Analysts Weigh Microsoft's Cloud Announcements

There was a lot for analysts to consider about Microsoft's emerging strategies for cloud and enterprise based on Tuesday's talk by Satya Nadella.

Microsoft's cloud and enterprise chief contended that Windows Azure could support and extend Microsoft's traditional premises-based server products in various ways, even as Microsoft prepares for its big product release on Oct. 18. The company expects to release Window Server 2012 R2, System Center 2012 R2 and a new version of the Windows Intune management service on that date. Redmond asked analysts and experts for their views on some themes coming from Microsoft's fall announcements.

Boundaryless Datacenters
Redmond: Nadella talked about Windows Azure facilitating a world of "boundaryless datacenters." What did he mean and does the Windows Azure Pack have something to do with enabling that concept?

"He's trying to move beyond the overused terms, 'hybrid cloud' and 'cloud bursting,' and convey that Windows Server and Windows Azure (thanks to System Center and [Windows] Azure Identity Federation) can now be viewed contiguously," explained James Staten, vice president and principal analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. "Yes, [Windows] Azure Pack is part of what makes this possible. In future releases there will be no [Windows] Azure Pack. It will cement into the standard Windows release. He's also referring to other integrations Microsoft has made and will make between its on-prem and cloud applications. SQL Server now backs up to SQL Azure by default, for example." 

"Microsoft has two very different datacenter stacks," explained Gary Chen, research manager for cloud and virtualization system software at IDC. "The on-prem Windows Server which is your traditional IT arch[itecture], and [Windows] Azure which is a scale-out cloud architecture. Eventually these two stacks will be reconciled at some point and there will be one Microsoft stack, which will probably look mostly like [Windows] Azure, but with some more features to handle traditional Windows workloads. The Azure Pack adds some [Windows] Azure features to Windows Server, so that helps in standardizing things across the stack. Also [Windows] Azure now uses the standard Windows Server Hyper-V instead of its own customized hypervisor and that enables a Hyper-V VM [virtual machine] to be uploaded and run on Windows Azure without any conversions or compatibility problems. However, that doesn't mean it will behave exactly the same, as Azure is a shared environment; also, the various other dependencies (storage, networking, etc.) may have different behaviors, as well as the management tools. But Azure has improved a lot in its ability to function as a pure IaaS [infrastructure-as-a-service platform] and compatibility with existing VMs, in addition to offering a PaaS [platform-as-a-service] layer that is meant for newly coded apps."

"Microsoft gives a lot of attention to, and emphasizes, the hybrid capabilities of its on-premises products and cloud services," said Rob Sanfilippo, an analyst with Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft, an independent consultancy. "For example, managing a hybrid deployment of Exchange Online and on-premises Exchange users is simplified with common tools. This has also been seen in [Windows] Azure for some time with components such as the Service Bus, [Windows] Azure Active Directory, [Windows] Azure Backup (including StorSimple appliance and SQL Server AlwaysOn support), Virtual Networks, the Windows Server Azure Pack (in preview), and Hyper-V Recovery Manager (in preview). [Windows] Azure Virtual Machines can be deployed using customer VM images, allowing migration of servers from on-premises to [Windows] Azure."

"When Satya referred to 'boundaryless datacenters,' I believe there's a lot packed into that, and it's more than the Windows Azure Pack, Active Directory and backup," said Eric D. Boyd, founder and CEO of IT management consultancy responsiveX and a Windows Azure MVP. "Early on in Windows Azure, we talked about Data Center Extension and what we were practically able to do is deploy new applications or components of applications in Windows Azure. But now, with advancements in Windows Azure Infrastructure Services with Virtual Machines, Virtual Networks and services like Windows Azure Active Directory, the ability to run some of the Windows Azure components on premise with the Windows Azure Pack and Service Bus for Windows, and the ability to leverage Windows Azure for on-premise workloads using Hyper-V Recovery Manager, Windows Azure Backup and even StorSimple for tiered storage to the Windows Azure Storage, the lines are blurring between on-premise datacenters and Windows Azure. And this is a pretty unique benefit that only seems to be coming from Microsoft in the public cloud arena."

"I think what Satya Nadella was referring to was the ability to build a hybrid cloud that incorporates Windows Azure resources into your private cloud infrastructure that lives in your datacenter," said Al Gillen, program vice president for system software at IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based analyst and consulting firm. "The more 'frictionless' this can become, the easier it is to adopt and ramp your use of a public resource."

Microsoft's Service Level Agreements
Redmond: Nadella said that building a multitenant service with predictable service level agreements (SLAs) and performance was one Microsoft's biggest challenges. Microsoft has been offering "three-nines" uptime guarantees for its Office 365 cloud services, and has had some notable service outages, but why is predictable cloud service a challenge?

