Microsoft's Cloud in a Box

The Windows Azure Platform Appliance is coming this fall. While you can't buy one of these limited-production releases, it could portend the future of private clouds.

Microsoft's cloud in a box is coming this fall. And while only the company's three largest partners and one customer will be the first to deploy the new Windows Azure Platform Appliance, the successful implementation of these systems could re-define how the channel and services providers deliver IT in the years to come.

Launched at the recent Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC), the Windows Azure Platform Appliance was the flagship announcement of the annual gathering. Designed to be housed in pod-like portable datacenters, one stood prominently on the show floor as Microsoft execs crowed over what they see as the missing link in their cloud strategy.

Microsoft further talked up the Appliance at last month's Financial Analyst Meeting (FAM), held in Redmond. While the average partner may not get their hands on something that resembles the Appliance anytime soon, Microsoft believes the Appliance could touch every ISV, systems integrator and managed services provider over time.

"It's a very real, very near-term thing and we will be expanding on that over the coming months and years as more and more customers and partners become involved," said Bob Muglia, president of the Microsoft server and tools business, speaking at a press briefing hours after taking the wraps off of the Appliance.

Just what is the Windows Azure Platform Appliance? It will initially consist of Windows Azure, SQL Azure and a Microsoft-specified configuration of servers, storage and networking gear. The emphasis is on Microsoft-specified. While OEMs Dell Inc., Fujitsu Ltd. and Hewlett-Packard Co. are the first partners that will be offering the Appliance as part of their managed services offerings, Microsoft determines the specs of those Appliances. Not only that, Microsoft remotely manages the Appliances, including providing platform software updates. Owners of the Appliances still can develop and deploy applications that run atop those Appliances.

Muglia uses the cable or satellite provider set-top-box analogy, where the user has no control over the software or hardware in the box but they can choose from a broad array of programming. "You just turn the TV on, and it works," he said in his WPC keynote address. "That set-top box is fully updated. That's exactly what we're doing with the Windows Azure Appliance."

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"It's a very real, very near-term thing, and we'll be expanding on that over the coming months and years as more and more customers and partners become involved."
Bob Muglia, President, Server and Tools Business, Microsoft

The Appliance will mirror the cloud service that Microsoft launched earlier this year. Anyone who has the Appliance can connect it to the Microsoft Windows Azure service. Microsoft says it will maintain a flow of new software to all of those Appliances to keep them up-to-date, just like set-top boxes are updated by cable or satellite providers.

"The customer still has control over things like when to actually update the software that's on there, what applications run, what sets of underlying operating system services and SQL services to run," Muglia said. "All of those are controlled by the customer, and one of the things we'd be doing is working pretty closely with our service providers to give them a fair amount of opportunity."

One of the reasons Microsoft technically is able to launch a cloud appliance is because it intends to run the same Appliances customers have in their datacenters in its own datacenters, says Robert Wahbe, Microsoft corporate vice president for server and tools marketing. "That's a very important element of being able to deliver the services platform," Wahbe says. "You can't really deliver on this notion unless you're in fact running a public cloud yourself. That's the only way you can test the scale of these configurations."

In addition to providing defined server, network and storage specifications, the Appliance will employ "innovative" power, cooling and automation technology, according to Microsoft. Customers who choose to buy the Appliance can address one of the key barriers to cloud computing: concerns about maintaining physical control of the systems, data sovereignty and compliance.

The first models deployed by Dell, Fujitsu, HP and eBay will weigh in at 880 servers -- certainly not aimed at the lightweight or moderate systems architecture. "This is not a small thing, it's designed for scale. It's very large; over time we'll make it both smaller and larger," Muglia told reporters and analysts.

Still, there are plenty of financial services firms, government and military agencies and other customers who simply won't entertain running their data in any public cloud service. "It's table stakes to get these customers to look at Windows Azure at all," says IDC analyst Al Gillen, who has looked at the Appliance closely both at the WPC and at the FAM.

