Steve Ballmer has been building up the role of Cloud Computing in Microsoft’s view of the future during the last few months, and now we see the first concrete result; the Azure Services Platform. The description, taken from the Azure website, describes it as;
The Azure™ Services Platform is an internet-scale cloud computing and services platform hosted in Microsoft data centres. The Azure Services Platform provides a range of functionality to build applications that span from consumer web to enterprise scenarios and includes a cloud operating system and a set of developer services. Fully interoperable through the support of industry standards and web protocols such as REST and SOAP, you can use the Azure services individually or together, either to build new applications or to extend existing ones.
That’s the blah blah bit that doesn’t really seem to differentiate, but it does have a lot in it. A bundle of Microsoft services covering everything from the ‘Live Suite’, through to SharePoint, and Dynamics CRM, and if that wasn’t enough we get .Net Services and SQL Services and integration with Visual Studio to make a consistent development environment. All contained within ‘Windows Azure’ which from the announcement seems to be able to tie Microsoft environments with non Microsoft environments and is claimed to be an ‘open platform’. So it looks pretty ‘peachy’ and in a credit crunch society could be an instant cost saver, except that Microsoft didn’t release any ideas on prices.

Under the cover it gets more interesting as the development has been going on for some time under the code name of ‘Red Dog’ and the team even includes at least one serious veteran; Dave Cutler, who is thought of as the father of Digital VMS, and Windows NT. Red Dog is what makes it all work in the Microsoft data centres and searching on this topic will pick up much more of the details about how Microsoft sees a Cloud working at the layer of Technology Services. Personally I think the best job of breaking down Azure and defining Red Dog etc by a non Microsoft person was done by May-Jo Foley who regularly blogs to give some depth on Microsoft announcements and the title of this one just tells you why you want to read it; Microsoft’s Azure Platform; A guide of the perplexed’!
Azure follows the standard Cloud format of using three layers, see my description of this, and Mary-Jo breaks down Azure at each layer to describe it in detail. And she like me is puzzled by the crucial mid layer of the platform that exposes services. The bottom layer really is little more than improved versions of ‘grid computing’ meaning the way of linking resources together and ‘utility computing’ meaning the charging model. Okay may be a little harsh as there has to be a much wider set of services than just the access to Mips but what for me defines ‘Cloud Computing’ is how it deals with the all important mid layer by exposing services as ‘Platforms’. Currently with the information disclosed it seems that Azure has done a good job of taking a lot of currently disparate Microsoft elements and made them cohesively available through Azure, but as an Open Platform?
This is an important point as for a full fledged Cloud approach the extent to which the platform allows the services to be consumed in the third layer of Business Services as a unique combination with other services defines the extent to which it really is an ‘open’ internet based ‘Cloud Computing’ solution. My standard way to describe this is; can I use Google Maps to provide the geo-spatial service with Yahoo FireEagle to give me the phone location plus …in this case may be something from Microsoft Dynamics CRM.
Right now I am left with the feeling that this is currently a Cloud Computing solution for Microsoft based services, not necessarily a bad thing, but it suggests that once again the first wave of Cloud Computing will be more proprietary at the Platform level than perhaps the ‘buzz’ leads us to think. That’s not to deny the value to be found in the bottom layer around ‘hosted’ operations btw. Anyone want to try asking Microsoft and Oracle how their Cloud solutions work together that might give an interesting view on how these solutions really work?
Just to close with a nice twist by mentioning a new service running from HP, and just the kind of service that could be uniquely useful to combine in a full Cloud Computing solution. HP called it location aware messaging, it takes the position from the GPS on your iPaq, or other Smart Phones, and on reaching a predetermined spot you will get sent a pre-prepared message. Right now the emphasis is very much on the fun end for consumers, but not too hard to see the possibilities for business, and combined with other services potentially a game changing capability. Well worth a look at, and probably a great reason for more people to get GPS on their devices!