Microsoft Moved into the Cloud in 2009 with Azure, Office Web Apps

By Nicholas Kolakowski  |  Posted 2009-12-15

Microsoft Moved into the Cloud in 2009 with Azure, Office Web Apps

Microsoft made its fortune with a desktop-centric software development model. However, 2009 saw the emergence of cloud-based computing, and, with it, a challenge to the software giant's traditional business model.

Microsoft has been experimenting with cloud-computing platforms aimed at a number of different audiences, although the full results of those efforts probably won't be known until 2010 and beyond. One of the mainstays of its efforts, Windows Azure, was actually introduced during Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference in 2008.

The Azure platform is composed of three parts, which work in symphony for creating Web applications and services: Windows Azure, an operating system as a service; SQL Azure, a cloud-based relational database; and .Net services, which provide both secure connectivity and federated access control for applications.

As Azure developed, its creators drew inspiration from another cloud-based Microsoft product: Bing, its search engine that debuted in June.

"Over the past year, the industry understanding of the cloud has really evolved," Bob Muglia, president of Microsoft's Server and Tools Business Division, said during a Nov. 17 keynote address at the 2009 Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles. "One thing that has become very clear is that the cloud is about more than infrastructure: it's also an application model."

Azure's developers looked to Bing as a successful model of a cloud-based application, not only because it ran on multiple data centers, but because its infrastructure had been built on the Autopilot platform, which allowed for automatic data center management.

"Autopilot is a great prototype, but it wasn't built as a platform that could be generalized," Muglia said. "That's where Azure has come in-to take those ideas and generalize them in the form of an application platform that can be broadly used."

Azure will be offered as a Community Technology Preview until the end of 2009, with Jan. 1, 2010 marking the full switch-on of the cloud platform for enterprises. By February 2010, users will have to pay for Azure services.

Customers will have three payment options: a pay-as-you-go model, a subscription format or volume licensing. For all three types of service, users will pay 10 cents per gigabyte for incoming data, and 15 cents for outgoing data, while the "consumption" model will charge 12 cents per hour of infrastructure usage. Storage will cost 15 cents per gigabyte. The business edition of the SQL Azure database will cost $99.99.

Can Microsoft Compete in the Cloud?


Once Azure has been fully switched on, the question will become how well Microsoft's cloud offering can compete against those from Amazon and Google.

"Microsoft will play a major role over time because of its tremendous market footprint and technical resources," Gartner analyst Ray Valdes told eWEEK when the platform was first unveiled in 2008. "There are many enterprises that consider themselves Microsoft shops that have people that only know Microsoft tools and APIs... Amazon and Google have been chipping away at these, but Microsoft is firmly entrenched."

But the rewards may well be worth the potential risk: another Gartner report suggested that cloud services represent a potential $150 billion opportunity within the marketplace.

In March, the early test release of the cloud platform experienced a 22-hour outage, during which users received messages describing applications as "stopped" or "initializing." Azure relies on a worldwide network of distributed data centers to deliver applications to users, although Microsoft signaled in August that it would migrate Azure functionality from its northwest data center due to "a change in local tax laws."

As that market grows, Microsoft is planning a number of cloud-based initiatives and programs, including Windows Server 2008 R2 Hyper-V virtual machine support on Azure, as well as Microsoft Pinpoint Marketplace, which lets partners market and sell applications. The RTM of Windows Identity Foundation will allow developers to provide simplified user access to both cloud and on-premises applications.

But Microsoft will also integrate cloud functionality into many of its traditionally desktop-bound offerings. 

Browser accessible versions of OneNote, Excel, Word and PowerPoint will be made available for free through the cloud to Windows Live subscribers, although those wanting the full functionality of the upcoming Office 2010 will still need to purchase the full version. This step seems tailored by Microsoft to counteract a rising threat from cloud-based productivity suites such as Google Apps, which have the potential to chew Redmond's market share.

An eWEEK review of the Office Web Apps Technical Preview can be found here. Microsoft describes the Web suite's functionality in its current form as "modest."

Microsoft's current forays into cloud computing, though, give no clue about how Redmond will deal with integrating cloud into future versions of its other desktop-based platforms, most notably Windows, as cloud becomes increasingly prevalent in coming years. Google will release its browser-based Chrome OS, initially meant for netbooks, by late 2010, but how that may affect the development of Windows 8 remains to be seen.

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