Microsoft adds more controls to Azure cloud

Microsoft's Azure has taken a big step toward becoming a full-fledged cloud infrastructure service. Users generally approve, but they'll have to wait for Microsoft to deliver.

REDMOND, WA -- Microsoft unleashed a raft of features for its Azure cloud service this week, bringing it several degrees closer to a true cloud infrastructure service. New features, announced in beta, include remote desktop viewing for Azure "roles" (or virtual machines), full support for Internet Information Services (IIS) roles, the ability to create and maintain customized virtual machines (VMs) in Azure and a host of other services.

Next thing for us is to run the cost model.

Steve Crane, project manager for Australian Insight Technology Solutions,

Many of the new features add direct control elements to Azure: new Azure Extra Small Instances priced at $0.05 hour; virtual network configuration (formerly Project Sydney) elevated privileges for administering critical Azure processes on host instances; the ability to install software packages on Azure instances and configure low-level functions; and the ability to virtualize and migrate existing Windows 2008 server images, as well as support for server application virtualization.

Less significant improvements are Azure user interface (UI) upgrades and new management tools for SQL Azure; promises to expand the global footprint of Azure; and improved Java support and security updates. When these new features are fully online (most will be in beta by the end of 2010 and live sometime next year), Azure is going to look a lot more like a fully equipped cloud infrastructure service, albeit with a clear focus on application development hosting.

Azure users respond
Reaction is positive so far, with a healthy dose of well-earned skepticism for stereotypical Microsoft ebullience. There were no major stumbles during the various demos at the company's Professional Development Conference today, where the announcements took place.

"We'll see if it works," said Chris Bardon, chief software architect at Toronto-based ComputerTalk, a unified communications and automated voice interaction software maker. Bardon said he thought Microsoft was walking a tightrope between letting users mess around on their own versus delivering a headache-free service people would actually pay for.

He noted that many of the claims Azure made were only half-delivered, like being able to deliver full SQL Server functionality. "I have T-SQL scripts that just won't run on Azure," he said. "They were supposed to, but they just don't."

He said he thought that the changes demoed at the show looked like a good second step for Azure and noted the original, code-centric platform was gradually becoming less draconian in the access it allowed users. "They're trying to claw it back," he said.

Bardon thinks that eventually Microsoft can deliver, but the way the service was built probably was making it hard for Microsoft to integrate the traditional, single-server role tools he needed, like LINQ or Exchange, into the multi-nodal, failure-tolerant Azure model.

Bardon said geography is the true deal breaker for him, as Canadian clients simply don't want sensitive data stored in the U.S. The Azure appliance announced this summer could be a savior, but only the biggest providers would be able to buy it. "I mean, you basically have to buy a container; I'm waiting to see one of the big carriers -- Bell, TELUS -- go ahead and decide to buy one and basically resell Azure."

Foreign companies appreciate Azure's worldwide reach
Global presence is attractive to others. Steve Crane, a project manager for Australian Insight Technology Solutions, said his firm's products were widely used by construction companies in Asia and the Middle East. He feels that being able to drop products and support applications into Microsoft's global data centers instead of his own was very attractive. "It costs us millions, millions, to run on-premise [data canters]…hardware, upgrades, leases, the people; it all costs a lot."

We'll see if it works.

Chris Bardon, chief software architect of ComputerTalk, on Azure's changes,

Crane said he had currently deployed an ancillary, non-critical support system for his team in Azure as a proof of concept. He was definitely enthused by the ability to get hands on with VMs and servers via RD. Like Bardon, he also appreciated the value of an environment someone else managed. However, he did want slightly more access than early versions of Azure had delivered. He thought the announcements today were extremely positive signs and said it wasn't hard to visualize business-ready applications running in the cloud.

"Next thing for us is to run the cost model," he said with a grin. That and wait for Microsoft to deliver. Azure VM roles will be in public beta by the end of the year. RDP and elevated privileges are supposed to be in general availability by then, but most of the other announced features won't come out in public beta or GA until well into 2011.

Carl Brooks is the Technology Writer at SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at cbrooks@techtarget.com.

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