What Microsoft Azure means to corporate IT

After years of planning, Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie has delivered the foundation for Microsoft's future - a technology that allows Windows applications to run either in the cloud or in-house.

After years of planning, Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie has delivered the foundation for Microsoft's future - a technology that allows Windows applications to run either in the cloud or in-house.

The Azure platform was unveiled at Microsoft's annual Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles. Azure aims to give users choice by providing a common programming model which allows them to run systems in-house or in the cloud. It is made up of a cloud database service, SQL Azure and Windows Azure, an application development platform.

Speaking at the PDC, Ozzie said, "Customers want choice and flexibility in how they develop and deploy applications. We are moving into an era of solutions that are experienced by users across PCs, phones and the web, and that are delivered from datacentres we refer to as private clouds and public clouds."

Some commentators believe Microsoft has the breadth and depth to succeed with Azure, even though it is arguably late into the cloud market. The reason why Windows has become a de facto standard is because it provides a unified platform for developing and running applications. With Azure, Microsoft is effectively extending the Windows application programming model to cloud computing. As a blogger on the Rational Survivability blog said, "Azure will be the platform for products, solutions and services across all media from Redmond moving forward."

Azure is attracting strong interest from developers. On the CloudBuzz blog, one developer attending the PDC said, "There are packed sessions of enterprise developers and ISVs [independent software vendors] who are genuinely excited about moving their Windows workloads to the cloud. Azure is not targeted towards the big SaaS/Web 2.0/Facebook application crowd. Instead, Microsoft is going after the enterprise users who drive the bulk of spending in the tech market."

Some experts question whether Microsoft will be committed to cloud computing, given that Azure has the potential to cannibalise its existing software licence revenue streams. However, Ovum senior analyst Michael Azoff sees no evidence of Microsoft holding back on cloud computing. He said, "Recent products like Exchange, Windows 7 and Windows Sever 2008 R2 all have cloud computing services built-in. Moreover, Azure gives Microsoft a strong focus for Windows developers." In theory, it supports a new generation of Windows applications that are capable of running in house or in an enterprise cloud.

Google and Amazon web services are the most obvious cloud platform alternatives to Azure. Google appears to offer the closest match to Azure for cloud services and cloud applications, while Amazon is more focused on providing software infrastructure in the cloud.

The PDC shows that Microsoft has a strong partner programme. While Google is building its regional presence, Microsoft has well-established country offices, with local account management teams able to support user businesses and software companies that plan to develop on Azure.

This will become an important factor as more users try to understand how cloud computing can work within their own organisations.

Bola Rotibi, principal analyst at MWD Advisors, said, "Many organisations are likely to struggle with implementing cloud-based services, not only because of technical challenges, but also architecture and planning questions need to be addressed."

Azure may have been a long time coming, but it is set to change the IT landscape by offering a way to move Windows into the cloud.

Case study: easyJet

Budget airline EasyJet is planning to use Microsoft Azure to allow its ground staff to upgrade customers' seats or pay for excess baggage from mobile terminals.

EasyJet will use a virtual private network based on 3G or Wi-Fi to plug mobile devices into the Azure cloud on the internet.

Azure provides the link from the internet into the datacentre. Bert Craven, enterprise architect at EasyJet, said, "Azure will provide a thin but very important tier in the overall architecture.

"It will make our services visible to devices scattered across Europe in a secure, reliable and cost-effective way."

Azure will also simplify the roll-out of new application services and a revamped version of easyJet.com, due to go live in the next month.

"The great benefit Azure provides us is that we can take these services and expose them on the Azure Service Bus with little more than a configuration change. We won't have to build a new high-availability service platform in our DMZ, or make firewall configuration changes or deploy lots of new servers," said Craven.

Built on Azure, the project, known as Halo, will ultimately help easyJet reduce the number of airport desks it needs to run, which will lower operating costs.

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