Windows Azure Key Tool in Microsoft Battle to Enlist Cloud Developers

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2013-12-23

Windows Azure Key Tool in Microsoft Battle to Enlist Cloud Developers

When it comes to the cloud, Microsoft is like the line in the old Avis ad: They try harder.

That's not to say the software company is necessarily number two in the cloud space; Microsoft clearly is behind cloud pioneer Amazon Web Services (AWS). But even AWS' status as leader in the cloud is being challenged by IBM.

In any event, the devices and services giant is leading with its strength when it comes to the cloud by appealing to developers. Microsoft is counting on its long-standing developer prowess to carry over into the cloud. While the effort is in its relatively early days, that bet looks to be paying off.

The formula is familiar. Scott Guthrie, Microsoft's vice president for Windows Azure, spent 10 years in Microsoft's Developer Division and maintains a keen interest in how developers interact with the Microsoft cloud.

As ZDNet reported, one of the first things Guthrie did when he joined the Windows Azure team in 2011 was hold an offsite meeting where he challenged team members to build an impromptu Windows Azure app using the Microsoft tools available at the time. When several members took longer than expected, Guthrie knew some changes needed to be made. With his background in the tooling world, Guthrie went to work advancing the toolset for Windows Azure.

"One of the things I've spent time on since I've been in Azure is focusing on how we have a great developer integration story and take advantage the millions of developers who use .NET and Visual Studio today," he told eWEEK. "Over the last year in particular, we had some good dialogue across the division and made some shared bets that you can see today and others you'll see in the future."

Today, Microsoft has "a really differentiated dev test offering, with the ability to use your Active Directory credentials to have enterprise access control, to have visual studio integration inside the IDE [integrated development environment], to have the TFS [Team Foundation Server] analytics and the Visual Studio Online browser editing support for Azure apps. Having all that come together is really starting to turn heads."

When it comes to winning the hearts and minds of cloud application developers, Microsoft is well-equipped to appeal to them based on its history with the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) and its Professional Developers Conferences (PDCs, now Build) and dating back further to the old Geekfests at Microsoft events with pizza and cheap beer. Microsoft is known for its relationships with developers, certainly more so than Amazon.

"I would say that Amazon is definitely winning those who count their pennies," said Al Hilwa, an IDC analyst who focuses on software development.

Many developers out there—especially those running major apps—are focused on costs and tend to gravitate to infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) offerings like AWS and Azure, Hilwa said.

"I have noticed that Azure is brought up often in discussions, so Microsoft appears to be making inroads," he told eWEEK. "A lot of Microsoft enterprise customers are using Azure in hybrid scenarios for testing or burst scenarios or for new projects. Another important player that I am hearing more and more about is We are noticing bigger enterprises are using and using it in a bigger way. Cloud computing is definitely winning developer hearts and minds."


Windows Azure Key Tool in Microsoft Battle to Enlist Cloud Developers

Aside from AWS, other platforms might offer a more open approach than Microsoft's, such as IBM with its foundation on OpenStack. However, Microsoft, led by Guthrie, has been pushing Azure to support more open, standard technology. When Microsoft hinted that it would support Linux workloads on Windows Azure, many in the industry scoffed. But the company made good on that bet and delivered support for Linux workloads on Azure last year.

After providing the Linux support, Microsoft went on an innovation tear with Windows Azure in 2013, adding a host of functionality to enhance the platform's viability in the enterprise. When asked what was next in the Microsoft Windows Azure playbook, Guthrie simply said his team was executing a "run and gun offense," which when pulled off effectively, leads to high scoring games and keeps competitors on their heels. That is indeed what Microsoft has been doing with Windows Azure, as every three weeks there is a new major release of the platform, he said.

Guthrie had difficulty trying to list just some of the highlights in Microsoft's efforts around Windows Azure this year. He kept having to add a few more things.

"In terms of highlights for this year, there have been a lot," Guthrie said. "Our infrastructure-as-a-service offering going GA [general availability] is a big one, all the networking capabilities that we've shipped, including the announcements around private fiber and direct connect support, including support for MPLS [Multiprotocol Label Switching] and Equinix and AT&T are big. We've announced six new regions, including China, Japan and Australia—two in each of those. And entering China for us is a major initiative. We're the first cloud provider to do it.

"We also announced our federal government regions—another two there. We've shipped Websites, we've shipped mobile services, we introduced AutoScale, we introduced monitoring support, BizTalk Services, the MSDN dev test offer. We've done Active Directory, we also added the SaaS management capabilities to it. And we introduced our new distributed cache service. We shipped our Hadoop offer," Guthrie continued.

Platform-as-a-service (PaaS) provider Engine Yard forged an alliance with Microsoft earlier this year to give its customers choice. Steeped in the open-source world with a foundation based on open-source technology, Engine Yard initially was leery of Microsoft.

