Microsoft TechEd 2013: Windows Azure Differentiates From the Crowd

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2013-06-03

Microsoft TechEd 2013: Windows Azure Differentiates From the Crowd

Microsoft has been gradually and consistently evolving its Windows Azure cloud platform to differentiate it from other competing offerings. At the Microsoft TechEd 2013 conference, the software giant gets to show off some of the new ways Microsoft is positioning Windows Azure and making developers offers they might find very hard to refuse.

Some of the specific features Microsoft is unveiling at TechEd this week in New Orleans, especially for developers, is a new set of dev and test capabilities, said Scott Guthrie, corporate vice president of the server and tools business at Microsoft, in an interview with eWEEK.

“I think that this is really for a lot of people [who] aren’t really using the cloud today. This is going to be an unbeatable offer, where if you’re an MSDN customer or a Visual Studio .NET customer, you kind of can’t afford not to be using Windows Azure once this comes out,” Guthrie said.

Specifically, what Microsoft is doing is the cloud really enables the platform that’s ideal for developer and test scenarios, in the sense that it’s elastic and developers can very quickly spin up resources as they need them and tear them down, and the pay-only-for-what-you-use model with Windows Azure specifically enables this and makes it very cost effective.

Because even a team with solutions based on-premise can still use the cloud to spin up VMs to run on .NET, Windows Server, SQL, all the standard products they do today within them and if they need more they can just add more VMs in a manner of minutes. They don’t have to call IT and wait a couple of hours or a couple of days to get infrastructure, Guthrie said.

“And because you can turn off the VMs overnight or on the weekends, you can spin a lot of VMs for a few hours and shut them down,” he said. “And you’re only paying for when they’re running. That’s super cost effective for dev/test because it ends up being very elastic and very versatile.”

The core of it is you can already do this with Microsoft’s Infrastructure as a Service and already spin up VMs, but among the specific things the company is announcing at TechEd next week is the ability to shut down your VMs and pause them, and billing will stop. Previously you had to delete the VMs for billing to stop. Now users have the ability to stop and start VMs at will. When you hit the stop button all the billing stops, you push start and it starts back up again. It’s much more flexible, Guthrie said.

In addition, “We’re moving from a per-hour billing model to a per-minute billing model,” he said. “We’re doing this across all Azure services, so it benefits production apps as well. But the nice thing about this feature is now if I only use six minutes of a VM, I only pay for the six minutes of the VM that I’m using. Previously both Windows Azure and Amazon would bill you for the entire hour above a certain threshold. Now we only charge you for the minutes you use and we’re really the only cloud provider out there that has that true model. Google a few weeks ago announced per-minute billing, but they still round you up to 10-minute increments. So if you do six minutes they’ll still charge you for 10. With Azure, we’re the first cloud where if you use six minutes we’ll only charge you for six minutes."

Microsoft TechEd 2013: Windows Azure Differentiates from the Crowd

Microsoft also is enabling a bunch of new capabilities through the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) with Windows Azure, Guthrie said.

“Specifically today with MSDN, when you sign up for an MSDN subscription, you have what are called use rights, so that you could use SharePoint or SQL or Windows Server or BizTalk for developer and test services without having to pay for those licenses,” he said. “But up until now the use rights for MSDN did not allow you to use those licenses in a hosted environment. What we’re announcing at TechEd is we’re enabling the MSDN licenses to be used on Windows Azure, and you can take those MSDN licenses you already have and use them on Windows Azure. Even better, we are integrating MSDN images inside the Windows Azure management portal, so directly within Azure you can go on and create a Windows Azure VM and install your license on it, or you could just go ahead inside the portal and click the SQL image and run it under your MSDN license and we’ll spin up in a matter of minutes a Windows Server just for you with your SQL Server with you SQL MSDN license on it and you’re not paying anything extra for that license.”

Moreover, Microsoft also is announcing some really deep rate reductions when you have an MSDN license and you want to do development and test inside Windows Azure. Previously when users wanted to do dev and test on Azure or Amazon or anyone else, they would pay the standard rates that the company would charge also for production.

“For Windows Azure and Amazon today it’s 9 cents per hour for a small VM to run for Windows, for SQL it would be 64 cents an hour, for BizTalk it would be 75 cents an hour,” Guthrie said. “What we’ve done is announced the ability to run dev/test workloads on Azure at a dramatically reduced rate. We’re basically going to just charge you 6 cents per hour for any workload–that’s a saving of 33 percent each hour if you’re just running Windows Server, a savings of 90 percent if you’re running SQL, and a savings of 92 percent if you’re running BizTalk. And no other cloud provider out there provides those types of discounts. And this dramatically makes it cheaper to do development and test in the cloud. And when coupled with per-minute billing, this makes it super, super-cost effective for any organization to spin up any number of VMs in the cloud. With this offer you can run thousands of VMs if you want to for development and test.”

