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Microsoft Covers the Bases with Revamped Azure

Whether or not Microsoft succeeds in making its Windows Azure platform a viable alternative to the Amazon Web Services cloud portfolio, it won't be for lack of trying. Microsoft on Thursday took the wraps off a major refresh of its two-year old Windows Azure service that could make it a formidable infrastructure as a service (IaaS) provider.

At an event in San Francisco that was webcast, Microsoft corporate VP Scott Guthrie outlined the new Windows Azure. In addition to offering IaaS, Microsoft is adding support for Linux servers. Though Microsoft revealed its plans late Wednesday, Guthrie made it official at Thursday's launch event and in a blog post.

Sporting his trademark red shirt, Guthrie described a boatload of new features to the Windows Azure platform, revealed numerous new partners -- companies typically associated with the likes of Amazon and cloud providers backing such efforts as the open source Cloud Foundry and OpenStack projects -- and demonstrated a cloud infrastructure that promises to lend itself to more portability between enterprise datacenters and other cloud providers.

"We are announcing the most significant release of Windows Azure yet. It elevates Azure to a new level [and] it opens it up for even more developers to use," Guthrie said. "Today's release of Windows Azure is more flexible than ever. We're supporting more operating systems, more languages, more open protocols and releasing all the Azure SDKs on GitHub under an open source license. You can now use the best of the Microsoft ecosystem and the open source ecosystem together and you can build better and more scalable solutions than ever before."

First, he demonstrated the new Windows Azure portal, which provides IT pros and developers a unified view of all of the services and applications that can run in the cloud environment. Customers can drill into different services, virtual machines and storage and view stats.

Guthrie explained that enterprise customers for the first time can shift workloads from their Windows and Linux environments to Azure, pointing out that all of the virtual machines in the new Microsoft cloud will support the VHD file format. "Because we're running the same file format, it's really easy for you to take a VM whether it started off in your own datacenter and upgrade it into Azure," he said. "You don't have to run an import-export process, you simply upload it and enable it within Azure and it works. There's no conversion tools or agent you need to install the VM, it just works."

Guthrie also talked about the new Virtual Private Networking solution, aimed at simplifying the connectivity between Azure, enterprise datacenters and other cloud providers. "What's nice about our virtual private networking solution is you can integrate it with pretty much any back-end network provider," Guthrie said. "We don't require you to install any custom software on your existing enterprise network or datacenter. Instead we integrate with existing VPN hardware and software and interoperate well with Azure."

Among some other features Guthrie outlined:

  • Identity Services: Customers can integrate their cloud applications with their enterprise identity infrastructures, notably Active Directory. Windows Azure Active Directory, or WAAD, is a REST-based service that provides access control to cloud apps. Customers can apply existing Active Directory policies to Azure.

  • Distributed Cache: A new in-memory, low-latency distributed cache that lets customers provision dynamic scaling of capacity based on the needs of an application. "What's nice is you don't have to modify any application code or redeploy your application in order to increase or decrease the cache side," Guthrie said. It implements the memcached, distributed memory caching protocol.

  • Service Bus: New secure messaging and relay capabilities are suited for integrating cloud-based solutions with enterprise apps in a secure but loosely coupled architecture. That is enabled through better tooling in Visual Studio and the introduction of cross-platform libraries, allowing the service bus to work from any operating system and various languages.

  • Media Service: This new managed service is aimed at distributing media in various formats including Flash, Silverlight, HTML 5, iOS and Android. Using REST calls, customers can upload media to Azure, describe how it should be encoded and in what format and the service will be streamed to devices. Users can implement DRM as well. "It's a real compelling way to use media," Guthrie said.

  • Web Sites: Will let developers build and deploy Web sites in the cloud that can scale based on ASP.NET, PHP and Node.js, as well as support for WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Umbraco and DotNetNuke.

Some key established cloud partners joined the Azure ecosystem such as cloud management vendors RightScale, ScaleXtreme and Opscode; monitoring tool suppliers AppDynamics and New Relic; NoSQL database providers 10gen (MongoDB) and Cloudant (CouchDB) and various other cloud providers including Joyent, CloudShare and Appfog.

Microsoft is making some substantive upgrades to its Windows Azure cloud platform. Do you think its moves will appeal more broadly than its existing platform as a service (PaaS)? Drop me a line at jschwartz@1105media.com or leave a comment below.

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 06/07/2012 at 1:14 PM


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