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Windows Azure’s 3.0 Maturity in a 2.0 Release

I didn’t go to the Microsoft’s PDC Professional Developer’s Conference (PDC) this year because it was, as far as I could tell, a made-for-streaming video event.  As such, I watched the keynote about 24 hours after it took place and used my Media Center PC to watch it on my plasma television. And I have to say, the keynote was worthy of the medium.  Not only did the Silverlight Smooth Streaming technology deliver a fine HD image, but the content of the keynote itself, merited a big screen, and necessitated the ability to pause, rewind and play back.

Sure, the first part of the keynote, focusing on Internet Explorer 9 and HTML 5, then Windows Phone 7, was useful and important.  And the juxtaposition of HTML 5 in the browser with Silverlight on Windows Phone was striking, but the real showstopper (the good kind) of the keynote was Bob Muglia’s presentation of all the new services and features being added to Windows Azure, SQL Azure and Windows Azure App Fabric.  As a character in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” might say: “Wow, Bob, Wow.”

There was already a lot of speculation that Microsoft would be adding Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) features to Azure, both for a better competitive story against Amazon Web Services, and also to treat Microsoft developers like grownups, letting them configure their cloud environments with the same degree of control they have in their on-premises environments. The speculation was correct, but as it turns out, it barely scratched the surface of what we got.

The Azure cloud will soon offer the following dizzying array of capabilities:

  • Remote Desktop (RDP) into Azure role instances
  • Access to the full suite of Internet Information Services (IIS) capabilities (including multiple sites per Web role)
  • Admin rights on Azure role instances for one or more users
  • The ability to deploy and spin up numerous instances of Hyper V virtual machine images (which can be composed of base and difference disk VHD volumes) that you build yourself, and RDP connectivity into those instances as well
  • VPN connectivity between Azure role instances and your on premises infrastructure (the former project “Sydney”)
  • Windows Azure AppFabric Access Control services providing authentication via not only Active Directory Federation Services, but also Windows Live, Yahoo, Facebook and…it appeared…Google.
  • Brief mention of integration between the Azure AppFabric Service Bus and BizTalk Server (i would love to know more about this)
  • Windows AppFabric caching (formerly known as “Velocity”) capabilities added to Windows Azure AppFabric
  • SQL Server Reporting Services added to SQL Azure
  • An online store, called Windows Azure Marketplace, and within it, the “DataMarket” which is the official brand for what had been called project “Dallas”
  • The Windows Azure AppFabric Composition Model, which lets you combine Windows Azure roles, SQL Azure Databases, hosted Windows Workflows, Azure AppFabric Access Control services and more into a single unit of deployment and configuration.  The composition and configuration is done through a visual designer.
  • A new low-priced “Extra Small Instance” offering that will allow developers and hobbyists to work with the real Azure environment for a price of $.05/compute hour (which by my calculations comes out to $37.20 for a 31-day compute month).

As if the above list were not enough, Muglia and his team (including Mark Russinovich and Don Box) showed highly relevant, end to end demos of how all these services and features integrate with each other and into Visual Studio.  Brian Harry even showed a sneak preview of an Azure-based implementation of Team Foundation Server and connected to it from Visual Studio as well.

My column on the soundness of Microsoft’s cloud strategy came out on October 1, and in it I made clear that I was impressed.  Not quite a month later, I continue to be impressed, to say the least.  When all of these features become generally available, Azure will offer a cloud continuum, allowing the most granular, hands-on experience for developers and IT pros who need and want it, to nicely abstracted Platform as a Service (PaaS) instances which technologists can treat as a black box deployment target.  Scaling out involves a few clicks in a (much improved) Web console; connecting the cloud assets to your on-premises databases and file shares is done in the same console and a single button click lets you RDP into just about anything.

As the title of this posts alludes to, this is the kind of maturity in a product that Microsoft generally does not add until a 3rd version of a product.  But unless the demos were completely cooked, it sure looks the Azure teams aimed that high, and got there, for v2.  Good for them; it was time to discard the 3.0 precedent.

What I found most striking of all, though, was the way this next generation of Azure brings together so many parts of the Microsoft stack and repurposes them for significant added value.  Hyper-V, RDP, Windows Server, ASP.NET, LINQ, OData, SQL Server (including Reporting Services and Data Tier Applications), AppFabric caching and Visual Studio.  They all move fluidly from on-prem to cloud.

If all this info makes your head spin, you might want to read through the Azure roadmap in an online Word document available at http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/presskits/cloud/docs/MSPDCFS.docx.

After my head stopped spinning, I realized that all this new stuff was actually rooted in something a bit older, and that once again, Microsoft’s cloud story is faithful to the company’s core strengths, products and strategies. The Windows Azure AppFabric Composition Model made me think back to the vision in Microsoft’s Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI), introduced almost exactly seven years ago (and articulated to the press by Bob Muglia, no less).  The architecture diagrams (originally project “Whitehorse”) which were introduced two years later as part of the Architect SKU of the original Visual Studio 2005 Team System product, were an early manifestation of DSI, but they weren’t very successful.  And yet the Composition Model designer that was shown at the PDC keynote bore a strong resemblance to the old diagram designer, and may well enjoy the success that the Whitehorse team originally hoped for.  Mr. Muglia must have taken some pride in that, and so should the whole company.  Wow, Bob, Wow.



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