Following Windows Azure's bumpy limited release on January 1, Microsoft's fledgling Platform as a Service (PaaS) product has quietly added a key feature: "OS versioning." This new functionality gives users the ability to control which patches and updates to apply to their Azure Windows instances.
It's a key wish-list feature for Azure users, as surprise patches and upgrades to the Windows operating system that underpins Azure can have sometimes unforeseen consequences on running applications. Patches are so notorious for breaking functionality and causing headaches that developers and administrators make a routine practice of vetting and pre-testing patches before applying them to production systems.
"I consider user control over updates and upgrades to the operating system to be essential for the public version of the Azure Platform fabric," said Roger Jennings, principal consultant at OakLeaf Systems.
Until now, Microsoft has kept patching of Azure out of the hands of users, but this appears to be a tip of the hat to users clamoring for more control.
Azure gives users the ability to write and run applications on an online platform that approximates Microsoft's 64-bit Windows Server 2008 operating system. In beta for more than a year, the service was scheduled to be commercially available on January 1 and billing is set to begin on February 1.
Microsoft has stated its intention to make Azure as open and flexible a platform for developers as possible by continually adding support for third-party languages such as Java, Python, Ruby and PHP. Until now, however, it has kept the operating systems on Azure firmly under wraps, patching and making changes without warning.
Now, Microsoft says that Azure will proceed with an earlier promise to preserve platform version control for users as it moves into commercial viability. It announced new version control functionality on the Azure blog on Monday, January 11.
"Right now there is only one available operating system version (released on December 17, 2009), but new builds with the latest updates and patches will be released regularly," the blog post stated.
It also added that Azure users can choose from existing versions by updating their configuration files and preserve their instances from automatic patching, according to the posting.
Jennings said that full details are still murky.
"What's not clear so far is how the Developer fabric will track OS updates and upgrades. Fortunately, the Azure Developer Portal offers deployment to a Staging instance," he said, so users can experiment safely.
While OS versioning is a key feature for any developer looking to use Azure for anything other than experimentation, other limitations remain. These include a 10 GB size limit on SQL Azure databases that Jennings says puts Azure well below the threshold for serious consideration by enterprise SQL users. Like many other changes, Microsoft remains hazy on details, he said.
"Microsoft promised to scale up SQL Azure to 'tens of gigabytes' at PDC 2009, but they didn't commit to a release date," he said.
Carl Brooks is the Technology Writer at SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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