"A cloud service like [Windows] Azure has to accommodate cheap and fast test and dev uses, as well as mission-critical, high-performance production apps," Staten said. "We are at a very early stage in the cloud services era and there are lots of improvements we have yet to see that are feasible. For example, most cloud platforms give you no performance SLA because they haven't figured out how to consistently guarantee performance. Those that do often charge a lot more to get this and throw very fat pipes at the problem. Their solutions won't scale to the level that [Windows] Azure and AWS [Amazon Web Services] are at today." Staten added that Netflix gets great performance with its movie delivery service running on AWS because of the high availability and high performance that's built into the service, which is something that enterprises need to learn how to do, apart from seeking better SLAs.

"One, you have a multitenant, very dynamic environment, where people are spinning things up and down constantly, [and it] makes predictable performance difficult to achieve," Chen said. "Second, availability in the cloud can be pretty different conceptually." He explained that legacy apps may not expect the cloud infrastructure, adding that "most public clouds are really going after the cloud native app model and starting to accommodate the legacy apps. So I think that's why some of the cloud SLA numbers have been lower than, say, a hosted dedicated server, [which] was really not where they [the big cloud service providers] were aiming at to begin with." Chen also said that maintaining uptime at scale is tough, although Windows Azure and other clouds have plenty of failover and redundancy capabilities. Clouds running at scale require automation through software, but they can still face failures at the software logistics layer. "So if these automation and algorithms perhaps run into an odd scenario that wasn't envisioned or there is some logic error/flaw, it can have a cascade effect over time and the cloud can spin out of control," Chen added. "Physically, nothing has really 'failed,' but the software automation is really where the error occurred."

"[Windows] Azure has a wide range of fault tolerance and recovery mechanisms (including local- and georedundant ones)," explained Sanfilippo. "Some are automatically provided to customers; others can be enabled through customer deployment configurations. [Windows] Azure is built on a highly advanced software 'fabric controller' that has roots in Windows Server and has been in development for many years. This cloud-OS has evolved as Microsoft has expanded its datacenters, added new services, and learned from operating the platform. SLAs are likely to become more robust and outages should become rarer as the technology is advanced and initial shortcomings are addressed."

"It's not just Microsoft's challenge," Gillen said. "Amazon has had a few outages as well. The Windows Azure cloud is built with a multiplicity deployment capability, but the company sells that as an option vs. a single-location deployment. Customers have to select the right deployment (at the right cost) to have the best availability. I think this is where the industry goes long buy an SLA, and more availability costs more. Why this is a challenge is probably just because you can't always anticipate (or protect against) every possible outage, including those by other vendors that provide network backbone, etc."

New Remote Desktop Apps
Redmond: Microsoft announced new Remote Desktop apps for Windows Server 2012 R2 coming in October and supporting Windows, iOS, OS X and Android platforms. Could these RDS apps replace Citrix's XenApp?

"Microsoft has always been a competitor in the remote desktop space; they haven't left the market to Citrix," Staten said. "They are getting pressure like all other remote desktop vendors to provide access from any device."

"Yes, this scenario [competition with Citrix] is a possibility...but Microsoft historically has been pretty passive about competing in this space," Gillen said. "Citrix is a key partner of Microsoft's, and the companies have long (as in very long) had competing products, but a collaborative/cooperative approach. Microsoft needed a complete set of solutions, but usually restricts access to those solutions to its best customers (those having SA). Watch this space carefully."

"The new Remote Desktop app is not a 'game changer' yet," said David K. Johnson, principal analyst for infrastructure and operations at Forrester Research. "Like many things Microsoft has released in the past, it will merely occupy a spot in the 'good enough' category -- in this case of Remote Desktop access capabilities and appeal to those with basic needs for occasional remote access to essential applications. It is not yet a solution for large-scale desktop virtualization scenarios because to do so requires advanced capabilities for delivering a high-performance user experience across a wide range of network and application scenarios, but it will meet the needs of common BYOD and other basic requirements for remote access to the Windows desktop and apps. And yes, it does mark the commoditization of some Remote Desktop access capabilities."

"I think the announcement here is showing Microsoft's growing commitment to Windows Store 'Modern' applications," Sanfilippo said. "The Windows desktop-based RDS client is adequate for its environment, but the Modern environment was left for third-parties to address over the last year since Windows 8 was released."

Partnership with Equinix
Redmond: Microsoft announced a partnership with Equinix Inc., on top of a partnership with AT&T, to provide fast customer connections to the Windows Azure cloud. Why are such fast connections needed with Windows Azure?

"The AT&T and Equinix partnerships allow customers to connect on-premises deployments with [Windows] Azure using private networks that support much higher bandwidths than Internet-based connections," Sanfilippo said. "This type of connectivity is more efficient, dependable and secure than using a VPN [virtual private network] over the Internet, which could address issues that have kept some customers from using [Windows] Azure until now."

"These partnerships help enterprises integrate their cloud tenancies with their core datacenters," Staten said. "They leverage an MPLS WAN [Multiprotocol Label Switching wide area network] link between [Windows] Azure and either your colo [colocation] rack at Equinix or your datacenter (that's what AT&T NetBond does). It creates a consistent, secure, QoS [quality of service]-bound link that makes the cloud look like just another segment of your datacenter -- same IP address range, same domain, namespace, etc. These are very popular with enterprise clients because then they can secure and manage the cloud environment just as they do their existing datacenter and colo facility."


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