Peering into Microsoft's Azure sky

Can Microsoft compete with Amazon, Google, and other rivals in the cloud computing space?

If you research Azure on the Internet, unless you specify "Microsoft" or "cloud computing," you will run smack into all sorts of colorful discussions -- literally. Azure is a bright blue color that, according to Wikipedia, resembles a sky on a bright clear day. Thus, it may seem slightly presumptuous that Microsoft has given its new cloud services operating system the name Azure. It's as if Microsoft Azure is the computing sky that supports your Internet cloud. But naming aside, what is Windows Azure?

First off, what is cloud computing? It's an emerging style of infrastructure that allows companies to utilize the Internet (the "cloud" in cloud computing) for functions such as data storage, security, and enterprise applications. And you can implement the structure both internally or externally (which is conceptually similar to the way you might have an external Web server or an Intranet Web server). Visualize with cloud computing that data storage and software as a service (SaaS) relies on the Internet to hide from a user or company the underlying structure and worries that a normal set of applications and internal networks hold. And if you can grasp that, you will see how it will ultimately benefit the enterprise world.

[ For a fuller understanding of cloud computing, please read "What cloud computing really means." | Take a guided tour of four cloud-computing platforms ]

All of this brings us back to Azure. Microsoft, not to be outdone or left behind again (as in the case of virtualization), is providing the Windows Azure Services Platform to host the underlying services that developers can use to build new applications that will run in the cloud. You see, although the user side doesn't have to be aware of the infrastructure in place, there still has to be an infrastructure.

From a developer standpoint, Azure will be an open platform in which developers can build applications using Visual Studio (which is already supported) and a host of third-party tools such as Eclipse, Ruby, PHP, and Python.

The underlying services are very familiar to network admins and they include Live Services, .Net Services, SQL Services, SharePoint Services, and Microsoft Dynamics CRM Services -- all residing on Windows Azure, the cloud services operating system.

In terms of benefits to a business (large or small), just consider how applications that are already based on these concepts are helping. For quite some time now I've been using Google Apps to communicate spreadsheet-oriented data back and forth with colleagues around the globe. We have the application we need and we have universal access through Google. What we don't have is any of the headaches of worrying how or who configured it, who backs it all up, and so forth. So, the benefits of cloud computing are obvious to the end-user.

Where does Microsoft offer a difference to Google and other cloud computing technology? Well, that remains to be seen. Aside from the obvious fact that developers will be comfortable building apps that are based on familiar Microsoft platforms and services (considering the hard work they have already put into creating software for Windows based off of SQL and other Microsoft technology), the benefit to end-users will come in the familiar look and feel of applications -- just being run in the cloud.

But from the administrator's perspective and/or the business decision maker's perspective, this allows for more rapid innovation. It's also a more cost-efficient model being that hosted services and SaaS solutions remove the burden from the administrators. The services are made available on demand and with a pay-as-you-grow model. That is a huge savings and provides flexibility for companies to focus on their core business, not their IT infrastructure.

Microsoft is certainly putting quite a bit behind Azure with a fancy new Web site and resources that are quite helpful. Resources to support developers and decisionmakers are growing with the online site providing the SDKs for developers to work with it, as well as case studies, white papers, videos, datasheets, and more.

Microsoft isn't the only one aiming for the clouds. As mentioned earlier, Google Apps is an impressive SaaS solution that includes messaging (with Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Talk, etc.); collaboration (with Google Docs, Google Video, and Google Sites); and security for on-premise e-mail. IBM has a very solid reputation for providing both the cloud infrastructure as well as the services and applications.

But neither Google, nor IBM, nor even Microsoft are the kings of cloud computing. Who is? Surprisingly enough, it is Amazon. Amazon's Elastic Computing Cloud is the first platform to support Oracle's database platform. Even Microsoft's Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie tips his hat to Amazon in saying, "All of us are going to be standing on Amazon's shoulders."

Well, the one statement Microsoft might be making by calling its product Azure is that it is going to support the clouds rather than be a cloud. For example, the Amazon solution is a proprietary cloud. If you go with a vendor like Amazon to host your technology infrastructure, there is no easy way to pull your infrastructure over to another cloud to back into its own datacenter. There are no standards to moving things around, which is another discussion in and of itself. Padmasree Warrier, CTO at Cisco, says, "How do we create an open environment between cloud, so that I can have some things reside in my cloud and some things in other people's datacenter? A lot of work needs to be done."

Interesting times ahead in the world of cloud computing -- a term that most users aren't even aware of (even if they use Google Apps) but one that may just be the future of computing. In that future, Microsoft doesn't want to be a cloud; it wants to be the whole Azure sky.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.