Microsoft has announced plans to add support for Remote Desktops and virtual machines (VMs) to Windows Azure, and the company also says that prices for Azure, now a baseline $0.12 per hour, will be subject to change every so often.
Prashant Ketkar, marketing director for Azure, said that the service would be adding Remote Desktop capabilities as soon as possible, as well as the ability to load and run virtual machine images directly on the platform. Ketkar did not give a date for the new features, but said they were the two most requested items.
We're trying to figure out the most efficient ways to take advantage of the platform with minimal to no re-architecture for customers.
Prashant Ketkar, Azure marketing director
"They're very high on our priority list -- they're one of the first things we are going to get done," he said.
Ketkar said that after a year of testing and feedback, including the odd commercial application -- Domino's Pizza runs a Java-based online ordering system on Azure -- more direct control over the infrastructure was the takeaway. That means Microsoft's Platform as a Service (PaaS) is looking much more like Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).
"VM hosting and Remote Desktops in Azure, like the management features in Engine Yard and Heroku, like Cloudera and [Makara] on vSphere, and like SugarCRM's application programming interface (API) for managed hosters, all blur those definitions," said Rachel Chalmers, research director for infrastructure management at the 451 group.
Chalmers said it's a profound step up from the beginning of last year, when the industry collectively accepted PaaS, IaaS, and Software as a Service (SaaS) as foundational, distinct categories for the cloud market.
Azure, Engine Yard and Heroku are now PaaS with IaaS characteristics. Cloud management and monitoring services add platform characteristics to IaaS services, and software with an API that can interact with hosting, like SugarCRM or Force.com, can let SaaS use IaaS features, like pay-as-you-go usage.
"It's still useful to bear the tripartite model in mind," said Chalmers, but as providers switch gears and add features based on demand, there is a definite trend for convergence in cloud.
Azure adds infrastructure features to PaaS
This move begins a definite trend away from the original concept for Azure in design and execution. It was originally thought of as a programming platform only: developers would write code directly into Azure, creating applications without even being aware of the underlying operating system or virtual instances.
It will now become much closer in spirit to Amazon Web Services, where users control their machines directly. Microsoft still expects Azure customers to code for the platform and not always want hands on control, but it is bowing to pressure to cede control to users at deeper and deeper levels.
One major reason for the shift is that there are vast arrays of legacy Windows applications users expect to be able to run on a Windows platform, and Microsoft doesn't want to lose potential customers because they can't run applications they've already invested in on Azure. While some users will want to start fresh, most see cloud as a way to extend what they have, not discard it.
"We're trying to figure out the most efficient ways to take advantage of the platform with minimal to no re-architecture for customers," Ketkar said.
Azure users wanted as much hands on control as possible, along with wanting an environment as much like a regular Windows Server desktop as possible, he said. Since Azure runs virtual machine images for each customer, it was technically possible to do this before, but only as an "emergency back door," according to expert blogger Vishwas Lele, CTO of .NET technologies at Applied Information Sciences, Inc.
Azure is adapting swiftly. Before the end of the beta period, Azure announced that users could control patching and OS updates, a relief to the users worried about untested updates affecting their applications. Microsoft blogger Brad Calder also announced that Azure will support Virtual Hard Disk images because "customers have told us that they want to take their already running Windows applications and run them in the cloud."
The addition of the Remote Desktop and virtual machine capabilities will bring Microsoft head to head with Amazon Web Services, whose recently announced price cuts on storage were a shot across the bow for Redmond. Ketkar said that Azure price changes will come at Microsoft's discretion, a familiar tune to many. The software giant is well known for undercutting competitors and using loss leaders to drive adoption.
"We're not essentially bound to a pricing model," said Ketkar. "Just because I said it is 12 cents today doesn't mean it is 12 cents tomorrow."
He declined to offer details on whether the new features would come with new costs, which may be a dig at Amazon's policy to charge separately for each new cloud feature on its cloud.
Carl Brooks is the Technology Writer at SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dig deeper on Platform as a Service and cloud computing