TechEd 2013's sleeper hits: Windows Azure, Windows 8.1, and Exchange

Microsoft brought out the marquee names in 2012, but don't overlook the gems among this year's announcements

Given the number of items Microsoft announced last year across the Windows OS, Windows Server (including Exchange), and Visual Studio product lines, I expected this year's TechEd conference to be fairly boring. It's true that the announcements this week at Microsoft's annual customer conference aren't rocking the industry, but there are treasures to be found in the nuances.

For example, in one session on Exchange 2013, Microsoft announced that the next cumulative update (CU2) coming this quarter for the Enterprise edition will allow for 100 mounted databases per server. That's a welcome enhancement from Exchange 2013's current limit of 50, essentially reversing the reduction from Exchange 2010's limit of 100. Microsoft also says Exchange 2013 CU2 may let you use Azure as your witness server in a cross-site database availability group. Neither feature will knock everyone's socks off, but they'll make admins' lives easier.

[ Paul Krill reports: Microsoft rushes out early-bird release of Visual Studio 2013. | Stay atop key Microsoft technologies in our Technology: Microsoft newsletter. ]

Microsoft's continued shift of IT to the cloud
Of broader import were Microsoft's announcement of the upcoming releases of hybrid cloud versions of several servers: Windows Server 2012 R2, System Center 2012 R2, Windows Intune, and SQL Server 2014. They're key steps into realizing Microsoft's "cloud OS" vision that extends the data center -- and ultimately moves much of it -- into the public cloud.

Speaking of hybrid clouds, there was quite a bit of information on Microsoft's Windows Azure cloud platform worth noting. Many IT organizations dislike Azure's cost structure for dev and test, so Microsoft has tweaked pricing in a way that should reduce that frustration by:

  • Eliminating charges for stopped VMs
  • Billing by the minute (no more rounding up!)
  • Supporting MSDN usage rights
  • Providing heavily discounted MSDN dev/test rates
  • Providing MSDN monetary credits, with portal support for tracking their usage

Microsoft also unveiled a new Windows Azure Pack for Windows Server, which includes tools to help administrators and organizations offer their own in-house services as cloud services, as well as bridge management of in-house resources with Azure-based resources.

Vendors are also jumping on the Azure bandwagon. One that caught my eye at TechEd was Kemp Technologies, which will offer load balancing with Azure. Azure's load balancing today is -- to be blunt -- lame due to its many limitations. Kemp is working on a virtual load balancer that you upload to your Azure cloud to provide Layer 7 load balancing, health checking, SSL offloading, SSL termination and bridging, content switching, and client-to-server affinity -- none of which is available through Azure load balancing. We'll see more and more of these kinds of Azure-oriented offerings in the months and years to follow.

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