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Azure cloud on horizon: The devil is in the data architecture details

Microsoft Azure's data schemes have been altered on its way to a wide beta, which means better support for established SQL schemes that were locked out by a full-court press on REST and other simple data schemes.

Microsoft's Azure cloud development architecture, still in a controlled beta, has gone through changes on its way to broader tryouts. For example, timing on plans for supporting innovative workflow services APIs has shifted. More pointedly, the data architecture at the heart of Azure has come in for serious reworking.

The data architecture changes form a backdrop to questions about what kind of changes developers might -- or might not -- have to make in order to build successful cloud applications.

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In its initial plan, Microsoft centered data architecture for Azure around so-called REST (Representational State Transfer) architectures, basically eschewing established SQL patterns. The non-SQL approach echoed other HTTP-friendly cloud data architectures such as SimpleDB or Hadoop. (It has been said that many cloud schemes resemble file systems more than they do databases.)

But hue and cry from disgruntled .NET developers led the company to add a traditional SQL data ''personality'' to the Azure data architecture folio. Programmers can work with familiar SQL or upstart REST. As well, programmers can work with Azure in any .NET languages, with PHP and Java SDKs also in the works.

"There are a couple of ways now you can store memory," said Michael Kennedy, independent software developer and development speaker and trainer.

"Among these methods are Azure Storage Services, which are something like a file system in the cloud, and Azure Tables," said Kennedy, who noted available Azure BLOB (binary large object) and queue services, as well.

"Now, there are also SQL Data Services (SDS), meant to act as a hosted SQL Server in the cloud," he said. In fact, it was just in March that Microsoft disclosed such support for broader SQL-style development via SDS.

SDS, until March, little resembled familiar T-SQL design and development paradigms, along with doing little to 'leverage existing developer skills,' one of the stated goals of Azure.

According to a recent Microsoft developer blog posting, the first release of SQL Data Services will support a subset of the TSQL language. Meanwhile, SQL Data Services is expected to be renamed SQL Azure Database.

Porting to the cloud architecture

With Microsoft expected to release the Azure cloud computing platform this summer and pricing details next week, one analyst says the company is responding to customer demands. It is hoped that developers can port existing applications into Azure without having to significantly rework their structures.

"People think they can take their on-premise application and just deploy it into the cloud," said Rob Sanfilippo, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.

That was not central to the original design of Azure, he suggested.

"But it does seem they're moving toward that after customer requests," Sanfilippo continued.

In the case of Azure, Sanfilippo believes Microsoft is on track and treating it as a priority. In the last eight to 10 months, Live Services has been updated and SQL Data Services has been completely revamped, he said.

"I've seen some major changes in a relatively short amount of time," said Sanfilippo. "It seems like the resources are in place at Microsoft and they're getting a lot done."

Azure cloud architecture this way comes

Microsoft did a good job when they designed Azure, according to Kennedy. "The company encourages you to build scalable reliable systems by basically making it really hard to do the stuff that makes systems unreliable," he said.

There are many developers curious about cloud computing, but most are being rather cautious. Directions on Microsoft's Sanfilippo said he's talked to more developers that are concerned about building on top of their existing work than re-coding everything to work in the cloud.

"There's still an education bit that has to happen about what kind of applications are appropriate for Azure. But I think there's a lot of curiosity about Azure," Kennedy said.

Still, he continued, "I don't know many projects that are betting the bank on Azure yet."

"They tell you Windows Azure will reduce your TCO, said Kennedy, "but the thing [Microsoft] hasn't done is to tell people [about] the business model – what is it going to cost?" Kennedy, like many others, is expecting more details to come to light at Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Event next week in New Orleans. At that time, a wider Azure beta is expected as well.

Rob Barry and Jack Vaughan write for For more on the cloud, check out our Troposphere blog.

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