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Summary:

Microsoft’s ambitious Windows Azure cloud platform just turned four. Here’s how it’s doing, according to Gigaom Research analyst Janakiram MSV.

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Windows Azure has come a long way since it launched just over four years ago. Windows Azure Media Services are serving up the Sochi Winter Olympics to millions of people even as I write this. Last year Azure snagged the FedRAMP seal, certifying it for use in U.S. government work. these are all signs of progress.

It’s fair to say that Microsoft’s first Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) iteration of Azure left many cold, and thousands of startups and developers flocked instead to Amazon Web Services’ more fundamental Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS). Many of those who were in the market for PaaS opted for Engine Yard, Google App Engine or Heroku, as Gigaom Research analyst Janakiram MSV noted in his recent, comprehensive take on Azure’s status (registration required.)

Windows Azure on the upswing

Here are some of MSV’s takeaways (full disclosure — he has worked at both AWS and Microsoft in the past), but please check out the full report for more.

Embrace of open-source languages and tools

Eclipse, MySQL Node.js, Git and even Linux were all brought into the Azure fold to help attract non-.NET developers. MSV also gives a ton of credit to Scott Guthrie, the Microsoft corporate VP who, among other things “killed the old management portal built using his favorite technology, Silverlight, in favor of a simpler HTML5 portal.”

Jumping on the IaaS bandwagon

Instead of bifurcating IaaS from PaaS as Google did with Google App Engine and Google Compute Engine, Microsoft extended Azure to include IaaS capabilities by working around limitations of its PaaS. For one thing, it expanded its “stateless VM Role architecture to support persistence and other key IaaS capabilities.”

Believing in hybrid

I’m not sure Microsoft had much choice but to push hybrid cloud given the huge Windows Server installed base in corporate server rooms, but it looks like a good move now. AWS’ Achilles heel is the perception that it’s all-public-cloud-all-the-time (Amazon’s private CIA cloud notwithstanding.) Startups may love the idea of spinning up virtual machines in a public cloud, but companies with key intellectual property and the need to comply with regulatory requirements are loath to put all that stuff out in shared infrastructure. For them, a pairing of private and public cloud in a hybrid model seen as is the way forward.

Microsoft corporate VP Scott Guthrie

Microsoft Corporate VP Scott Guthrie

There’s still work to do

Now onto the negative side of the ledger sheet: Here are some things Microsoft needs to address in Azure.

Performance, performance, performance

Windows Azure Infrastructure Services “lacks the concept of block storage,” which is usually needed to support persistence — the notion that the underlying app or data will survive if memory is disrupted.  Update: Microsoft works around this by providing persistence through object storage — the persistent disks are stored as objects on Azure Storage, basically the equivalent to Amazon S3. But, MSV writes that the “lack of storage-optimized VMs, SSDs and provisioned IOPS” remain major limitations for Windows Azure.

The Red Hat gap

Yes, Azure supports Linux — if that Linux happens to be Ubuntu or SUSE. But Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is conspicuously absent from this list. While that is apparently more about Red Hat’s reluctance to embrace Azure than a lack of effort by Microsoft to get it aboard, it remains a big problem for Microsoft. For many customers running SAP or Oracle enterprise software, RHEL is Linux. Given Microsoft’s corporate focus, this lack of certification or support is a problem.

Summing up

The knock on Windows Azure by those who have fully embraced AWS is that while Microsoft took years to come out with IaaS capabilities, Amazon has churned out feature enhancements and price cuts over and over again. But again, Amazon’s core user base has, up until now, been startups and individual developers rather than slower, more conservative corporations and big businesses. It could be that Windows Azure has hit its stride at the perfect time for those businesses to move to cloud.

 

Note: This story was updated at 11:13 a.m. PST to clarify how Azure storage deals with persistence.

  1. – Windows Azure Infrastructure Services “lacks the concept of block storage,” which is usually needed to support persistence — the notion that the underlying app or data will survive if memory is disrupted.

    This is incorrect. OS and Data Disks for Windows Azure Virtual Machines (IaaS) are persisted in Windows Azure Storage and consequently survive instance failure and deallocation. Only the temporary disk is physically attached to the instance.

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    1. I was just chatting w/ MSV to clarify this point at his suggestion. thanks for the comment.

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  2. The use of the Windows Azure Storage Service to provide persistent storage for Virtual Machine disks is no more a “work around” than is the use of EBS by AWS.

    The Windows Azure Storage Service supports two types of blob: block and page. Block Blobs are intended for storage of individual files in a manner similar to S3. Page Blobs provide random read-write access to individual pages and were specifically designed to provide the backing store for VHDs mounted/attached to VMs, and therefore resemble EBS volumes NOT S3.

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  3. There seem to be a few misconceptions in this article. As Neil mentioned above, Azure does provide block storage and it’s not a work around at all. Quite the opposite – in fact it was designed deliberately on top of Azure Blob storage for various technical reasons and provides various benefits as a result. You can gain deeper insights on this by watching some of the Azure Internals talks delivered by Mark Russinovich when they first announced their IaaS platform.

    Also the IO performance is delivered via their Azure storage service as opposed to directly linking them to SSDs. This is because the block storage is delivered via the Azure Storage service…not SSD’s connected directly to the VMs. And their storage service has specific scalability targets:

    http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windowsazure/dn249410.aspx

    You’ll notice for example in the above link, for a storage account with 100TB you can have upto 5000 transactions/second. This is similar to the IOPS (I/O operations) you might purchase via Amazon EC2. It’s just a different paradigm. To increase IOPS beyond the 20,000 transactions per second, customers normally use multiple “storage accounts”.

    Azure supports more than just Ubuntu or SUSE. Infact Oracle has a partnership with Azure and provides images of all Oracle software including Oracle Linux:

    http://www.windowsazure.com/en-us/campaigns/oracle/

    Red Hat doesn’t supply images to Azure yet but CentOS images (Red Hat open source equivalent) are, however, already available. You can also upload your own images using the VMDepot:

    http://vmdepot.msopentech.com/List/Index

    Need to add some perspective around this statement:

    “The knock on Windows Azure by those who have fully embraced AWS is that while Microsoft took years to come out with IaaS capabilities, Amazon has churned out feature enhancements and price cuts over and over again.”

    “Amazon has churned out feature enhancements and price cuts over and over again.” Azure Virtual Machines
    Amazon ELB -> LB’s built into Azure Cloud Services
    Amazon Autoscaling -> Azure Autoscaling
    Amazon Elatic BeanStalk -> Azure PaaS
    Amazon SQS -> Azure Queue Storage
    Amazon VPC -> Azure Vritual Networks
    Amazon RDS -> SQL Azure (but MS SQL only, very limiting)
    Amazon Elastic Map Reduce -> Azure HDInsight
    Amazon Direct Connect – > Azure Express Route
    ….and so on.

    One of the most interesting and under-rated services that Azure provides is Azure Websites. It’s quite remarkable in how simple it is to use and how easily it can scale.

    Given this article is about “assessing Windows Azure at its four-year mark”, I’m not sure the reader really walks away with a good idea of what Azure has achieved w/o some of this information I’ve highlighted.

    By the way, I’ve spent the last 5 years of my life making a living building infrastructure on the Amazon Cloud and so I am in no way affiliated to Microsoft :). Just felt there wasn’t a clear representation being given here.

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  4. Sorry but the above comment appears to have been chopped up by the submission system and stops making sense half way down..but hopefully you get the gist of it :)

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  5. I’m not clear why the paragraph under the “Performance, performance, performance” heading doesn’t talk about performance. Maybe the heading should read “Persistence, persistence, persistence”?

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