Azure and BPOS: Clearing the Fog Around Microsoft's Cloud Computing Offerings

A closer look at the Windows Azure Platform and the Business Productivity Online Suite.

Cloud computing. Everyone is talking about it. But cloud computing takes many forms. You may wonder what each cloud option is for and how cloud offerings differ from each other. Even if you limit the discussion of cloud computing and consider just two of Microsoft's cloud offerings, the Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) and the Windows Azure Platform, there's room for lots of confusion. You're not alone if you could use some clarification about how BPOS and Windows Azure fit together and how each offering relates to IT and business needs right now. Let's talk.

The BPOS Front
Microsoft has been packaging and licensing suites composed of its server and management products for years. Some server licensing packages you might be familiar with are Small Business Server (SBS), Essential Business Server (EBS), and -- going way back in time -- BackOffice Server. With such packages in mind, you can think of BPOS as just another suite of Microsoft products -- the difference being that the BPOS products you access in your organization are physically located in Microsoft data centers instead of in your facility.

Dharmesh Singh, a principal program manager on the Microsoft BPOS team, explains, "BPOS is a licensing suite, a set of collaborative end-user services that runs on Windows Server, Exchange Server and SQL Server -- the same products that are available for use inside an organization." The cloud aspect, Singh continues, is that these products are "running in a data center on a shared, multi-tenant architecture."

BPOS Standard packages Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Office Live Meeting and Office Communications (OCS) Online. According to Singh, the inclusion of Office LiveMeeting and OCS is a key differentiator between BPOS and competing solutions from Google Inc., which has no comparable offering. Given economic considerations related to travel, LiveMeeting and OCS provide an alternative that directly results in cost savings for businesses.

Another BPOS version is the Business Productivity Online Deskless Worker Suite. This version is aimed at organizations that just want basic e-mail and document collaboration capability. It includes Exchange Online Deskless Worker (mailbox, calendar, contacts and Outlook Web Access Light with anti-malware) and SharePoint Online Deskless Worker (read-only access to portals and write access for filling out forms).

When you look at the BPOS components, it's clear why they're offered together: They address the most common tasks of the information worker. From the IT perspective, putting these applications in the cloud gives IT the ability to focus on core business competencies, such as a specific industry's technology or proprietary applications that can make or break the business.

As Singh puts it, "From an IT perspective, BPOS is appealing to IT decision makers, or CIOs or CTOs. They're the business guys who look at core collaborative capabilities -- e-mail, telephony, document collaboration -- as mission-critical applications, but not something that gives them true business advantage. They need these functions, but the basic plumbing necessary to do business does not give them any competitive differentiation. It's an infrastructure need."

The Windows Azure Approach
So BPOS is a licensing package that provides the infrastructure plumbing to keep information workers productive. Windows Azure represents a different type of plumbing. It's a platform, and as such, by Singh's definition, consists of "the foundational elements for any application stack: the operating system Windows Azure, the development framework Windows Azure Platform AppFabric [formerly known as .NET Services for Azure], and the relational SQL Azure Database service." Singh says, "Windows Azure is a development platform for ISVs to build applications on." The OS component of Windows Azure is what provides the plumbing for development, service hosting and service management.

At this early stage in Windows Azure's life, its main target customers are ISV and corporate developers. Microsoft has always built the market for its products by encouraging developers to create applications. Applications draw customers to a platform and keep them on that platform.

Following this Microsoft tradition, "Windows Azure is very ISV-focused," Singh emphasizes. "As ISVs and enterprise developers build applications, they're starting to realize that many apps are suitable for running in the cloud. Initially, the Windows Azure platform will be used primarily for compute [services you need for running applications] and storage [for Binary Large Objects (BLOBs), non-relational tables and queues]."

Although applications built on and for Windows Azure are hosted in the cloud, unlike the BPOS suite, Windows Azure is not a multi-tenant architecture for hosting your infrastructure. The Windows Azure model lets you rent computing resources that reside in Microsoft data centers, and the amount you pay for that rent depends on how much of those resources you use. This approach means you can increase or decrease computing resources as your needs change, and -- more importantly -- the amount you pay increases or decreases with such changes.

