Microsoft Revamps Windows Azure with IaaS, Hybrid Cloud Enhancements

Microsoft is planning the most significant upgrade yet to its Windows Azure service, giving the cloud platform long-awaited Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) capabilities and support for Linux instances. The company is set to release previews of the new services Thursday.

The revamped service, which will provide persistent virtual machines, promises to significantly enhance Microsoft's public cloud offering by allowing enterprises to shift applications and workloads from their datacenters to Windows Azure (and vice versa), creating hybrid clouds. By adding IaaS to its Platform as a Service (PaaS) portfolio, Microsoft is also mounting its most formidable challenge yet to Amazon Web Services.

Since its launch more than two years ago, Microsoft has offered Windows Azure in the form of a PaaS. Lacking a pure IaaS offering, Microsoft was at a key disadvantage as many of its customers chose to put their compute and storage workloads on Amazon's EC2, S3 and other infrastructure services. Like Amazon, which has recently stepped up its support for hybrid clouds by providing virtual connections to enterprise datacenters, Microsoft is looking to allow customers to link their infrastructures to Windows Azure.

"By combining infrastructure and platform services, these new capabilities of Windows Azure give you greater flexibility in how to build or bring your applications to the cloud," said Bill Laing, Microsoft's cloud and server corporate VP, in a blog post. "With Windows Azure and the next releases of Windows Server and System Center, there is no better platform for connecting to data and services across on-premises and public cloud."

While Windows Azure has attracted a fair number of customers ranging from startups to large enterprises, its use has been limited to small projects, said Forrester Research analyst James Staten.

"We haven't seen enterprises betting big with significant or complex applications because they felt limited by what Azure could give," Staten said. "We have seen customers who have spread applications between the infrastructure as a service of Amazon and Azure, where they were only putting the pieces on Azure that made sense, and limited their exposure."

Eric Boyd, founder and CEO of Chicago-based technology consulting firm responsiveX, agreed. "I think this will make Azure quite a bit more attractive because you don't have that split model," he said. "I can use Azure for everything." The fact that Microsoft is offering an IaaS is an acknowledgment that customers are concerned about isolated PaaSes as not having broad enough appeal and use cases within their companies, Forrester's Staten added.  

"It should have a significant impact on adoption because a lot of customers feel that Platform as a Service locks them in more than Infrastructure as a Service," Staten said. "It's also harder to move an application that you may be running on premise to a cloud when you have to make a move from just a virtualized datacenter instance into Platform as a Service. Now it's much easier to do that migration. If you couple that with the enhancements they've made to System Center, it's much easier to do from a common operational platform."

Boyd said the infrastructure services added to the Windows Azure offering will be critical in bridging datacenter applications to the public cloud. "Think about servers like SharePoint or application servers like BizTalk where I may need stateful virtual machines," Boyd said. "This opens up new possibilities to bring other application scenarios into the Azure environment."

Hybrid clouds are possible today with Microsoft's current service via Windows Azure Connect, Boyd pointed out, by allowing organizations to build a VPN tunnel between on-premise servers and Windows Azure. However, it does so via machine-to-machine connections. "Now Windows Azure Virtual Network will allow us to do it at the network and router level instead of requiring machine to machine agents," he said. "It makes configuration so much easier because it's at the network stack and not at the server level."

At the same time, Microsoft is hoping its support for Linux and other open source frameworks can establish Windows Azure as a portfolio of cloud services that will appeal beyond its core customer base. Customers will be able to host Linux distributions including Canonical's Ubuntu 12.04, CentOS-6.2 and SUSE's OpenSUSE 12.1 and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11 SP2.

"Microsoft still has to justify their credibility off platform," Staten said. "Having the Linux support is good but lacking Red Hat, which is the most dominant Linux distribution used by enterprises, could be a factor but its unclear how much of a factor that will be."

Microsoft said is also releasing extended support for open source languages and frameworks including an Eclipse plug-in for Java, NoSQL including MongoDB integration, Memcached using non-.NET languages and code configuration that will enable hosting Solr/Lucene. Cloudant is among the companies that said its NoSQL database service will be available on Windows Azure. Cloudant's "data layer as a service" is designed to let an application behave as though it's running on a cluster in one datacenter when in fact the cluster is distributed among multiple datacenters.

In order for that to work on Windows Azure, Microsoft had to change some of their underlying storage architectures and server infrastructures and virtualized environments so that Cloudant could run in multiple datacenters, said Cloudant CEO Derek Schoettle. "They did so willingly," Schoettle said. "It was exciting to have them offer alternatives and suggestions and ideas for how we can make Cloudant as performant if not more performant than some of the [cloud] providers we work with."

Microsoft also announced other new features to its Windows Azure portfolio, including:

  • Windows Azure Web Sites: Will let developers build and deploy Web sites using ASP.NET, PHP and Node.js, as well as have support for WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Umbraco and DotNetNuke.

  • Windows Azure Management Portal: An upgrade that will provide integrated management across Windows Azure workloads with a new user interface and improved deployment configuration, monitoring and troubleshooting. It will support Microsoft's Cloud Services, Virtual Machines, Web Sites, Virtual Network, SQL Database (previously called SQL Azure) and storage.

  • Improved Developer Support: Including continuous deployment with Windows Azure Web Sites and the ability to build, test and deploy sites using VSTS or Git and an updated Windows Azure SDK, which will run on Macintosh and Linux clients for the first time.

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.


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