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's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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