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Microsoft discusses Azure cloud strategy

Steven Martin, Microsoft's head honcho for cloud computing, sat down with to talk about integration between the company's on-premise software and Azure and cloud-to-cloud interoperability.

What's so different about cloud, haven't we heard this before under other names like grid, utility, on demand computing etc?
From an industry perspective, more and more computational workloads are moving to outsourced services and have been for several years. But the same issues have existed there around load balancing, clustering and partitioning databases. The cloud abstracts these issues entirely so that developers no longer have to worry about the hardware at all. They simply consume the resources they need.

Microsoft Azure launched as an early beta in October, 2008 and there are tens of thousands of developers using it and trying it out today. How does Azure tie in with your on-premise software?
Everything we are developing in Azure will also be reflected in our on-premise technology. For companies using both our on-premises software and Azure they will be functionally indistinguishable. 

What are some of the challenges in moving between on-premise and hosted environments?
Gosh, it's a big enough headache managing your own data center today, never mind bridging this to a shared hosting environment. There are some significant challenges. For example, we are evolving .Net and Visual Studio so that companies can deploy applications on-premises or in Azure and the APIs will bridge between firewalls.

What hosting services does Microsoft offer today?
Live Services, .Net Services, SQL Services, SharePoint Services and Dynamic CRM Services. 

Do all of these run on Azure?
Not yet, but that's the goal. Some .Net services run on a different infrastructure but are being migrated so that they can take advantage of the unique Azure APIs not on the other infrastructure. There are SQL Services and Live Services running on Azure today. 

We heard some groaning when people realized they would have to re-write their applications to talk to the Azure API. Why did you do that?
The business logic of the application doesn't change. But if you have an application written in C++ on Windows Server accessed at the client level, you need to think about a browser experience and a login experience. There are architectural changes to the application to switch it to the cloud and that's what the Azure API enables. 

How much will you charge to use Azure?
Later this year we will announce a commercial business model for it, but right now its in beta and developers are getting smart on how to use it. We have a partner writing a .Net ERP system running on Azure, and many others creating services for it. 

What is the difference between Microsoft's cloud, Google's cloud and Amazon's cloud?
Think of Amazon as a generic computational layer where you decide the OS and the application on top, you can run a Windows server or a Linux server, it's up to you, and run different workloads. At the opposite end is the Google platform which is more confining. You can write in Python or a limited subset of Java so it's restrictive in what you can do. Our ambition is to be in both worlds. We support VHD [or virtual hard disk, Microsoft's virtual machine file format] so if your application runs on Windows server it can run in the cloud. We will have a reservation model so that you can reserve capacity for that application. For native applications running on Azure you don't have to worry about reservation as they already dynamically scale up or down based on demand. 

How about moving applications between cloud providers?
Right now there are more people talking about cloud to cloud interoperability than there are applications to migrate. We are working on this with Google and Amazon. It's not a order of priority between the companies but there is engineering work going on around SOAP, XML and REST and we have demonstrated an application created in Google App Engine in Python living on top of Azure. 

What are some of the other challenges around moving between providers?
Data portability is a big issue. Can I get my data and database out and move it to another location? Our approach is the data is owned by the developer so in SQL [Services] you can absolutely do that. Application portability and a level of standardization that the industry can agree on is an issue. The Amazon API, Google API and Microsoft API are all different today. The priority is to optimize the experience between Windows on premise and Azure, then we can look at cloud to cloud interoperability.

What about IBM, do you see them as a competitor in the cloud market?
No, not yet. As soon as they have something we can point to, we will. 

Looking ahead a few years, how do you see the IT market evolving around cloud computing?
There will be broad platforms from Microsoft, Oracle, IBM and then there will be specialized services that run on top of them, such as a SOX compliance application that tests processes for SOX. We would look for a partner that does that. Eventually we will absorb some of the specialized players as they make sense for a broader set of users.

Business intelligence is a good example. A few years ago you wouldn't have predicted this as BI was left to specialists but it's pretty clear that BI and data mining is an important part of cloud and will evolve into the platform. 

How soon do you see mainstream IT adopting cloud services?
Even the most bullish analysts predict 9 to 18% of computational workloads being in the cloud in five to seven years, so this is a slow evolution. 

What advice do you have for IT shops looking to get their feet wet in this market?
Know what this means for the evolution of your data center. Look at which applications are sensitive to privacy and regulatory compliance and get an inventory of them so that you can develop a cloud strategy.

Steven Martin is senior director of developer platform product management at Microsoft Corp. In this capacity, Martin's role is to bring together development innovations, including those that drive rich client, web tier, application tier, middle tier and cloud. Projects and technologies currently under Martin's leadership include Silverlight, the .NET Framework, and Azure, "Oslo" and the forthcoming application server enhancements in Windows Server, codenamed "Dublin". He is also charged with participating in cross-group leadership teams to ensure that Microsoft's Server & Tools technologies, together, meet the real-world businesses needs of a broad customer and partner base.

Before joining Microsoft, Martin served as director at Netscape Communications Corp. He previously worked for Cyclone Commerce Inc., where he helped define and promote the EDI/XML B2B Interchange product. Before joining Cyclone Commerce, Martin founded Stonehenge Group Inc., a company specializing in technology consulting and the resale of electronic data interchange software.

Martin is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where he completed a bachelor of science in psychology.

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