Cloud computing takes centre stage with Windows Azure

Channel 9 man watching PDC onlineI wasn’t planning any major PDC coverage on the blog this week (there will be plenty of that elsewhere) but I did catch the PDC keynote today. It was the first time I’ve seen Ray Ozzie present and I was impressed – none of the Ballmer madness, or the Gates geekiness. Instead, over two hours, backed up with key executives from throughout Microsoft, Ozzie gave a calm and inspiring presentation which in which we finally found out some of the detail behind where Microsoft is heading – and how software plus services is going to transform Windows.

Windows Azure logoToday’s keynote was focused on the back-end – the platform which will be needed to run our datacentres in a world of cloud computing and key points that I picked up on were:

  • Most enterprise computing architectures have been designed for inward-facing solutions whilst the reach and scope is expanding as part of the “the externalisation of IT”. Regardless of the industry, the web has become a key demand generation mechanism – “every organisation’s front door” – and companies now need to serve external users.
  • Software development and operations have become intertwined – developers and IT professionals need to jointly learn how to design, build and develop systems.
  • Organisations over-engineer infrastructure to ensure that there is sufficient capacity (computing, storage, network, power) with multiple datacentres for continuity and the complexity that this introduces.
  • The world of the web needs a different approach to designing a platform. Microsoft has many systems that serve millions of users worldwide – and has used the common expertise from this experience to shape its cloud computing strategy and package Microsoft’s own experiences from managing the externalisation of IT:
    • Tier 1 is experience: the PC on the desk or the phone in your pocket
    • Tier 2 is enterprise: back end infrastructure hosting systems – with the scale of the enterprise.
    • Tier 3 is externally facing: the web tier of computing – with the scale of the web and is named Windows Azure – a new service based operating environment for the cloud.
  • Azure is Windows so it will remain familiar and developer-friendly but it also needs to be different. Rather than being rooted in a scale-up model, it embraces new model-based methods for a world of horizontal scale.
  • It is a service – not software. It is being released as a CTP today, with initial features that are just a fraction of where it will be going. Designed for iteration and continuous improvements and as the system scales out, Microsoft will bring more and more of its own services onto Azure.
  • The platform includes Windows Live Services, .NET Services, SQL Services, SharePoint Services and Dynamics CRM Service.

Windows Azure Services Platform

Amitabh Srivastava, Corporate Vice President for cloud infrastructure services, explained that:

  • The original Windows NT architect, Dave Cutler, is the kernel man behind Windows Azure. Kernels don’t demonstrate well but a good kernel allows others to build killer apps.
  • Windows Azure is an operating system for the cloud – it manages entire global datacentre infrastructure – and provides a layer of abstraction to ease the programming burden.
  • A fabric controller maintains the health of the service. When a service is changed, specify desired end state and the fabric manages services, not just servers. Windows Azure is based on a service model, with roles and groups, channels and endpoints, interfaces, and configuration settings – all stored as XML for manipulation with any tool.
  • When deploying toWindows Azure, there are two things for a developer to provide:
    • The code for a service.
    • A service model defining architecture to guide fabric controller to automatically manage the lifecycle of the application.
  • Windows Azure provides 24×7 availability, with all components built to be highly available under varying loads with no user intervention. This allows a highly available service to be provided using the Azure subsystem, orchestrated by the fabric and deveopers can concentrate on the business application logic.
  • Existing tools transfer to the cloud and Windows Azure works with managed and native code. Steve Marx demonstrated new cloud templates in Visual Studio using standard ASP.NET development skills to create a “hello cloud” application. The cloud may be simulated in an offline scenario so there is no need to deploy an application to the cloud in order to test its functionality.
  • Publishing involves repackaging the application for deployment and using the Windows Azure Developer Portal to create a hosted service with a friendly DNS name, supplying the package and configuration files.
  • Windows Azure is an open platform with a command line interface, REST protocols and XML file formats, as well as managed code support – making it easy to integrate with other platforms.
  • In summary, Windows Azure is an operating system for the cloud, providing scalable hosting, automated service management, and a familiar developer experience for enterprise and hobbiests alike.

Bob Muglia, Senior Vice President for server and tools, spoke of a next generation, services platform looking back at the various models used over the years:

  • Monolithic – 1970s mainframes.
  • Client server – 1980s PC revolution.
  • Web – a new generation of Internet and intranet applications developed in the 1990s.
  • SOA – the web services used today, communicating over standard protocols (web services or REST).
  • Services – going forward, building on web and SOA but with improved scalability.

He went on to discuss: 

  • A new product (codenamed Geneva) which provides a link between Active Directory and cloud services.
  • System Center Atlanta – a portal to provide administrators with access to information about their systems in the cloud – connecting on-premise SCOM to Azure databases using a service bus.
  • Knowledge and skills transfer between on-premise enterprise computing and cloud-based architectures and of how Microsoft is working with partners to take Azure developments and incorporate them into Windows Server, SQL Server etc., so the industry can provide its own Azure services.
  • A next generation modelling platform (codenamed Oslo) which enables consistency between IT and developer processes (built on previous dynamic IT developments) using a new language called M.

Muglia summarised by pointing out that, at a previous PDC in 1992, Windows NT was introduced and it now has a huge presence. As services become more broadly used, Microsoft expects Azure to have the same sort of impact. Dave Thompson, Corporate Vice President for Microsoft Online, spoke of how:

  • Customers with strong IT staff and discipline find it straightforward to deploy software but many others see IT as a frustrating burden – essential but not core to their business.
  • Microsoft Online provides enterprise class software as a subscription service, hosted by Microsoft and sold with partners.
  • In the future all Microsoft enterprise software will optionally be delivered as an online service.
  • Software plus services provides the power of choice. Generally, enterprises don’t want all cloud services, or all on-premise computing but a hybrid must be seamless and easy for administrators – federated identity is one challenge and extensibility is another.
  • With Windows Azure, IT administrators manage Active Directory as they do now and the Microsoft services connector links into the cloud, to the Microsoft federation gateway. Users use the federation gateway but do not know if the service they access is on-premise or in the cloud.
  • Extensibility is facilitated with the integration of online services with on-premise servers, sharing and accessing shared data using a variety of flexible presentation methods. Windows Azure components in business applications allow services to be extended as required.

Ray Ozzie returned to the stage to wrap up Microsoft’s view of the software plus services world. He was very clear in explaining once more that Windows Azure is a community technology preview and that there will be no charges for its use during preview period. As the service moves closer to commercial release, Microsoft will unlock access to more and more capabilities and the business model at launch will be based on a combination of resource consumption and service level.

I really do hope that Windows Azure does not pass the way of previous efforts to provide online services for enterprises (Microsoft Passport was supposed to be the solution for web services authentication) but I have a feeling it will not. Google, Amazon and others have proved the demand for cloud computing but Microsoft has a credible hybrid model, with a mixture of on-premise and services-led software access.

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