And to make it even sweeter, Microsoft is also giving every MSDN subscriber monetary credits. So depending on your MSDN subscription, the company will give you a free coupon to use on Windows Azure each month for anything you want to do for dev and test. So every MSDN Professional user will get $50 a month in credits, every MSDN Premium user will get $100 a month, and every MSDN Ultimate user will get $150 a month. And the portal will show you how many credits you use.

Microsoft TechEd 2013: Windows Azure Differentiates from the Crowd

“So you could spin up a bunch of VMs and not pay us a penny for the month, depending on what you use," Guthrie said. “Like if you want to spin up a Hadoop cluster and test out MapReduce jobs you could do that, run it all day and not pay us anything. If you want to build Web apps and you want to use SQL Server, you could spin up that environment, run it pretty much the entire month and not pay us anything. But the beauty about these credits, plus the discounted rates, plus the per-minute billing, plus the stop-without-billing features means that an awful lot of dev teams today can start to use Azure for dev/test purposes and they’re not paying anything more than they are with their MSDN license. And they can use it both for cloud apps that they’ve built, but also they can use it to deploy apps that they’ve built on their existing Windows Servers on premise today. So it’s a really kind of unbeatable offer that any .NET, any Visual Studio, any MSDN user today should take advantage of. I don’t know how to make that one better other than giving you a free data center with it.”

Microsoft is making these offers easy to take advantage of; people can use it for all their existing workflows and it plays to the company’s hybrid strengths across Windows Server and Windows Azure. Guthrie maintains that that symmetry and consistency is quite unique and it’s something no other cloud vendor has.

Meanwhile, in addition to dev/test, a new service Microsoft is offering is Windows Azure BizTalk Services. Microsoft earlier this year shipped BizTalk Server 2013, which was a major update that works on premises. It can also run in VMs. However, this is a new Platform as a Service capability called BizTalk Services, designed to be compatible with the server, but it’s a managed service so you don’t have to install it inside a VM yourself or do any admin. Microsoft will run it clustered for you automatically.

BizTalk Server is a relatively advanced, feature-rich product that is non-trivial to set up. Companies typically need to put BizTalk outside the firewall and configure it. They often spend hundreds of thousands of dollars just installing BizTalk Server. But with the new BizTalk Services users can stand up a BizTalk implementation in about six minutes, Guthrie said. That’s with high-availability, scaled out, secure, completely isolated and ready to use. And it works with the same pay-by-the-minute model. It opens up the possibilities for using BizTalk in a much more broader space for both the enterprise and SMB scenarios, he said.

Microsoft is launching this in preview form at TechEd in a dev/test version as well as basic, standard and premium editions. “We’re also shipping full .NET support and rich Visual Studio tooling support, so you can create bridges and adapters to integrate the BizTalk Services with your on-premise products like SAP, or existing databases or business systems,” Guthrie said.

These updates build on where Microsoft has taken Windows Azure over the last year.

Microsoft TechEd 2013: Windows Azure Differentiates from the Crowd

“We kind of re-launched it last June,” Guthrie said. “We shipped our Infrastructure-as-a-Service capability, we have a new management portal that really pulls together the product end-to-end, and we’ve got a bunch of great new features throughout the system, whether it’s Web and mobile back-end solutions, our media solution that we shipped earlier this year that lets you do streaming and coding, or the new big data Hadoop work we’ve done. I think the product’s in a good state. Yet, we’re continuing to make it better–both in the cloud, but also from a hybrid computing perspective where you can take advantage of the assets and the software that runs on-premise and connect it to the cloud. So a number of our Windows Server V-next discussions will center around improvements we are making along those lines. So you’ll see improvements there–so you’ll see a lot of end-to-end connectedness throughout our developer and connected stack. We’re using this to power the whole company now. The new Xbox One releases are based on Azure. We’re bootstrapping it and dogfooding it ourselves.”

Moreover, both TechEd and Build will start to make it “crystal clear” that Microsoft has a really broad platform and “you’ll begin to see us provide real differentiations that no one else can provide,” Guthrie told eWEEK.

“Part if it’s what I call unbeatable offers, where you look at it and say how can I not use that?,” Guthrie said. “For every MSDN user, of which there are many millions, the economics of not using the cloud no longer make sense. With the BizTalk Services release you also see us playing to our hybrid strengths in a very unique way. It’s a unique service that’s only provided by us. You’ll continually see us do more with each release–we’re doing one every three weeks now–where we’re really differentiating in a unique way that adds value to customers and helps Windows Azure pull ahead of others in the market and offer unique value propositions others are not providing today and it will be difficult for them to match.”

Mostly, though, Guthrie wants people to see that Microsoft is no longer providing base compute and storage and virtual machines. “You’re going to continue to see us evolve the service in a pretty compelling way where pretty much each month you’re going to see another one of these enhancements, where instead of a lift and shift discussion where people can take their existing code and assets and run it in the cloud, they can start to see the unique value of stuff they couldn’t do before that the cloud now enables. The magic sauce is taking advantage of the fact that we’re both on-premise and in the cloud and how we stitch those things together in unique ways.”

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