The VM Role, Support for Linux Are Huge Changes for Microsoft Azure

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2012-06-07

Microsoft Pushes Windows Azure to Play With the Big Clouds

Microsoft€™s move to open Windows Azure up and launch a new infrastructure as a service play along with its initial platform as a service strategy can only be viewed as a bold move aimed directly at segment leader Amazon Web Services.

When Microsoft initially launched Windows Azure in 2010, the company hinted that infrastructure as a service (IaaS) would be a significant part of the strategy although the platform as a service (PaaS) component was clearly the dominant focus. Former Microsoft Server and Tools president Bob Muglia touted Windows Azure€™s IaaS promise perhaps before its time. But now Microsoft has delivered and the deliverable looks to be a good start, according to some.

Indeed, Microsoft announced IaaS capabilities as well as new Linux support for its Windows Azure cloud computing platform. Windows Azure will allow users to run OpenSUSE 12.1, CentOS 6.2, Ubuntu 12.04 and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11 SP2. They also will allow users to run Windows Server 2008 R2 and the Windows Server 2012 Release Candidate.

Microsoft announced a slew of new updates and services for Windows Azure, available June 7, that make it a more flexible, open and powerful platform and simplify building applications that span cloud and on-premises servers. The releases mark another milestone in Microsoft€™s road map of embracing open-source software (OSS) tools developers know, love and want to use to build applications in the cloud, the company said.

Microsoft announced Windows Azure Virtual Machines, which enable infrastructure as a service (IaaS) capabilities for Windows and Linux-based workloads, as well as the Windows Azure Virtual Network to provision and manage virtual private networks (VPNs) and securely extend on-premises networks into Windows Azure. Meanwhile, Windows Azure Websites enable developers to quickly and easily build and deploy Websites with support for multiple frameworks and popular open-source applications.

€œI think this release is a big deal. It represents Microsoft€™s first major adjustment in its ongoing effort to create the leading cloud application platform,€ John Rymer, an analyst with Forrester Research, told eWEEK. €œThe adjustment aligns Microsoft much better with the preferences of developers working in cloud.€

€œThe VM role and support for Linux are huge changes for Microsoft Azure,€ Rymer added. €œBoth moves open Azure€™s doors to a range of new applications€”and developers. In essence, Microsoft has added an Amazon-like flavor to Azure, acknowledging the huge amount of developer activity on Amazon Web Services. Microsoft had no choice but to make this move, in my view. Azure started out as a €˜Microsoft platform€™ [the successor to .NET], but it is now an open cloud platform. The VM role is crucial to achieving this goal, as it allows developers to stand up whatever environments they choose. Supporting Linux opens the door still further by allowing all those devs who prefer Linux to get involved with Azure as well.€

The VM Role, Support for Linux Are Huge Changes for Microsoft Azure

Andrew Brust, CEO of Microsoft analyst and advisory firm Blue Badge Insights, based in New York City, said, €œThe Linux thing is a long time in coming. When Microsoft went in on the Attachmate-Novell deal in 2010, and did it for IP ownership, I thought one big reason was getting Linux to work really well on Hyper-V and Azure. Now that€™s here. In general, tech heterogeneity is a reality, and a reality that Azure needs to accommodate. Supporting multiple OSes, languages, IDEs [integrated development environments], database models [i.e. relational and NoSQL], source-code control systems and dev clients [including the Mac] just makes sense.€

Meanwhile, Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC, said he saw Windows Azure as a PaaS from the beginning. However, €œthe first release overshot the mark. Not everybody was ready for it or willing to have to re-architect their apps. So Microsoft had to circle back around and flesh out their offering.€

€œAs enterprise adoption of Windows Azure and cloud computing grows, the importance of coming together to solve interoperability issues is only growing. We at Microsoft want to work with the ecosystem of vendors and communities to deliver cloud solutions to customers based on their specific needs and scenarios,€ said Sandy Gupta, general manager of the Open Solutions Group at Microsoft.

Microsoft has been hard at work at the €œfleshing€ part, working with partners to get there. For instance, RightScale has been working together with Microsoft toward this release of Azure that supports IaaS, and is offering a private beta of RightScale support for Microsoft's "technical preview" of Azure, Michael Crandell, CEO of RightScale, told eWEEK. RightScale will be joining Microsoft at their Meet Windows Azure event in San Francisco on June 7.

€œIn our view, this is really great news, and more evidence that cloud infrastructure now dominates as the architecture for 'the new IT,€™€ Crandell said. €œMicrosoft knows how to run cloud-scale global data center operations at a high level of excellence.  It's a cloud you can depend on. They've shown boldness opening their platform and embracing other technologies such as Linux virtual machines and hosting Git repositories. Offering both PaaS and IaaS in Azure with a consistent set of APIs and tools€”and from a single shared infrastructure€”is a compelling new capability that significantly broadens its previous audience and the types of workloads that can be supported.€

Analysts Weigh in on the Roles of IaaS, PaaS

€œHaving a true IaaS solution is crucial,€ Brust said. €œI think the PaaS model is more elegant, but there are just too many projects where it won€™t work, or where a hybrid approach is required. Azure had disenfranchised itself from all of those projects, essentially creating a self-imposed boycott. Soon that boycott will lifted, and Microsoft will have better chances of competing with a bookseller for IT€™s next mainstream platform.€

