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Does Azure mean the death of the datacenter or the rebirth of Windows?

Does Microsoft's focus on Azure really mean the death of the datacenter -- and the Windows servers that empower it -- or could it actually signal the rebirth of Windows?

It appears to many people, both inside and outside of the company, that Microsoft is putting most of its development efforts into Azure, its cloud-computing platform, rather than Windows Server. This makes sense as part of its oft-declared "all in with the cloud" philosophy, but in many ways Azure is still a mystery, especially to IT professionals.

Some see it -- and cloud computing in general -- as a threat to their jobs, as I discussed in a previous post: "It Pros Are Not Feeling the Love from Microsoft." Some, who apparently don't understand what Azure is, are afraid it will subsume Windows Server, and I've even heard some predict that "the next release of Windows Server will be the last."

There is no doubt that Microsoft is pouring resources into "the cloud thing." That includes putting many of its best people to work on cloud-related projects. It was big news last summer when Mark Russinovich, of Sysinternals' fame, was moved from the Windows Core Operating System Division to the Windows Azure team. The cloud OS team includes a number of key employees such as Dave Cutler, who is considered the father of Windows NT, and Yousef Khalidi, who was formerly a member of the Windows Core Architecture Group.

But does this focus on Azure really mean the death of the datacenter -- and the Windows servers that empower it - or could it actually signal the rebirth of Windows as a fresh, new, more flexible foundation for both public cloud offerings and the private cloud-based, on-premise datacenters of the future?

Understanding Azure

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "To be great is to be misunderstood." Perhaps Microsoft can take comfort in that, because based on my casual discussions with many in the IT industry, Azure is one of the most misunderstood products the company has produced (and that's saying a lot). Microsoft's own descriptions of Azure often leave you more confused than ever.

For instance, the video titled What Is Windows Azure that's linked from their Windows Azure page talks about three components: the "fabric," the storage service, and the "developer experience." Huh? To confuse matters more, many of the papers you'll find on Azure, such as Introducing Windows Azure by David Chappell & Associates, list its three parts as fabric, storage service, and compute service.

The most common point of puzzlement is over whether Azure is or isn't an operating system. Mary Jo Foley, in her Guide for the Perplexed, called Azure the base operating system that used to be codenamed "Red Dog" and was designed by a team of operating system experts at Microsoft. But she goes on to say that it networks and manages the set of Windows Server 2008 machines that comprise the cloud. That leaves us wondering whether Azure is an OS on which applications run or an OS on which another operating system runs.

Microsoft's own web sites and documents, in fact, rarely call Azure an operating system, but refer to it as a "platform." That's a word that is used in many different ways in the IT industry. We have hardware platforms such as x86/x64, RISC, and ARM. We have software platforms such as .NET and Java. We have mobile platforms such as BlackBerry, Android, and WinMo. And we have OS platforms such as Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, Solaris, and so forth.

So what sort of platform is Azure? According to MSDN, it's "an Internet-scale cloud computing and services platform hosted in Microsoft datacenters" that comprises three developer services: Windows Azure, Windows Azure AppFabric, and SQL Azure. So there we have yet another, different list of Azure's three components.

It's important to note that although they differ in other respects, every one of these lists includes the "fabric" component. And that's also the most mysterious of the components to those who are new to Azure. Mark Russinovich likens Azure to a "big computer in the sky" and explains that the Fabric Controller is analogous to the kernel of the operating system. He has a unique ability to take this very complex subject and make sense out of it, and his Channel 9 discussion of Azure, cloud OS, and PaaS is well worth watching if you want a better understanding of the Fabric Controller and what it does.

How it all fits together

If you're familiar with the basics of cloud computing, you know there are three basic service models: Software as a Service (SaaS), Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), and Platform as a Service (PaaS). Azure solutions exist for both the IaaS and the PaaS deployment models, with the former providing only compute, network, and storage services and the latter providing everything that the application code needs to run on.

This platform is not an operating system in the traditional sense; it has no OS interfaces like Control Panel, Server Manager, etc. on Windows Server. However, it does do some of the things, in the cloud, that conventional operating systems do, such as managing storage and devices and providing a run-time environment for applications, which is hosted by the Fabric Controller.

Where does Windows Server come in? You might remember that back in December 2009, Microsoft brought the Windows Server and Windows Azure teams together to form the Windows Server and Cloud Division within the Server and Tools Business that was led by Bob Muglia until the recent reorganization and is now under the wing of Satya Nadella. The fact that these two products are part of the same division should be a clue that they're closely related. And in fact, if you take a look inside an instance of Windows Azure, you'll find that they're more closely related than you might have guessed.

