Windows Azure: Microsoft Banks on Programmer Loyalty

Microsoft Corp.'s long hold on power in the software industry has depended on its solid grip on developers. Programmers have written uncountable desktop and client/server applications over the decades that have inextricably linked independent software developers and corporate IT shops to Microsoft. Now the company aims to do the same for cloud-based software by luring loyal programmers to its Windows Azure environment.

Still in beta, Azure features both proprietary tools that Windows developers will recognize and standard technologies that could appeal to programmers outside of Microsoft's orbit. Whether that strategy will work remains to be seen, since Microsoft trails Salesforce.com, Amazon.com, Google and others in entering the cloud, which Merrill-Lynch & Co. has estimated will be a $95 billion market by 2011.

Azure's underlying operating system is a version of Windows Server 2008 that is currently running on virtualized two-core, dual-processor Intel servers. Steven Martin, Microsoft's director of connected system products management, says that unlike traditional developers, Azure application writers won't need to take hardware constraints into account when developing software because Azure is designed to scale up or down based on application demands. Moreover, he says, Azure's .Net Services and SQL Services incorporate characteristics of cloud computing.

For example, Danny Kim, chief technology officer at FullArmor Corp., a Boston-based IT services provider, used Azure's updated .Net workflow capabilities to automate endpoint provisioning and patching services for teachers in rural Ethiopia. Kim says teachers log in sporadically to the national government's Azure service, where systems administrators have a "script on steroids" that updates teachers' machines while it pulls down curriculum metrics from the remote laptops. He says that with Azure, the government doesn't have to worry about when or how often teachers access the service. "You can put workflow into the cloud, which helps you scale the application," Kim says.

Azure Advantages

Erik Johnson, senior director of research at Epicor Software Corp. in Irvine, Calif., says Azure is "not just computing in the cloud with storage," like the offerings from Amazon.com and Google. He says users also get additional programming capabilities, such as security tools in .Net that define how their identity or their application's identity is handled by the various services.

Windows Azure Services

These services are currently available in Windows Azure:

* Live Services

* SharePoint Services

* CRM Services

These services are planned for the future:

* SQL Services

* .Net Services

Another advantage of Azure for developers is the common language runtime, says Johnson. Programs can be written in .Net-supported languages and use the same runtime environment.

Microsoft also has adopted standards such as XML and SOAP and has included a software developer's kit for the popular open-source Eclipse development framework. Martin claims that any program from inside or outside the cloud, written in any language, can call an Azure service.

Johnson says Epicor's ERP customers were having trouble accessing data outside the firewall from mobile devices. Navigating around huge ERP files through a VPN was too cumbersome, so in its latest release, Epicor added search capabilities through an Azure service.

According to Johnson, the search tool creates an up-to-date index of ERP data, then pushes the index to the Azure cloud. Mobile users, including those who have iPhones, can search using phrases such as "shipments by part number." He says it took three to four weeks to create the service.

Microsoft has not yet determined when Azure will exit beta. Martin says pricing will be based on the amount of resources used.

Because Azure is still in beta, Forrester Research Inc. analyst John Rymer has said that he believes those seeking immediate, stable options for cloud applications might be better served by developing for the Amazon.com or Salesforce.com platforms.

However, FullArmor's Kim says his team had built a PC monitoring application for Salesforce.com's environment but scuttled the project after it was complete, moving it to Azure. He says that the company's 20-plus years as a Microsoft developer made switching to Azure a better bet.

"We did not want to learn a new technology," he says.

Microsoft is betting that that tradition of developer loyalty will help it prevail in the cloud much as it has in the data center and on the desktop.

Hall is a freelance writer living in Oregon. Contact him at mark.everett.hall@me.com.

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