Foley on Microsoft

Can Microsoft Save Windows Azure?

Mary Jo Foley speculates on the future of Microsoft's public cloud play.

Microsoft is slowly but surely working to make its Windows Azure cloud platform more palatable to the masses -- though without the benefit of roadmap leaks, it would be hard for most customers to know this.

When Microsoft began cobbling together its Windows Azure cloud plans back in 2007, there was a grand architectural plan. In a nutshell, Microsoft wanted to recreate Windows so that Redmond could run users' applications and store their data across multiple Windows Server machines located in Microsoft's (plus a few partners') own datacenters. In the last five years, Microsoft has honed that vision but has never really deviated too far from its original roadmap.

For Platform as a service (PaaS) purists -- and Microsoft-centric shops -- Windows Azure looked like a distributed-systems engineer's dream come true. For those unwilling or unable to rewrite existing apps or develop new ones that were locked into the Microsoft System Center- and .NET-centric worlds, it was far less appealing.

How many external, paying customers are on Windows Azure? Microsoft officials won't say -- and that's typically a sign that there aren't many. My contacts tell me that even some of the big Azure wins that Microsoft trumpeted ended up trying Windows Azure for one project and then quietly slinking away from the platform. However, Windows Azure is no Windows Vista. Nor is it about to go the way of the Kin. But without some pretty substantial changes, it's not on track to grow the way Microsoft needs it to.

This fact hasn't been lost on the Microsoft management. Starting last year, Microsoft began making a few customer- and partner-requested tweaks to Windows Azure around pricing. Then the 'Softies started getting a bit more serious about providing support for non-Microsoft development tools and frameworks for Windows Azure. Developer champion and .NET Corporate Vice President Scott Guthrie traded his red shirt for an Azure-blue one (figuratively -- still not yet literally) and moved to work on the Windows Azure application platform.

Starting around March this year, Microsoft is slated to make some very noticeable changes to Windows Azure. That's when the company will begin testing with customers its persistent virtual machine that will allow users to run Windows Server, Linux(!), SharePoint and SQL Server on Windows Azure -- functionality for which many customers have been clamoring. This means that Microsoft will be, effectively, following in rival Amazon's footsteps and adding more Infrastructure as a Service components to a platform that Microsoft has been touting as pure PaaS.

The first quarterly update to Windows Azure this year -- if Microsoft doesn't deviate from its late 2011 roadmap -- will include a number of other goodies, as well, such as the realization of some of its private-public cloud migration and integration promises. If you liked Microsoft's increased support for PHP, Java, Eclipse, Node.js, MongoDB and Hadoop from last year, take heart that the Windows Azure team isn't done improving its support for non-Microsoft technologies. Also on the Q1 2012 deliverables list is support for more easily developing Windows Azure apps not just on Windows, but also on Macs and Linux systems.

Microsoft's new focus with Windows Azure is to allow users to start where they are rather than making them start over. That may sound like rhetoric, but it's actually a huge change, both positioning- and support-wise for Microsoft's public cloud platform. Not everyone -- inside or outside the company -- agrees that this is a positive. Hosting existing apps in the cloud isn't the same as re-architecting them so they take advantage of the cloud. It will be interesting to see whether users who are tempted by the "new" Windows Azure are happy with the functionality for which they've been clamoring.

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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Reader Comments:

Wed, Aug 15, 2012

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Thu, Mar 15, 2012 aleksander

I fully agree with the voices above: MS MUST invest in Silverlight before it's too late. Silverlight needs urgent empowerment as fat desktop incl. real asynchronism , access to local DB etc. Silverlight has to be thin and fat forefront for Azure.

Wed, Mar 14, 2012

Couldn't agree more - to make Azure attractive to developers, Microsoft needs to bring Silverlight back to the forefront - there is nothing else capable of so amazingly supporting the building of incredibly immersive applications that make embracing Azure both worthwhie and necessary. Do so in support of half-assed HTML5 wannabe applications? Nope - not interested. Do so in support of tinkertoy Metro applications for Windows 8? No again. Redmond need only restore the means by which the best-of-the-best set out to conquer the world in ways that make Azure a necessity - reverse the damage done and reestablish the preeminence of Silverlight.

Wed, Feb 29, 2012

"Silerlight??? Really??" - What's wrong with Silverlight? It's fantastic and is light years ahead of HTML5.

Thu, Feb 16, 2012 Silicon Valley

How about the fundamentals first - please; Reporting Services, Backup and Restore, finish the existing SQL Server implemetation... Honestly, we don't care about the cross-platform right now. Microsoft - finish what you started

Tue, Feb 14, 2012

Silverlight? Really???

Tue, Feb 14, 2012 Camil

There are multiple limitations that will restrict Azure's success. To start, they need to re-do all their manuals and test them with beginners, to ensure that even a novate will be able to work on Azure. They have lots of information on how great their service is but nothing on how to use it. I myself have spent over a week trying to run excel into that systems with no success and no information of how. If they want people to migrate they need to make it clear it will be easy and will not require mounts of additional knowledge.

Sat, Feb 11, 2012 John Atten

If MS wants Azure to succeed, they need to make it more accessible to developers, and easier to understand the pricing. First off, MS should provide devs with FREE access to sufficient compute, storage, and up/download that devs can create showcase apps without absorbing a monthly payment. Second, they really, really need to create some documentation that is easily understood. What is a "small compute instance" and what can it do for me? how does it relate to my storage. MS should boldy allow the "early adopter" crowd to jump in without risk and create the community interest they need to get the Azure platform off the ground. The current info available publicly is a bunch of enterprise-ey sounding marketing-speak which tells us nothing, and gives us no incentive to bother learning Azure development.

Thu, Feb 9, 2012

Ditto! Silverlight is awesome and Azure has so much potential. I just don't get this HTML5 push. Do they think this will attract the script kiddies? No, it won't but what it will do is alienate the growing developer community which Scott G worked so hard to build.

Wed, Feb 8, 2012

To save Azure, Microsoft need do one thing before all else, give Azure the relevancy it requires by undoing the massive damage done by Redmond's hideous mishandling of Silverlight, bringing it back to front and center where it belongs, dislacing the nonsensical lip-service being paid to HTML5. To win big, establish Silverlight and Azure as Redmond's heaviest hitters, across the entire Windows ecosysem, this an unbeatable combination capable of devastating the competition. And do it now, before it's too late...

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