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Three questions to ask when considering Microsoft Azure

Cloud computing is, for some, a means of escaping from the clutches of traditional computer and software vendors. Most enterprises realize that the value of cloud will depend on how well services integrate

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with their own IT commitments and investments.

Because Microsoft is so much a part of internal IT, Microsoft's cloud approach is especially important to users. Many will find it compelling; others may decide it's impossible to adopt. Which camp are you in?

Microsoft's Azure is not an Infrastructure as a Service; it's more like Windows Server in the cloud.

The foundation of Microsoft Azure's value proposition is the notion that users must design their enterprise IT infrastructure for peak load and high reliability operation, although both of these requirements waste a lot of budget dollars. The Azure solution is to draw on cloud computing to fill processing needs that exceed the long-time average. It also backs up application resources to achieve the necessary levels of availability, if normal data center elements can't provide those levels.

This means that Azure, unlike most cloud architectures, has to be based on elastic workload sharing between the enterprise and the cloud. They accomplish this by adopting many service-oriented architecture (SOA) concepts, including workflow management (the Azure Service Bus).

Within Azure, there are multiple sub-platforms that Microsoft calls "Roles." The Web Role provides Internet access to Azure applications and thus allows Azure apps to function essentially as online services. Based on scripting and HTML tools, it is hosted on Microsoft's Internet Information Services (IIS). The Worker Role is a Windows Server executable task that can perform any function desired, including linking an Azure cloud application back to the enterprise data center via Azure Connect. The Virtual Machine Role provides a host for any Windows Server applications that aren't Azure-structured.

This illustrates the Microsoft vision clearly: develop applications that are Azure-aware and exploit the most architected hybrid cloud IT architecture available from a major supplier. Unlike most cloud services that try to create hybrids by joining together resources not designed to be linked, Azure defines a linkable IT architecture. Users who want to deploy that architecture within their data centers would use the Azure Platform Appliance, which makes data centers operate in exactly the same way as Microsoft's. This provides a private cloud and virtualization architecture rolled into one, along with creating a highly scalable and manageable way to improve server utilization and application availability (even if the services of the Azure cloud are not used).

Is Azure for you?
If your data center is substantially based on Windows Server, if you keep your Windows Server licenses current, and if your Windows Server applications are integrated (functionally and in terms of data) largely among themselves, there's a good chance that your whole Windows Server operation could be migrated to a Virtual Machine Role within Azure. From there, it could evolve into a set of Azure-compliant applications.

For most users, this is the basic test: how much of my IT application base is Virtual Machine Role-compatible? If the answer is none, or very little, you probably won't be able to justify an Azure migration. And obviously, a major commitment to Linux or another operating system within the data center will also make Azure unattractive.

A corollary to this: if you have already made a significant commitment to virtualization within your data center, you may find Azure benefits less compelling. Because Azure can improve in-house efficiency as well as provide application backup and offload to the cloud, it can draw on a double benefit case. In-house virtualization, however, may have already captured one of those sets of benefits. Virtualization is also often linked to Linux use, which may mean you don't have a nice Windows Server community to migrate.

The second question to ask is, how much of your application base is either self-developed or based on Azure-compliant software? The presence of a large number of Windows Server applications that can't be made Azure-compliant will erode the value proposition. Azure is unequaled in its ability to flexibly transfer work within an "Azure domain" that includes both your data center (via Azure Connect or the Azure Platform Appliance) and the cloud. The more you can exploit that ability, the better Azure will serve your needs.

Azure defines a linkable IT architecture.

The third and final question is, how committed to SOA is your current operation? Azure's AppFabric is essentially a SOA framework, with the Service Bus being equivalent to a SOA Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) extended online. If you've already developed or obtained Microsoft-compatible SOA/ESB software products or components, you're further along toward Azure-specific applications and the optimum Azure benefit case. If you have no SOA implementation or knowledge, the learning curve and software refresh may complicate Azure adoption.

Microsoft's Azure is not an Infrastructure as a Service-like general-purpose cloud platform; it's more like Windows Server in the cloud . For Microsoft shops, that alone is a benefit in terms of skills transfer. By extending the basic Microsoft SOA principles into cloud computing, it may very well provide the best cloud option available.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982.

This was first published in June 2011

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