Mark Russinovich: How Microsoft is building its cloud future

In an exclusive interview, Mark Russinovich opens the hood of Windows Azure and discusses how IT should prepare for its inevitable cloud transition

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InfoWorld: Speaking of opening up, Azure has been on the leading edge of Microsoft's embrace of open source.

Russinovich: That's true. I came up with a catchphrase for this: the no-excuse cloud. This is also a recognition that came from talking to customers. We'd say: Hey, come to Windows Azure! And they'd say: Wait, I've got some Linux stuff, and I want to put that up in the cloud, too. We don't want that to get in the way, because it's really not about Windows or Linux at that point; it's really about your cloud.

InfoWorld: How crucial are System Center and Windows Server 2012 R2 as a gateway to the Azure cloud?

Russinovich: You've probably heard our Cloud OS pitch. It's connected with the application model, and it's connected with the way that you deploy, manage, and operate applications, whether you want to deploy on-premises or in the cloud. We want to provide a way for you to do that consistently -- create, deploy, manage, and operate those applications.

We see multiple reasons why customers really want this and why it's important for us to deliver it. One is that customers are today saying ... I see the future is the cloud, and I see the future is the cloud app and the kind of cloud model of high availability and scalability. What do I tell my developers today? How do I tell them to write applications so that those applications and their skills that they develop will be useful when that transition happens?

The other reason is they've got two types of applications. They've got applications they want to move to the cloud. This might be a public, customer-facing website, like a marketing website, for example. So they want a model where they can write that today and then move it up to the cloud tomorrow.

They also have the inverse direction, when they're just dipping their toes into the cloud, which is to do dev and test in the cloud. Developers with the self-service of the cloud can just go poof up some virtual machines, test their application, and when it's ready come and deploy it back on-premises using Systems Center.

InfoWorld: Is that a two-way street in terms of technology? When you talk about the Azure fabric controller technology ... how much of that can then be brought back down to Windows Server and System Center on-premises?

Russinovich: Less than we'd like. Many of us, multiple times, have sat down and said: How can we get more synergy between these two? The fact is that one of the benefits of System Center is that it's designed for the heterogeneous on-premises environment. I've got a switch from this guy, I've got a server from this guy, this server looks like this, this one looks like that. What you get out of that is the ability to integrate lots of different hardware from lots of different sources, with topologies that have been organically grown up over time.

When you get to the kinds of scale that Azure needs to operate at, which is hundreds of thousands -- not too far in the future, we'll be at millions of servers -- you have to be hands-off. You can't scale if you've got people involved. And the only way you're going to get scale and hands-off is to have as homogeneous an environment as possible.

You can't have 100 different server types operating on 200 different servers, because they all have unique failure characteristics, unique performance characteristics, unique ways to flash the firmware. The more complexity you introduce by supporting that heterogeneity, the more things are going to go wrong in bizarre ways and require humans to get involved. So the Azure Cloud principle is homogeneity as much as possible.

InfoWorld: I think it speaks to the limitations of retrofitting the "cloud" to existing enterprise infrastructure.

Russinovich: That's exactly the problem. And it's the software management as well. The software says the network looks like this, and it's consistent everywhere. The inverse is: I've got this kind of topology here with the router and a few switches over here and this one has these two routers that are in failover, in a mirror configuration with something else going on over here.

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