Azure updates may leave Windows shops wanting more

Analyst firm highlights key developments in Windows Azure and points out where the service still has holes.

Windows shops taking the plunge into cloud computing can have faith in its more mature Azure Platform as a Service, but should keep an eye on unexpected costs.

Microsoft's goal is to mirror what it does in Azure in the on-premises products, but it's not there yet.

Rob Sanfilippo, research vice president, Directions on Microsoft

That's the sentiment independent analyst firm, Directions on Microsoft, provided in an update and Q&A session on some useful features added to Windows Azure that became available in the past month. Rob Sanfilippo, research vice president for developer tools and strategies at Directions on Microsoft, led the webinar.

Sanfilippo said Windows Azure has been a commercial platform for almost two years and is a solid PaaS offering now.

Recent updates include a feature called server side in-memory caching (codenamed Velocity), which improves performance of hosted .NET applications. The cache can be shared across instances running on Azure, but it's charged as a separate service, so watch out for that, he noted.

Windows Azure storage has a new geo replication feature that automatically replicates data to a secondary data center in the same region at no extra cost. There is a charge for additional regions, though. And Traffic Manager provides various ways to handle the lack of availability of a hosted service.

In SQL Azure, Sanfilippo said, Microsoft added a federation service that automatically performs data sharding across databases. This means users can string together databases over the 150 GB limit and treat them logically as one database. This gets around the database size limitation criticisms SQL Azure has received.

On the pricing front, Sanfilippo said Azure's extra small compute instances were now $0.04 per hour, down from $0.05 per hour, putting it at a more competitive level with Amazon Web Services. And the Access Control feature in Windows Azure Appfabric, which can now handle authentication and authorization mapping between clients and applications, is free until January 1, 2012. It works with popular identity providers (ADFS, LiveID, Facebook and Google) to reduce the burden on developers to include security code in their applications. Sanfilippo said to try this out soon before Microsoft starts charging for it. He also liked the new Azure pricing calculator that lets users get a tally of what their monthly rate would if they were to deploy an app on Azure.

The session ended with a Q&A in which Sanfilippo took questions from Windows administrators and developers. Here's the meat of it:

What performance transparency does Azure provide? Is there data available?
Sanfilippo: Microsoft provides basic diagnostic information and there are analytics tools for Windows Azure storage. I expect Microsoft to work with partners for more capability in this area.

Is the inbound data transfer fee also waived for batch transfers?

Sanfilippo: Yes. It's free for ongoing data transfers and batch jobs. And this was a permanent elimination of these costs.

Is Fujitsu the only partner supplying an Azure appliance?
Sanfilippo: There are other partners, EBay and HP, but they are still in test, I believe; there is no information about when they will be production-ready.

Will Hyper-V 3 be incorporated into Azure? If yes, will it make "VM Roles" less cumbersome to use?
Sanfilippo: VM Roles is still in beta and has been for the past 10 months. There is another feature called Application Virtualization that is still in preview mode [that could help]. But these things are still in preview. [In other words, do not expect improvement anytime soon].

Should we use Unix/Linux on Azure or stick to Windows?
Sanfilippo: Windows Azure does support a lot of tools that Linux developers would be familiar with, but the platform is Windows-based. I would recommend looking at the open source tools that work with Azure if you go with operating systems other than the Windows platform.

Will the SQL Azure Federation service [which automatically performs data sharding across each 150 GB database to make appear as if they're one database] be available for the on-premises version of SQL Server?
Sanfilippo: Similar services will be available for the on-premises products. Microsoft's goal is to mirror what it does in Azure in the on-premises products, but it's not there yet.

What is the revenue share model in the Windows Azure Marketplace? How does this work?
Sanfilippo: Microsoft handles the billing for applications hosted in the Marketplace and it charges a 20% fee, or cut from subscriptions received.

In other news, open source configuration management and automation tools Opscode Chef and CFengine announced new versions of their tools that support Windows environments. These tools let users deploy hundreds, even thousands of servers and scale applications in an automated fashion, but were previously limited to Linux and Unix workloads only.

Jo Maitland is the Senior Executive Editor of SearchCloudComputing.com.

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