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

Microsoft took tentative steps to embrace the cloud in 2009, most notably with its development of Azure, Redmond's cloud-based system for creating applications and services. In a departure from its traditionally desktop-bound model for many of its applications, Microsoft also signaled that it would incorporate browser-based functionality into its Office 2010 offerings, slated for general release sometime next year. The release of Google's Chrome OS in 2010, although initially meant for netbooks, could change the general OS ecosystem in ways that could affect Microsoft's development of Windows 8.

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.