Windows Azure licensing comes in two varieties: pay-as-you-use or six-month commitment for a discounted monthly fee. To help you evaluate pricing and the various offerings for Windows Azure, Microsoft provides a comparison table.

Windows Azure is different from competing infrastructure services cloud offerings because Microsoft already has a complete software platform (Windows and the various server and client applications) to build on. The Windows Azure platform provides the framework plus the deployment and connectivity functionality that make a Windows Azure application work and interface with other applications in the cloud and on-premises. That capability is at the heart of Microsoft's Software plus Services (S+S) strategy, which allows you to integrate your on-premises software and hardware with solutions on the cloud.

Another crucial difference between Windows Azure and other offerings is that you do not directly administer your Windows Azure virtual machines (VMs). Along with the admin access that competing solutions allow, you do get a certain amount of flexibility and control. But you also have to perform typical administration tasks such as configuration and patching. The Windows Azure model takes care of those tedious, mundane tasks for you.

Cloud Considerations
Security and compliance are among the major concerns raised about cloud computing. However, Microsoft has a long history of serving enterprise IT needs and has taken these concerns into account. Singh points out that Microsoft's "big differentiator is how we maintain your data. We can tell you at any given point in time where it is. Yes, you want to put your data in the cloud, yet you want to stay compliant. You own the risk of your customers' data getting lost. Google, for example, can't tell you where your data is. It's an architecture question. We can even localize compliance requirements: If you're in the European Union [EU] and you want to be sure that your data doesn't go outside the EU, we can guarantee that. We make sure all the data centers are audited. We take on the liability."

And Singh's assertions are not just pie in the sky. In a podcast interview for the Microsoft Thrive site, Dan Holme, director of Training and Consulting at Intelliem and the Microsoft Technologies Consultant for NBC Universal (with responsibility for Microsoft technology infrastructure for the Olympic Games in Vancouver), expressed his views: "I'm a believer in cloud services. Not having to manage the infrastructure is huge. The cloud is more economical, and [can solve problems when] there are logistical constraints related to accessing an application. It's easier for us to manage the security of the applications we're dealing with. My perspective on Microsoft hosted services is that

Microsoft has had to build their infrastructure and their security infrastructure to meet very stringent requirements from outside bodies, specifically the EU. So they have to be pretty darn secure."

Cloud Benefits
Moreover, as cloud services, both BPOS and Windows Azure can be a part of your company's environmental policies. Singh sees environmental benefits as an important aspect of Microsoft's cloud offerings. "Our data centers are set up to green standards. If you're looking at reducing your carbon footprint, cloud computing is a great way to do that," he says.

In addition, cloud services can save up-front costs for new and growing businesses. Singh notes, "If you're a new business, there's no reason for you to be investing in capital expenditures just to get started. Technology infrastructure should be an operating expense that you just pay as you go."

From a real-world perspective, Holme agrees. "For most organizations, hosted services are going to be more hard-cost effective," he says.

Out of the Fog
Although both BPOS and Windows Azure are "cloud computing," their purposes and capabilities are clearly different. BPOS packages the same infrastructure software you would run on your own servers, but puts the maintenance and everyday operations of that software into the cloud. Windows Azure provides a platform for building, running, storing, and accessing applications in the cloud and integrating those applications with your on-premises solutions. Rather than cause confusion, cloud offerings should provide choice and flexibility for your IT strategy and your budget. BPOS and Windows Azure serve different needs, so understanding them can help you make good IT decisions.

About the Author

Karen Forster is vice president of Platform Vision, a subsidiary of Advaiya Inc. She has more than 20 years experience in publishing and technology. Forster was editor of the start-up Windows NT Magazine (which is now Windows IT Pro), SQL Server Magazine and the associated Web sites and online publications. She served at Microsoft as director of Windows Server User Assistance.


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