The Appliance allows partners to bring it to those customers, and use the public cloud for non-mission-critical data or extended compute or platform services as needs require. While the total addressable market for the first crop of the Appliance will be small, Gillen believes the long-term success of Windows Azure is tied to the acceptance of the Appliance by large providers initially and others down the road. "This is the first step in taking this to a much more mainstream availability," Gillen says.

How Low Can It Go?
Wahbe explains the Windows Azure Platform Appliances that the three partners and eBay will deploy are intended to determine if there's a broader market for these systems. "One of the reasons we announced this limited-production release is so we can have a broad conversation with customers and partners to determine the right set of configurations to service a really wide range of scenarios," Wahbe says. "So we will scale this up and scale this down and see how low the appropriate level is and how high we'll go. I think we need to determine that as we roll out this roadmap."

The OEM partners will work with Microsoft to take that concept to start to drive it down in terms of scale, Gillen says. "So over time, for the Windows Azure Appliance to be truly successful, it really has to scale way, way down, from where it is now, and Microsoft needs to be able to offer a Windows Azure Appliance, which has maybe hundreds of nodes rather than thousands of nodes. Then it becomes something that no longer even comes in a container, it comes as a series of half a dozen racks that come fully preconfigured with a network built into them. You buy them from Dell or HP and you call up and say I want to buy one unit of Windows Azure Appliance."

That's a long way off, predicts Dell Services CTO Kris Fitzgerald. "I think it's years out for a number of reasons," he says. "One is we've got to get this tried and tested, and the second is we've got to figure out where the economics make sense."

When Muglia was asked if the specs for the Appliance would be made publicly available he dodged the question, saying that's less important with a platform that Microsoft clearly intends to control, more so than it does with its core Windows Server platform.

"We don't think the Azure Appliance will have the breadth of many different kinds of hardware that you see with Windows Server," he said, noting that Windows Server was designed to integrate and allow custom installations across any customer's environment. "There will be a more limited set of hardware that we will support with the Azure Appliance if you compare it to Windows Server, but we will make those specs available for hardware partners to build for customers."

Another question the Appliance and "we're-all-in" the cloud strategy raises is whether or not Redmond and its partners can successfully get through the transition without cannibalizing its traditional software business. Muglia reasons that $500 billion is spent running IT datacenters globally.

"One of the reasons we've done this Azure Appliance is to take the service that we're providing and make it available to our partners to build into their infrastructure," Muglia said. "If you look at Windows Server at one end of the spectrum and the Windows Azure service at the other end, there's a spectrum from the most customizable to the most standardized. In our public service, [we will offer] the most standardized configuration of Windows Azure."

Dell said it has begun implementing a test-build of the Windows Azure Platform Appliance and intends to host public and private clouds for its customers. The company also intends to collaborate with Microsoft on the building of Appliances for large enterprises, public sector customers and its hosting customers who want to run them in their own datacenters. "We're going to be both an arms dealer and a full-services provider," says Andy Rhodes, marketing director for Dell's Data Center Solutions division.

As for potential buyers of the Appliance, Rhodes breaks it down into three camps: large traditional IT outsourcers and cloud services infrastructure providers. "We're already engaged with a number of opportunities in that space," Rhodes says. Second are those in the public sector. "For valid reasons, they can't move to a public cloud but they want all the benefits of the cloud in terms of cost and optimization, the ability to bring up applications fast and the elastic scale," he says. Third are very large corporate customers. "They want the control, they want things behind their firewall, like eBay, but are big enough to go off and put their own stamp into their own datacenters."

Asked if eBay is using Dell's implementation of the Appliance, Dell's Fitzgerald says, "We're not announcing anything, but the only certified stamp they have is a Dell platform." He adds that Dell is a primary provider of infrastructure for the Windows Azure and Bing platforms.

