In its latest move to catch up in market share and revenue with Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft is launching Azure Service Fabric -- a tool to help developers build highly scalable and customizable applications for the company's Azure cloud platform. It's the latest evidence of Microsoft's expansion of its developer ecosystem, following the debut a month earlier of Azure App Service.
"It's important. It's unique. It's different from every other cloud provider," said John Rymer, principal analyst serving application development and delivery professionals at the Cambridge, Mass. research firm Forrester, Inc. "I don't see anything like this from AWS, IBM or Google. None of them have these service APIs."
Al Hilwa, program director of software development research at IDC, agreed. "This is generally net added value for developers in the Microsoft ecosystem," he said.
As revealed in a blog post by Azure CTO Mark Russinovich, Azure Service Fabric provides a means to build complex, large cloud applications from a collection of interconnected stateless and stateful microservices that use APIs to communicate with each other. Service Fabric has been running in production internally at Microsoft for five years, according to the blog post. It is the foundation technology for Azure's own core infrastructure and is driving several services, including Skype for Business, Azure SQL Database and Bing Cortana. The blog post also explains that the "battle hardened" service fabric technology that Microsoft releases will not differ from the version used by Microsoft's own developers.
John Rymer, Forrester, Inc.
As Rymer described it, the service fabric is a set of APIs that developers can use to influence Microsoft's cloud operating environment. "What's important is that with these APIs, it is now possible to bring transactional applications to the cloud. Before this, transactional apps were not a good fit."
Historically, stateless applications with scaling worked well, but the introduction of data states that required management necessitated workarounds. "Now, you'll be able to manage states in an elastic environment, necessary for very large-scale transactional apps like retail and even airlines reservation systems," Rymer said. Microsoft's blog post refers to this aspect, noting support for complex, data-intensive scenarios that can scale to cloud proportions, including -- in Cortana's case -- up to a half-billion evaluations per second. To free developers from the need to re-architect applications as usage grows, Azure Service Fabric incorporates application lifecycle management capabilities.
The release of increasingly powerful tools targeting platform scalability is a key strategy for growing Microsoft's Azure customer base. "It is interesting in that while [Azure and AWS] are increasingly competing for all workloads, and despite a powerful shift toward supporting IaaS, Microsoft is still evolving and investing in its PaaS offering," said Hilwa. "This is important, because such added services can prove to be a differentiator and potentially where more money can be made."
Would a tool with the power of Azure Service Fabric have ever seen the light of day if Steve Ballmer were still running Microsoft? It's an intriguing question.
"It is no accident that Satya Nadella is now the CEO, having run Azure before that," said Hilwa. "Azure has set the pace inside Microsoft for how to aggressively evolve services to harness the cloud opportunity."
Rymer believes Azure's emergence as a power player would have happened under Ballmer, albeit more slowly. "Nadella has a much more open posture than Ballmer. Where Steve had a heavy commitment to the Windows proprietary stack, to Satya, Windows is not sacred." Once Microsoft made the commitment to Azure, the company had to support Java, PHP, and a string of other technologies, Rymer said. "Otherwise, Microsoft's cloud would fail, the world would not come to it, and the economics would collapse. Microsoft had no choice but to open up."
The developer preview of Azure Service Fabric, including educational sessions and live demos, is slated for Microsoft's Build 2015 conference in San Francisco April 29 to May 1. Microsoft plans to make the production version available when it releases the next version of Windows Server.
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