Microsoft attempts to cement Azure values at TechEd Atlanta

"Cloud Power Delivered" is the subtitle of this year's Microsoft TechEd conference, held in Atlanta and attended by around 10,000 IT professionals and developers. Tim Anderson reports from the event.

"Cloud Power Delivered" is the subtitle of this year's Microsoft TechEd conference, held in Atlanta and attended by around 10,000 IT professionals and developers. Tim Anderson reports from the event.

In Microsoft's terminology, cloud computing includes both Windows Azure, its platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offering, and private clouds formed by servers on virtual machines (VMs) managed by the forthcoming System Center Virtual Machine Manger (SCVMM) 2012, set for release in the second half of 2011.

The new SCVMM can manage virtual servers deployed on VMware and Citrix XenServer as well as Microsoft's own Hyper-V. Features called dynamic optimisation and power optimisation enable load balancing, through clustering and live migration of VMs, and shutting down or starting up VMs dynamically as demand varies.

Microsoft's use of cloud terminology is confusing because the System Center solution is not a private version of Azure but something different. That said, there are integration points, the most significant being single sign-on between on-premise and Azure-hosted applications through Active Directory Federation Services, which enables Azure to authenticate users against an internal Active Directory. Another piece is Azure Connect, currently in preview, an agent that enables secure connectivity between on-premise servers and Azure.

Further confusing matters, Microsoft also intends to deliver Windows Azure Platform Appliance, which lets you run a version of Azure in your own datacentre. A forthcoming portal codenamed "Concero" will let admins manage both System Center and Azure deployments.

Azure updates

At Tech-Ed Microsoft announced several updates to Azure. The first set, available now as a preview, is focused on AppFabric, middleware services built into the platform. Service Bus Queues add reliable message queuing to the existing Azure service bus. There is built-in detection of duplicate messages, which means messages can be safely resent if necessary. Another new feature is publish and subscribe messaging, using either a REST protocol for best interoperability, or a duplex TCP protocol focused on performance.

Microsoft announced further new features which will be available for preview in June. The thinking behind them is that Azure applications which make use of its middleware services are really a composite of several applications, such as a web presentation layer calling several web services, plus other elements dealing with access control and data management.

To support this approach, the June preview adds a visual composition tool for Visual Studio that lets you combine these elements and compile them into a single package for deployment. A new Application Manager portal will let admins configure and deploy the package, and then monitor and manage the application after deployment. For example, you might vary the number of VMs or change the way caching is configured.

Slow adoption

Windows Azure has been commercially available since February 2010, but despite Microsoft's strong focus at TechEd, the pace of adoption seems slow. According to a small survey at TechEd, only around 25% of Azure users are deploying live applications, with the majority experimenting with trials or using it to test applications.

Redmonk analyst Michael Coté says slow adoption is not for technical reasons. "Technologically, Azure is pretty complete in trems of features and the implied promise of a path between existing .Net and cloud-.Net is huge for Microsoft. I find that the problems come up with enterprises just being resistant to so much change. I see many developers using infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) to build new applications (on the ISV side and to an extent the enterprise side), but I rarely hear about them using PaaS.

"At the moment, supplier interest is higher than developers'. The promises of PaaS are alluring - integrating with the full Visual Studio toolchain, for example. But developers seem leery of ceding control of their middleware and below over to a supplier (a PaaS provider). I think they are happy with what they have and have not found the motivation yet to think poorly of IaaS. It will probably come soon though."

Azure success stories

That said, there are early adopters who are pleased with Azure. "I was responsible for migrating my company to Azure last year, and we have been very happy with it. For one thing, I don't get called in the middle of the night any more. In over six months, we have had only 20 minutes of down time," says Robin Hall, director of engineering at US company GoldMail. His company chose Azure because of the integration between the Visual Studio development environment and the platform, along with its scalability.

Delegates at the TechEd event also heard how the travel company Travelocity is using Azure to host a Java application that performs customer analytics. Although it has its own datacentres, by using Azure Travelocity avoided having to purchase new servers or risk overloading its existing systems. "We decided to host the application in the cloud to divert the collection of information away from our on-premises data center," says Ramon Resma, principal software architect. "Because we needed the application running in such a short period of time, it was the perfect scenario for a cloud solution."

Despite these examples, a common reaction to Azure among IT professionals at TechEd is that they do not need it because their companies are already well equipped with IT resources, bearing out Coté's remarks above. Microsoft's Azure evangelists still have work to do.

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