Microsoft's most significant update to Windows Azure takes the cloud platform to a different level.
Rather than focus on Windows applications and bridging the gap between in-house and cloud-based IT, Microsoft is now offering Azure as on-demand cloud infrastructure. It is analogous to Amazon EC2, supporting both Windows and Linux workloads.
Forrester principal analyst James Staten noted the changes to Azure illustrate point to Microsoft finally joining the mainstream by adding full infrastructure as a service (IaaS), enabling customers to deploy just about anything.
“The new IaaS service is clearly designed with at least surface knowledge of the market leaders, Amazon Web Services, Rackspace and others, and leverages a much more mature Hyper-V as the virtualisation layer."
With Azure now available as cloud-based infrastructure, Microsoft is providing persistent virtual machines, enabling businesses to run their existing Windows and Linux-based applications in the cloud.
Azure powers life sciences research
Bioinformatics company Constellation Technologies, a spin-out from STFC's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), UK and CERN, has been using the Azure cloud to provide the open source CellProfiler software as a cloud service. CellProfiler, developed by the Broad Institute, provides a way for microbiologists to run drug analysis experiments, using a microscope to assess how various compounds affect a disease.
“The idea is to provide a compound that kills the bad stuff and leaves the cells,” said Nick Trigg, CEO of Constellation technologies.
The software takes multiple photographs of petri dishes containing infected living cells to analyse the effects of different compounds.
“You end up with 120,000 images. CellProfiler analyses this one image at a time.”
Constellation adapted the CellProfiler code to enable the processing to run on 16 instances of Azure, enabling researchers to parallelise the image analysis.
This means the tests can run in 1.5 hours, compared with a week.
Microsoft pushes "open" Azure
Bill Hilf, general manager of the Windows Azure platform at Microsoft, describes the update to Azure as the biggest release of new Azure features since its inception two years ago.
"Our strategy is to provide an open platform for any developer, whether they are in open source or a commercial software developer," said Hilf.
Open source support is not limited to Ubuntu and openSuSE, the Linux distributions that run in the Microsoft cloud. It has also extended database support from its own Windows Azure SQL database to support MySQL. Microsoft is supporting the Hadoop big data platform and is providing a plug-in for MongoDB, the NoSQL database.
Microsoft is contributing directly to the open source Hadoop community. Hilf said the technology in Hadoop will be significant with the adoption of big data.
Traditionally, Microsoft has offered Azure as a platform as a service (PaaS) cloud.
Hilf said: "Platform as a service represents high-level APIs. Developers want choices, from the highest level of a platform service, to taking full control of the operating system."
He claimed Microsoft's approach is about giving developers choice, so they understand the economics of cloud computing.
Microsoft’s support of open source goes further. It is providing libraries for Java and Python, in addition to support for .net, PHP and Node.js. Updated language libraries are made available under open source licenses.
Microsoft has also said it is supporting Eclipse, the open source development framework. The updated Windows Azure software developer’s kit includes new command-line tools that Microsoft said work on Mac or Linux operating systems.
Microsoft’s decision to offer Linux virtual machines on Azure, could bridge academic research (such as in life sciences) – that favour open source tools – with commercial organisations, where Windows is dominant.
Linking open source and Windows communities
Nick Trigg is CEO Constellation Technologies, a bioinformatics company which provides data analysis tools to support research in life sciences.
He said: “Historically, there has been a chasm between Linux and Windows.”
Trigg said that, in his experience, Linux in academia is used by command-line experts and PhD students.
There is a substantial amount of scientific data in academia, such as the research to understand the human genome. And a lot of this data sits in a Linux environment.
“To enable industry to use this data, you need to link Windows and Linux,” said Trigg.
He said the fact that Azure will now provide a way to host Linux virtual machines represents a big step forward in bridging the largely Linux-based academic domain with industry.
Azure will drive Windows cloud adoption
Yefim Natis, principal analyst at Gartner, believes the Azure cloud infrastructure will drive traditional Windows users to the cloud. “Microsoft is trying to get back all the business Amazon has been winning,” he explained. “Once Microsoft proves its environment works well, I expect people will move to Azure. But it will depend on pricing.”
Although Microsoft is pre-packaging Ubuntu openSUSE to run on Azure cloud infrastructure, Natis said Azure will actually be able to run anything that currently runs that runs on. He said, “People will be able to deploy applications on Windows, the Oracle database, Hadoop, middleware software, and platform software.”
Previously users had to rewrite Windows .net applications if they wanted to deploy on the Azure cloud. With Azure infrastructure as a service, he said, businesses will be able to run their existing .net applications on Azure without modification. However, to take full advantage of cloud computing, he said IT departments would need to redevelop code on the Azure platform.