James Staten, a Forrester analyst spells out the significance of Microsoft€™s PaaS versus IaaS play in a blog post on the Azure news:

Windows Azure debuted as an ahead-of-its-time foundational platform as a service (PaaS) for its core installed base of .Net developers but has since expanded and extended its appeal. Unlike application-centric PaaS offerings that really are extensions of a single SaaS application, ala Salesforce's, Windows Azure is meant as a general-purpose platform and has grown more general and applicable since its initial release. Last year it grew from .Net to other languages that ran atop Windows and its ASP server including Java, JavaScript, PHP, Python, Ruby and other common Web languages. It added APIs and integrations for Visual Studio, Eclipse and popular scripting languages. But you needed a Windows machine to deploy, and the target was a Windows server or middleware service. With its June release, Microsoft has finally joined the mainstream by adding a full infrastructure as a service (IaaS) offering that lets you deploy just about anything. The new IaaS service is clearly designed with at least surface knowledge of the market leaders, Amazon Web Services, Rackspace and others, and leverages a much more mature Hyper-V as the virtualization layer. Both Windows and Linux are supported (all but RedHat it seems) as the guest OS and you can deploy directly from a Mac or Linux machine.

Its unique PaaS capabilities continue, of course, which makes Windows Azure one of the most empowering cloud platforms for enterprise organizations on the market today, Staten added. He also cites the impending competition with AWS and others in the IaaS space, noting that AWS has been continually beefing up its capabilities.

€œAWS has been rapidly adding services that preconfigure and manage common stacks and applications,€ Staten said. €œIts Simple Queuing Service was one of its first moves. It now has a whole series of plug-and-play development services for notification, mail, caching, databases, content delivery, MapReduce and many more. It also offers Elastic Beanstalk and CloudFormation for simple deployment of complex workloads. None of these rise to the level of PaaS, which provides abstraction of a full middleware layer but to fill this role, AWS has its ecosystem of partners such as Tibco, Engine Yard, Heroku and others who deliver their PaaS atop AWS' base IaaS service.€

But in the end, Microsoft has to play to its strengths, one of which has always been its ability to connect with developers. Though it has wavered at times, Microsoft maintains a commitment to its developer base. That is evident here. Microsoft continues to develop Windows Azure€™s PaaS features. The media services look very strong, and SQL Azure is also maturing as a database option, Forrester€™s Rymer said. Microsoft also has begun to bring its full range of properties to Azure, including the Office services, SharePoint and CRM. The result: quite a rich range of relatively mature services for developers, he said.

Yet, €œthere€™s still much to be done,€ Rymer noted. €œMicrosoft€™s new release sets the stage for easier setup of hybrid cloud architectures, but the on-premise .NET environment and Azure environment are still not exactly the same. They will be. Also, support for multiple languages and frameworks is still pretty basic. Devs can bring their own Java stacks to Azure€™s virtual machine role, for example, but Microsoft isn€™t yet providing a Java PaaS. That also is coming. Why Microsoft is making these moves and opening up? As I said, if they don€™t open up, a lot of developers won€™t give Azure the time of day. Microsoft€™s hope is that once developers land on Azure, they€™ll stay and€”most importantly€”consider using Microsoft€™s developer services.€

Meanwhile, in a blog post on the issue, Raphael Simon, a senior system architect at RightScale said:

The adoption of IaaS vs. PaaS across the cloud industry has shown that large-scale cloud usage requires IaaS. This fits with what we are seeing in that workloads being ported to the cloud by our services team are consistently increasing in complexity. Nowadays, very few deployments are satisfied with prebuilt configurations. That does not mean that PaaS is irrelevant€”far from it€”but rather that PaaS by itself is rarely sufficient. For both technical and nontechnical reasons, key parts of large-scale deployments require more control, which is currently only available at the IaaS level. Being able to move these key application components into an infrastructure cloud is oftentimes a prerequisite for moving anything to the cloud. One interesting outcome is that adding IaaS should actually help increase the usage of PaaS as it lets users pick and choose the right tool for the right component.

Microsoft is now in a unique position offering both PaaS and IaaS services through a consistent set of tools and APIs. It€™s not just about the tools, though; it€™s also and foremost about the platform itself: Windows Azure makes it possible to run PaaS applications and IaaS servers on shared infrastructure.

Overall, observers see Microsoft's news as a positive move for the company. €œThis is an all-round upgrade with something for everyone, but the most significant functionality to my mind is the VM functionality,€ said Al Hilwa, an IDC analyst. €œCloud platform applications so far have been written for the cloud from scratch. Allowing apps originally written to an on-premise model to move to Azure and leverage its infrastructure is the right approach to bring more usage and utilization for Azure. This capability and the Virtual Network capability will allow enterprises to begin to dip their toes with cloud platforms and ultimately make more use of clouds for increasing portions of their portfolios.€

And Lucas Carlson, CEO of AppFog, which has partnered with Microsoft in delivering some of the new functionality in Windows Azure, warns folks not to count Microsoft out in the cloud space. €œI think Microsoft has been thought of as an underdog in cloud with Azure, but what Microsoft is doing I€™m very bullish on. They€™ve been an underdog, and now they have the opportunity to reestablish what Azure is and broaden the appeal.€

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