Foley on Microsoft

Will Azure Evolve Into Microsoft's Fifth Major Platform?

Microsoft's neither confirming nor denying, but Azure certainly has all the symptoms of a platform -- and developers should take note.

Microsoft is a company founded on the back of platforms. It has turned Windows client, Windows Server, Windows Mobile and Xbox into development hubs around which third-party hardware and software companies have coalesced.

Microsoft is targeting the cloud as its fifth platform. From the outset, it made the developer environment one of the four "pillars" of its Azure OS. The Azure dev environment, like Windows and gaming, will have all the usual elements -- a programming model, service architectures, language environments, an SDK -- plus a couple of pieces unique to the cloud, including a desktop simulation environment and a Web service gate to the cloud.

"Azure is a platform," Todd Proebsting, director of technical strategy for Azure, told me earlier this year. "Platforms are what enable an unforeseeable application. And [Azure] is our platform for developing Web applications."

To date, the 'Softies have only said that the goal of the Azure dev environment is to allow developers familiar with Windows and .NET to use customary tools, like Visual Studio, to create cloud-resident apps. But that's a gross oversimplification.

John Rymer, an analyst with Forrester Research, noted after Azure's initial introduction that Microsoft had a lot of training and explaining to do before it could count on winning over developers.

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"Application development managers should view Azure as a brand-new platform rather than an evolution of today's platforms -- and they shouldn't view the Azure Services Platform as an alternative for re-hosting existing .NET applications," Rymer wrote in a research note. He goes on to say, "Azure is early in its development (and available only in pre-beta form) and so is appropriate only for skills development and experimentation during the next year. Teams with immediate needs for 'platform as a service' (PaaS) offerings will find more pragmatic options for Windows applications from Amazon Web Services and other hosting providers, as well as from non-Windows providers, such as Salesforce.com."

Unlike Amazon, Salesforce and Google, Microsoft is betting that developers don't want a place to simply host their apps. Redmond is counting on being able to offer programmers the building blocks, too, that they'll be willing and able to incorporate into their wares. It's the whole buy-into-our-stack play upon which the company has relied successfully in the past. The stack, in the cloud space, is the Live Services layer in Azure.

"We asked ourselves what would be the first set of services that developers would want," said Microsoft technical fellow John Shewchuk. The answer was identity, workflow, data-relational technologies and a service bus. Thus, "Zurich," a cloud platform on which ISVs will be able to build applications, was born. Microsoft's idea is to get developers to use these elements in building new Web apps that are hosted in Microsoft's Azure data centers and to include these components to extend existing apps.

I'm still hearing many Windows developers say that they aren't interested in the cloud. There are still too many privacy, security and reliability issues. Economic pressures aside, many still seem to believe they can keep writing to Windows and the cloud.

With Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie channeling teams across the company, full-steam ahead, into the services realm, I'd say developers ignoring where Microsoft is going with Azure are doing so at their own peril.

Have you started kicking the Azure tires yet? If so, what's got you excited? What's worrying you?

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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