The TechEd takeaway: Microsoft is betting big on the cloud

Major updates unveiled at TechEd make it clear that Microsoft's enterprise emphasis is now on cloud services

Microsoft held a coming-out party of sorts this week to celebrate its transformation from a software company to a services company. Microsoft wants to be known as the best cloud for the enterprise, and the sweeping slate of updates to core products unveiled at TechEd 2013 -- including Windows Server 2012 R2, System Center 2012 R2, SQL Server 2014, and Visual Studio 2013 -- are aimed at that vision.

In an internal email to Microsoft employees, Satya Nadella, president of the Server & Tools unit, made clear that going forward, Microsoft's enterprise emphasis is in cloud services:

Two years ago, we placed a very central bet on Windows Azure inside our Server & Tools business. ... We've had to go from being a software company to being a services company that's running this 24/7 operation on a global scale, supporting most of Microsoft's own first-party services, from Skype to Bing to Office 365, and now even Xbox One. Our strategy is to not only run this 24/7 Windows Azure service, but to take all of that learning and make it available in our server products.

One of the new products announced this week, Windows Azure Pack, essentially delivers a private cloud in a box. The collection of Windows Azure technologies runs inside an enterprise's data center and integrates with System Center and Windows Server. Azure Pack's tools will allow organizations to offer their own in-house services as cloud services, as well as bridge management of in-house resources with Azure-based resources, according to corporate vice president Brad Anderson. It includes a customizable self-service portal that lets users manage the IT for their projects; a management portal; tools for high-density hosting of applications on a single server as well as for managing configurations of user systems; a virtual machines service; and service bus support.

Meanwhile, Microsoft continues to revamp pricing for Azure Web services in its ongoing battle with Amazon Web Services. At TechEd, Microsoft announced Azure will no longer charge for stopped virtual machines. Translation: When a customer is no longer using a machine, billing ceases as well. Before, customers had to delete the virtual machine in order to halt the charges. In addition, billing will now be charged by the minute rather than rounding up to the hour. The new rates will be especially cost effective for development testing that requires an ever-shifting range of resources, said Scott Guthrie, Microsoft's Azure vice president.

The company also extended the capabilities of Windows Server 2012 and System Center 2012 R2, the basis for Microsoft's "Cloud OS," to make them work more seamlessly with Azure cloud services. "You can think of all these products as being Azure-powered. We're bringing the experience, code and design from Azure to our on-premise products," said Brad Anderson, corporate vice president of Windows Server and System Center. The list of new features in Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V alone is extensive -- InfoWorld's slideshow covers 10 of the most notable.

Joab Jackson catalogs the improvements to the Windows Server OS, including the following:

... capabilities to copy applications and data on the server to Microsoft Azure, or to other service providers' Azure implementations. The OS will also facilitate a way to replicate Hyper-V virtual machines on Azure. Also helping with cloud deployments is Windows Server 2012 R2's new capabilities in storage tiering, which allows administrators to establish different levels of storage. This feature could be handy in using storage more cost-effectively, by providing an easy way to store the most essential data on the fastest storage devices, while squirreling away the less consulted data on less expensive disks.

Microsoft is also better integrating SQL Server 2014 with Azure. The company underscored at TechEd how much easier it is for users of the RDMS to work with the new Azure-based backup and replication services. SQL Server Management Studio will include an option to periodically back up a database to the Azure blob storage, and an administrator can configure a secondary live copy of SQL Server on Azure. "So every time a transaction is committed on Azure, it is committed on premise," said Eron Kelly, Microsoft SQL Server general manager. The data is copied asynchronously, so performance of the primary database will not be slowed waiting to complete the backup.

The next version of Microsoft's relational database management system also promises to greatly speed online transaction processing. SQL Server 2014 will come with a new in-memory OLTP engine built with Microsoft's Heckaton technologies. "In Microsoft labs, Hekaton has been shown to cut transaction times by 50 times, and customers who have tried early versions of the technology have found a 16-fold percent improvement in performance," Kelly said.

On the developer side, Microsoft rushed out an early-bird release of Visual Studio 2013, with general release expected at the end of the year. Just last month Microsoft released new tools to make it easier to publish Windows Azure websites within Visual Studio, as well as new support for managing those websites through the Visual Studio Server Explorer. Another new feature enabled users to stream an Azure website's application logs directly into Visual Studio, so it's easier to debug the site when it's running in the cloud.

There was a lot to digest with Microsoft's TechEd announcements. Nadella boasted of Azure's 200,000-plus users and "a thousand customers added on any given day," but competition still abounds from providers such as Amazon, Rackspace, IBM, and VMware.

This article, "The TechEd takeaway: Microsoft is betting big on the cloud," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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