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Microsoft's 2014 Roadmap: 'Plug-and-Play' Clouds, R2 Servers and Faster Product Delivery

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Microsoft's TechEd kicks off today, but some of its themes were presented earlier at the "Microsoft Cloud OS Workshop."

The three-day Cloud OS Workshop, held mid-May at Microsoft's Redmond campus, included executives and engineers, mostly from the Server and Tools Division, talking about their work over the last year or so before a crowd of invited technical reviewers and journalists. To hear Microsoft tell it, the company took a step back to address its customers' problems and to think holistically. It wasn't just a focus on the coming wave of individual server products (see sidebar). Much of the work centered on Windows Azure and the cloud as a customer solution.

The role of an operating system was one of the fundamentals that the team reconsidered. The traditional view of an OS is that it's just software that manages hardware resources, but Microsoft's OS vision now is more cloud oriented, with datacenters seen as resources to tap. Customers will use datacenters as "one big box," according to Takeshi Numoto, Microsoft corporate vice president of Server and Tools marketing.

"Now, instead of thinking of an OS on a per-machine basis, we think of an OS that pulls together compute, storage and network resources -- across multiple datacenters," Numoto said. "We want to pursue this vision across all of our products in Server and Tools Division."

New Products and Roadmap
That vision extends to Microsoft's traditional server products. New R2 products are scheduled to see the light of day sometime in the interval between the fourth quarter of 2013 and the first quarter of 2014. Those products include Windows Server 2012 R2 and System Center 2012 R2, along with SQL Server 2014, among others. It wasn't clear from the workshop whether these releases will be betas or full product releases by Q1 2014. However, Microsoft officials did say that Windows Server 2012 and System Center 2012 releases will now start to arrive at the same time, for the first time, starting with the new R2 versions.

Update: Microsoft indicated today that previews of Windows Server 2012 R2, System Center 2012 R2 and SQL Server 2014 will be available sometime this month. In addition, product releases of Windows Server 2012 R2 and System Center 2012 R2 are planned for the end of this year. The SQL Server 2014 product release will happen "shortly thereafter," according to Microsoft's announcement.

Numoto said that Microsoft's product delivery cycles are getting faster, and so Microsoft will try to put everything under the cloud OS. That faster cycle is evident by Microsoft's roadmap agenda for 2014, but the idea that this faster release cycle is a company-wide push was also recently underscored by Kevin Turner, Microsoft's chief operating officer.

"We basically are about to launch every single product, solution, and service in our portfolio in a 12-month window," Turner said last week at the Sanford C. Bernstein Conference in New York City.

Numoto explained that Microsoft's product development focus now won't be on single products so much, but rather the engineering teams will work to address customer scenarios across products. Microsoft will be responding to some underlying trends, such as always-connected apps, the explosion of data from end points, the bring-your-own-device to work phenomenon and cloud computing, among others.

 

The Three Clouds
Quite a lot of Microsoft's future product improvements going forward will address the pain points of cloud service providers. That was a big part of the messaging at the Cloud OS Workshop. Microsoft now counts three clouds: private clouds (Windows Server), public clouds (Windows Azure) and "service provider clouds." In addition, the "hybrid cloud" offers a way to tap both private and public cloud resources.

Microsoft has been ramping up its cloud infrastructure, which currently consists of four datacenters in the United States (West, East, North Central and South Central), two datacenters in Europe (North Europe and South Europe) and two datacenters in Asia (East Asia and Southeast Asia), plus 24 content delivery network centers. This network serves 76 markets worldwide. Last month, Microsoft announced Windows Azure expansion plans in the Asia Pacific region, including China, Japan and Australia. In addition, based on the workshop talks, Microsoft's service provider partners will play a bigger role, and Microsoft recently indicated as much, saying that 4,500 new hosting partners were added in a year's time.

Microsoft plans to pull the three clouds together by offering a unified management capability with System Center, by improving Active Directory for identity, and having virtualization support for compute, network and storage. Numoto said that Active Directory is currently used by 93 percent of the Fortune 1000 companies and that Windows Azure Active Directory has served up 265 billion authentications. SQL Server has 46 percent of the worldwide database share, he added. Windows Azure has more than 200,000 customers.

Microsoft's product rollout in the coming year really will include a faster one-year delivery cycle. While IT pros might not be ready for it, it's now an organizing principle within Microsoft.

"Last time we talked, it was a three-year release," said Jeffrey Snover, distinguished engineer and lead architect for Windows Server and System Center datacenter products, at the Cloud OS Workshop. "Now we have a one-year release."

Snover, who is the creator of PowerShell -- the scripting language enabling automation across Microsoft's various server products -- explained that Microsoft's developers took a year off from writing code. The organization talked with its customers and did a lot of planning. "Now we have an engineering system that supports customer requirements and that leads to user scenarios." The team builds its test cases based on "critical-to-quality" (CTQ) measurements. The approach has had "a huge impact on productivity," he added.

Microsoft's vision is the three clouds. "If your strategy changes, with Microsoft, you don't have to change your vendor," Snover contended. With Windows Azure, Microsoft plans to take high-end computing and make it available to the mass markets by simplifying the software experience. The current mass-market chasm, in which IT pros dislike complexity, will get crossed by enabling performance, trustworthy computing, and "cloud plug and play," he added.

Snover detailed three cloud plug-and-play scenarios for Microsoft. Devices get plugged into the cloud and they should just work. Next, apps should just work when plugged into the cloud. "I mean both Windows apps and Linux apps," he explained. "The point is to simplify the task of app development." Lastly, Microsoft aims to simplify plugging resources (such as servers, storage and networking) into a cloud fabric and they should just work, which will help simplify cloud management.

Windows Azure Demos
Quite a lot was said at the Cloud OS Workshop. There will be more details to come, but a lot of the time was spent with demos. In particular, David Aiken, technical product manager for Windows Azure, demonstrated how to set up a virtual machine in Windows Azure in about five or six minutes. "Windows Azure helps you create resources you need, but once it's done it's just Windows," Aiken said regarding the user experience.

Next, Aiken showed how to create a Web site. Users have the option to pick from gallery of templates from .NETNuke, Drupal, PHP and others. There's an option to create a MySQL database or SQL database. "Before the cloud, it didn't take 10 seconds to spin up a MySQL database," he commented. The site gets built in minutes vs. months, he explained. "You can use the cloud but don't have to know a lot of cloud skills," he claimed.

Users have an option to create a SQL database on the fly. "We could create a VM and put SQL on it," Aiken said. "Sometimes the app doesn't need all of the rich resources [of the Windows Azure SQL Database service]." The process of creating a SQL database is scriptable. "If I want a hundred databases, I can script this out," Aiken said.

Developers of apps for mobile devices can use Windows Azure to create a mobile service. "What we've done is think hard about device development," Aiken said. Users create a mobile service, give it a name, pick a database and pick a region. It creates a mobile service as well as a database server and database.

"We have all of these services and you have to think of them as building blocks -- cloud services, caching and tables," Aiken said. "We also have infrastructure services -- to extend your datacenter.

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