Weekly Update

Microsoft Azure updates: More smoke and mirrors or real milestones?

Microsoft unveiled a raft of updates to its Windows Azure cloud this week with the usual splashy marketing that comes with annual product launches from Redmond. But behind the pizzazz are some major milestones, at last.

The most significant piece of news was that Azure now supports Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), allowing users to upload virtual machines to the Azure cloud. These can be Windows or Linux-based VMs, a nod by Microsoft that support for Linux workloads is crucial to creating universal appeal for the platform. In addition, a new management console and virtual private networking capability lets users connect their internal networks to Azure, creating a much-anticipated hybrid cloud feature. This lets users manage their internal apps and Azure-based apps on one screen.

In concert with this news, Microsoft announced a partnership with cloud management provider Rightscale, which helps customers to provision and manage applications in a hybrid fashion. Among many other new partners, Microsoft announced Opscode, ScaleXtreme and NewRelic, would run on top of Windows Azure.

The software giant added support for solid-state storage (SSD) to Azure, which boosts performance, a one-up on Amazon which supports SSD behind its DynamoDB database service, but not the rest of its cloud offerings.

On the developer front, Microsoft has rewritten many of the Azure APIs to make them easier for developers to work with. And one of the most interesting aspects of the news was the company’s heavy emphasis and commitment to openness. Azure SDK June 2012 has updated support for Java, PHP, .Net and new to the mix is Python, plus 100% command line support for both Windows and Mac. Are all these languages equal citizens on Azure? We’ll have to wait and see how many developers outside of the .Net community use the platform, but on the surface the support for more languages looks good.

Microsoft appears to be embracing open source software as part of Azure too, through partnerships with Cleardb, Cloudant and Lucid Imagination to provide data services such as MySQL, CouchDB and Apache Solr. And the company announced a new hosting framework for Web apps called Windows Azure Web Sites that will run popular open source applications in Azure including WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, Umbraco, DotNetNuke or PHPBB among many others.

The new IaaS capabilities in Azure combined with the existing Platform as a Service (PaaS) service is beginning to look like a powerful alternative to Amazon Web Services, and it’s about time. Amazon had stolen such a march on Microsoft that most of the industry seemed ready to right off Redmond altogether. According to research firm, Directions on Microsoft, Azure has fewer than 100,000 customers today. Meanwhile various analysts have speculated that AWS is already a billion dollar business, or close to it. Clearly Microsoft still has a long way to go, but my first impression from the news this week is do not right off Microsoft yet. If it can execute on all these partnerships and bring all these capabilities together under one platform, we will be looking at a mighty impressive cloud computing service.

Question of the week

Has Microsoft really shed its monolithic stack?