Fitzgerald explains why it will take some time before the Appliance can be scaled down. "The software platform they have was written and started out with this big service provider platform, and as [Muglia] said, part of their challenge is taking that and packaging that whole software suite."

In terms of its own services business, Fitzgerald says Dell will focus on the core markets where it has had a strong presence, including health care, government, education and manufacturing. Dell sees offering these Appliances as an evolution of its existing outsourcing business (including the business it acquired with Perot Systems).

"We see ourselves as going after more specific markets, more verticals that need the expertise to say, 'How do I leverage this in my environment?' -- the whole IT outsourcing business we do today," he says.

HP foresees adding the Appliance to the IT outsourcing business run from its services business and doesn't have plans to sell them in the near-term. "That's where the focus is at Microsoft and the partner companies. It's putting Azure inside their datacenters as opposed to packaging it and selling it off to individual customers. But long term, that's certainly in the vision plan," says Scott Farrand, vice president for HP's Industry Standard Servers and Software business.

Microsoft and HP earlier this year inked a $250 million deal to build advanced datacenter technology (see "Next Move," Redmond Channel Partner, March 2010). "It's a natural extension to it, it's not specifically and formally a part of it, but it's a very close cousin by the same organizations inside HP and Microsoft," Farrand says.

The earlier partnership focuses on extending the core Windows Server stack -- Exchange, SQL Server and BizTalk -- to applications infrastructure," he continues. The Appliance part is "net new."

A key part of trying to get its services customers to move to Windows Azure centers on HP's own application modernization services, which includes migration and integration of Windows and legacy applications to the Windows Azure Platform.

"If you're starting from scratch or from a peer environment where you originally author your application for an Azure service, that's kind of straightforward and you can use coaching and help that exists in terms of SDKs from Microsoft," Farrand says. "Taking existing applications and moving them to Windows Azure is a bit more involved and typically requires some kind of help, certainly from companies like us to offload some of their own internal images as well as get the expertise."

Enter Hyper-V
Making it possible to run legacy apps on Windows Azure and the Appliance will be the Hyper-V compatibility that Microsoft has promised for the platform. Hyper-V virtual machines (VMs) will be able to run both legacy Windows Servers and apps on the Windows Azure platform. IDC's Gillen says while that's not a long-term solution it does eliminate short-term show-stoppers.

"It provides a bridge or an evolutionary capability that allows the customer to go from what today is probably 100 percent in-house physical or largely physical OS on a physical server scenario to an external, virtualized environment," Gillen says.

"The problem is in many cases there's going to be a substantial number of applications that have to be reworked to run natively in a Windows Azure environment. As customers look at that they're probably going to do a triage and decide which applications they need to migrate or renovate to run on a Windows Azure environment natively," he explains. "Some things are going to fall off that list and not make the cut to get updated and revised to run directly on a Windows Azure environment," he says.

At that point customers have two choices of what to do with those applications that don't make the cut: either wholesale replacement or put them in maintenance mode "and park those applications unchanged somewhere where you can run them longer," Gillen says.

"The reason the Hyper-V role becomes so important is there are very few customers that are going to go 100 percent Windows Azure even in the medium term, forget short term," he adds. "In the medium to long term there are going to be some customers that are going to have applications that just simply are too hard or they're not going to get value to renovate those things to run directly on Azure."

Presuming the limited implementations are successful, Gillen believes the Appliances could have broad implications for the Windows Azure platform. First it will create an industry standard platform for public and private clouds just as Windows did for PCs and datacenters. For OEMs, it will help them validate a market for systems that can become a broader market opportunity over time and finally it will bring further scale to Windows Azure.

More near term, Microsoft needs to make the Appliance appeal to managed services providers, he says. "At the end of the day, if Microsoft isn't successful in penetrating the services provider market, they leave the door wide open for Linux to own that segment of the business," says Gillen, noting Microsoft's emphasis on the Windows Azure support for PHP and Java in addition to .NET. "Microsoft has to play there and I think it's important for them to put their best foot forward."


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