Microsoft's Cloud, Part 2: Windows Azure

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At this morning’s PDC keynote, Microsoft introduced a platform of the future: Windows Azure. While the implications of what this means may be somewhat lost on non-technical consumers, I.T. folks and developers just felt the ground shift beneath their feet. This is the future of the cloud.

What’s Azure?

Windows Azure is actually the cloud OS that serves as the "development, run-time, and control environment" for the Azure Services Platform. The platform enables developers to build, host, scale, and deploy web applications in the cloud. These can be consumer-level web apps (like Bluehoo, which was demonstrated today) or they can be enterprise applications.

Azure isn’t simply Microsoft’s answer to either Amazon’s EC2 nor Google App Engine - it’s a step up from both of those. Ray Ozzie acknowledged Amazon’s contributions in his keynote address, saying “all of us are going to be standing on their shoulders.” That's a great way of describing Azure, because it's really more than just a Microsoft-flavored version of EC2. Windows Azure is both a true cloud OS (a datacenter OS) and a platform which is more like the PaaS competitor to App Engine or Bungee Connect.

What’s Azure Made Of?

The key components of the Azure Services Platform include the following:

•    Windows Azure for service hosting and management, low-level scalable storage, computation and networking
•    Microsoft SQL Services for a wide range of database services and reporting
•    Microsoft .NET Services which are service-based implementations of familiar .NET Framework concepts such as workflow and access control
•    Live Services for a consistent way for users to store, share and synchronize documents, photos, files and information across their PCs, phones, PC applications and Web sites
•    Microsoft SharePoint Services and Microsoft Dynamics CRM Services for business content, collaboration and rapid solution development in the cloud



For Developers:

The difference between Azure’s platform and something like Google’s App Engine is that it lets developers leverage their existing Microsoft skills, if they so desire. In other words, if you know Visual Studio, congratulations – you can now build in Azure, too. You don’t need to learn a new skill set to build apps for the cloud.

In addition, Azure’s open platform supports other standards like SOAP, REST, and XML so it can support both Microsoft and non-Microsoft languages and environments. It’s the best of both worlds.

Azure, simply

For I.T. Admins:

For I.T. admins wanting to extend existing internal services to the cloud, Azure also mirrors skills they know and understand too. For example, if an Azure-powered enterprise app needs to use an identity service for authentication, it can, via Active Directory. I.T. admins can use Active Directory behind the firewall as usual, but by integrating it with Azure’s Windows Services Connector, that data can also be utilized on the other side of the firewall, too…in an Azure-powered cloud application.


However, Azure goes much further than just extending identity and authentication to the cloud – that’s just a small example of its power. Azure can also integrate with existing software applications an I.T. department may run internally for their end users and extend those to the cloud. Using the industry standard protocols like SOAP, REST, and XML, an internal app can be cloud-enabled even if it used to only run on a PC or server within an organization. So imagine, your internal app running now on Windows Server 2008 can now run on the cloud on the cloud OS, Windows Azure.

Azure can also transform a web application a company uses and open it up to additional functionality. Via Live Services integration, Azure can delver your web app to over 460 million Live users, for example. Azure’s integration with .NET services allow for workflow, access control, or service bus functionality and integration with SQL Services let Azure access a cloud database.

Azure Makes I.T. Dynamic

Enterprises already running internal systems like Exchange and SharePoint, can use Azure in addition to their existing servers. Through Microsoft Online Services, Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online, Office Communications Online and Office Live Meeting can be used to complement the services already used in-house.

A smaller shop might just choose to deploy Online Services only, instead of using internal systems. And as the smaller company grows, scaling is dynamic and no longer has to involve painstaking hours of building and deploying server after server, thanks to Azure. Instead, the business can focus on the applications and initiatives specific to their environment, not the day-to-day complexities of I.T....I.T. simply becomes a commodity.


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