake.

But Zemlin thinks (or should that be "hopes"?) Microsoft won't have it all its own way. He believes what's held Microsoft back is poor price/performance, as well as the fact that its source code is closed — unlike, say, Linux. What people need, Zemlin contests, is "the ability to be able to modify code in these large computing environments. People who offer them at scale want to be able to make modifications to their system in a very deep way."

The problem for Zemlin is that although Linux is an operating system, Azure is a *something* offered by Microsoft, one of the biggest and most powerful companies in the world. And when it comes to cloud computing, branding is very important, indeed. You'd probably trust Amazon with your Web 2.0 start-up, but would you bet your multi-billion dollar business on a bookseller? As Azure develops over the coming months and years, you can be sure plenty of companies will be willing to put their applications in the cloud, if it's in a Microsoft data center running Microsoft Azure software, with Microsoft standing behind it.

Is that all this is about? Hell yes. And some day it's going to be huge.

Paul Rubens is an IT consultant and journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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