According to Bill Platt, formerly senior vice president of operations at Engine Yard, when the company partnered with Microsoft, both internal company developers and developers at Engine Yard customers said they were unsure about Microsoft's plans to support open-source technology when the company began talking about it two years ago.

However, none doubted Microsoft's commitment to developers, Platt said.

"Developers do believe and have always believed that Microsoft cares about developers because they've been awesome about MSDN and all the interfaces being there for developers, and having a bunch of documentation available " Platt told eWEEK at Microsoft's Build conference in June, where Engine Yard enhanced its multi-cloud vision with support for Windows Azure. "So a lot of the developers we talk to, like those in PHP land, said it would be wonderful if that were the case, but I don't feel like that is the case yet."


Windows Azure Key Tool in Microsoft Battle to Enlist Cloud Developers

However, a year later, after Microsoft revealed its support for Linux workloads and support for a host of open development frameworks, the Engine Yard developers' views changed.

The reason Engine Yard moved to support Azure was simple: the bottom line. The option offered benefits to customers who wanted to do Azure and Microsoft technology but also wanted to do open source. Some customers want to do their open-source thing and also to leverage the strength and omnipresence of Microsoft and Windows Azure. There are synergies for enterprises and customers such as development shops and digital agencies.

"The alliance between Microsoft and Engine Yard gives our joint customers a unique solution that combines the reach and enterprise readiness of Windows Azure with the open-source expertise and cloud application management platform from Engine Yard," Carsten Puls, vice president of product management at Engine Yard, told eWEEK. "This solution serves developers and IT professionals at startups, small and midsize businesses, as well as large, global enterprises who want to quickly and easily deploy Web and mobile apps to the cloud."

Through their strategic alliance, Engine Yard and Microsoft are delivering a commercial-grade, open-source-based platform on top of on-demand infrastructure that is useful for developers and IT professionals at startups, small and midsize businesses (SMBs) and larger enterprises.

Windows Azure is committed to openness and serving developers, Guthrie said. "By working with Engine Yard, we're further enabling developers who use open-source languages and frameworks to take advantage of a leading cloud application platform to create and deploy modern Web and mobile apps more easily," he said.

Mark Gaydos, formerly senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Engine Yard, said, "I don't think over the last two years anybody else [of the major cloud players] was interested in how you make developers' lives better. There were other people who would sell you on, 'Oh, you can run Windows in my infrastructure' or you can run whatever you want in their infrastructure, but that's different than making it possible for the developer to take advantage of the actual big customer bases that would like that."

Microsoft offers customers a balance of automation and control when they deploy open-source solutions in Linux virtual environments on Windows Azure.

"With the availability of Windows Azure on Engine Yard Cloud, we have even more choice for delivering solutions to meet our clients' diverse needs," said Michael Smith, CTO at Canvas, a digital agency in New York City. "Our clients don't have one technical persona. We've built a wide variety of premium applications—from Facebook games up through content management systems for large enterprises. With this relationship between Engine Yard and Microsoft, we can select the best infrastructure, so we stay nimble by using the latest technology for building and deploying apps in the cloud."

Engine Yard Cloud is available in the Windows Azure Store.


Windows Azure Key Tool in Microsoft Battle to Enlist Cloud Developers

Meanwhile, Guthrie said, Microsoft is in a good place: It's early in the game in the cloud space and Microsoft is just beginning to differentiate itself.

"The biggest thing for us is, with the things like BizTalk and Active Directory, it shows us getting very pointy with a particular audience," Guthrie said. "We're getting to a point where we have these really differentiated services. Active Directory is in 93 percent of all Fortune 1000 companies, and you can now easily use it in the cloud and integrate your security. That's a hugely differentiated capability. Likewise, the integration capability that we have is something that Amazon has not gone after; it's not something that Google I think will ever go after."

Moreover, when asked how Windows Azure today jibes with what former Microsoft Software Architect Ray Ozzie envisioned when he championed the technology during his tenure at the company, Guthrie said that in hindsight, Microsoft would probably release an IaaS at the same time. Microsoft initially delivered Azure as a platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offering.

"I think one of the things that I think Ray was very farsighted on is the desire that customers have around the power of more platform as a service, and having more managed services that you're not having to, as a developer, maintain, patch, tweak and operate, and that just work," he said. "I think that is something that all cloud vendors are starting to pursue."

However, at the time when Ozzie was evangelizing it—Windows Azure first went public in early 2008—that was a very farsighted thing, Guthrie said. Among the things the company looked at was where the market was going to be six or seven years from the introduction of Windows Azure.

"And one of things that we've seen since we released our infrastructure as a service—I think Satya [Nadella, executive vice president of Microsoft's Cloud and Enterprise group] has been quoted as saying at least 20 percent of our compute is now IaaS—is both the desire of companies that want to be able to reuse their existing code or the flexibility that it gives you as an on-ramp," Guthrie said.


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