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With Azure, Microsoft clarifies its cloud-based computing plans

At Professional Developers Conference 2008, Microsoft unveils software services and cloud-based computing on the 'Azure Services Platform.'

The next generation of applications may not reside in an enterprise data center on a server, but rather hosted on servers specifically designed for delivering software services, IT experts have said.

In Microsoft's vision of "Windows in the cloud" – dubbed Azure Services Platform -- the future of enterprise computing will essentially be a services-based operating system for the data center. The platform was unveiled this week at the Professional Developers Conference 2008 in Los Angeles.

With Azure, Windows developers can use their existing coding skills to develop applications for consumers and businesses alike. "It's Windows in the cloud, our lowest-level foundation for deploying a service," said Ray Ozzie, chief software architect at Microsoft.

But even with that Windows familiarity, developers must recognize that "cloud design point" is something fundamentally new, Ozzie added. "The systems we are building for cloud-based computing set the stage for the next 50 years of computing."

In Azure, each processor has a hypervisor that provides a layer of abstraction for programmers. The application is separate from the underlying OS so both are managed separately, explained Amitabh Srivastava, a Microsoft corporate vice president of next-generation services.

Azure has a fabric controller that manages the lifecycle of services from deployment to configuration management, he said. Further, all components are built to be highly available. The fabric controller is highly redundant and fault tolerant. "The storage system partitions data across multiple machines, perhaps thousands of machines," Srivastava said.

Microsoft plans to build intelligent hooks between cloud applications and the local Active Directory. There will be a service bus that connects the premises systems to the cloud and lets data traverse firewalls.

"Access control is key," said Bob Muglia, senior vice president of Microsoft's server and tools business. "The need is to have federated identity authority in a heterogeneous way."

Developers will be able to write .NET workflow services from premises to a cloud environment using a tool code-named Geneva. "Overall, our goal is to make claims-based access control as seamless as possible," Muglia said.

And Azure will eventually be incorporated into other Microsoft platforms, such as Windows Server and products in the System Center family. Microsoft gave no time frame for the delivery of Azure.

Azure means big shift for Microsoft

Azure will play a similar role as Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud and Google's App Engine, and any of the multitudes of companies talking about cloud-based computing today. For Microsoft, Azure moves the company into a critical market with a wide range of new competition, but also represents a fundamental shift to how it operates.

"Microsoft has always been a PC software company with users in control of their own destiny," said Tony Iams, vice president and senior analyst at Ideas International Inc., in Rye Brook, N.Y. "Now [Microsoft] has to go back in the direction of IBM where shared services are run by a third party. It's the very model [Microsoft] fought in the early days."

Cloud computing concepts have existed for years. What has changed the game, said Iams, is virtualization technology's ability to abstract virtual machine workloads to represent the service.

"It's a powerful way to decide where and when to run workloads based on economic factors," Iams said. "You can decide what you do in-house versus what you do someplace else."

Iams said Microsoft has adapted aggressively to the cultural shift away from the one computer and one operating system days of the past.

Look at the architecture

For IT administrators with external-facing applications, Microsoft's plans are worth a serious look, said Rob Helm, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, in Kirkland, Wash., an independent consulting firm. "Microsoft will offer enormous scalability compared with anything you are using today," he said.

IT shops will eventually be able to decide where to draw the line between keeping applications inside the enterprise or shifting them outside to the cloud. But Direction's Helm said there are many legal and reliability questions that IT managers must consider before they place data in Microsoft's hands.

"What if a government decides to subpoena your data straight from Microsoft, or what if Microsoft is subject to an attack and you are cut off from your data?" Helm said. "These operational questions need to be worked out."

Helm said that over time, cloud applications will become more attractive. "In a sense we are at the equivalent of the MS DOS PC stage," he said. "Eventually the OS evolved."

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