So, after all the angst, we find that the operating system with which you interact in an Azure environment isn't some brand-new, mysterious OS after all. It's a virtualized version of Windows Server 2008 that has been preconfigured with a specific amount of resources (CPU, RAM, and storage) and delivered to you for a monthly fee. IT pros can breathe a sigh of relief; if you're a Windows Server 2008 admin, you already know how to manage the OS that's "visible" in Azure. Developers use the same tools and programming languages to create applications for Azure. The big difference is that the Fabric Controller manages the cloud environment, so applications must be structured with that in mind. For the nitty-gritty details about those differences, check out IaaS, PaaS and the Windows Azure Platform by Keith Pijanowski.

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About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

26 comments
don
don

I believe Azure is a manger of hyper-visors. They have thousands of Windows virtual machines running and Azure manages booting them up, shutting them down, and distributing workloads across them. What people fail to mention is that you cannot take off the shelf Windows apps and run them on Azure. Everything has to be designed for a stateless operation. Your app may be running on a hundred different virtual machines and any of them can go away at any time. The new ones that take their place don't have the transactions that were in memory. Anything that was in memory was lost. This architecture would be great to run services like eBay, Amazon, or Facebook. Unfortunately, most businesses don't have a need for that type of architecture. Its perfect for custom coded apps that need lots of computing power and can be written stateless. You don't have to fear Azure taking over the world until they can run all the apps that businesses need, not just that niche.

jeff
jeff

We have to buy it to see what's in it.

trailbarge1
trailbarge1

"Azure is one of the most misunderstood products the company has produced (and that???s saying a lot)." Two words: "Microsoft Bob"

nwallette
nwallette

In a couple months or so, Microsoft will take all the code they've written, compile it, and see what it does. Then, they'll be able to explain it a lot better!

ITGrouch
ITGrouch

I keep laughing when people throw the "Cloud" buzzword around. The one question that shoots down moving the enterprise to remote distributed access is what happens when the WAN goes down?

FTAdmin
FTAdmin

Azure is not so much an operating system as a... er... "Meta System", i suppose it could be called. It sounds more of a higher level management/control system which ties together multiple Operating Systems. In other words, it may not necessarily directly control hardware (drivers and such) as much as it coordinates the distributed efforts of the Operating Systems' control over the hardware. Basically it's another layer of systems management.

Realvdude
Realvdude

1) I think part of the mystery/confusion with Azure is that like most things MS it is maturing/changing. I think they introduced what they thought the market wanted, and are now adapting to what they are being asked for. This even goes for the pricing models. 2) What is the next step for Windows Server? I think one of the general benefits of virtualization is the ability to allocate resources as needed and ubiquitously. Azure seems the next step in virtualization, and with a private cloud solution, I can see a completely transparent connect to using public cloud resources on a as needed basis, or even deploying a project publicly after private development. As a software, support and services vendor, we are looking at porting a intranet application to Azure to streamline deployment and support, as well as simplifying customer collaboration services.

ketan
ketan

Will we get the Luncheons as we did in '99 telling us to sell MS Exchange to our clients so that we can maintain it? So the new mantra will be 'Sell your clients Azure so that you can maintain it!'

Craig_B
Craig_B

When I read through Microsoft's documentation on Azure it took me awhile to understand it. Ultimately it seemed to be more of a mainframe. You create an application, store it and run it in the cloud. The cloud is attractive for vendors because they can rent out things (long term revenue stream) as opposed to sell you something (one time revenue). It???s not as attractive to companies as you have taken a localized (owned, high control and understood) system and made it a cloud (rented, low control and not highly understood) system. As business as not been quick to jump to the cloud, Microsoft and other vendors have been pushing VM???s to the cloud. I think this is because VM???s are understood, they can run on any host so the comfort level is higher however you still run into some of the same issues. I believe in time (several years) the cloud model will work out the major pain points and more companies will move to the cloud. Only time will tell.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

Don't skip reading page two - you can have your own "private" cloud. In fact, that seems to be where many will end up.

remjr
remjr

As I am IT for a large medical practice, I do not see cloud anything being a viable option with the kind of sensitive data I handle on a moment to moment basis. I simply do not feel it is a secure enough solution. We will be keeping our WIN Server 2008 machines.

belli_bettens
belli_bettens

And here I was, thinking I was the only one not really getting where Azure is all about. Thanks for the revelation! ;-)

jck
jck

as the end of Microsoft's dominance if MS tries coercion through price elevation to get people to move to Azure. I see a lot more places moving to non-MS solutions if that happens. And, I'll be the first to suggest it where I work.

pizza7
pizza7

I would rather own my assets and manage them. I would rather have my own data on premise. Microsoft can go "all in" but they better not have mis-calculated customer interest. It all sounds great until you have to put it to practice. Sure...may be costs will go down for companies in the begining but then the un-anticpated costs will come into play. How many times have we seen Amazon or other clouds go down for extended periods of time ?

inouyde
inouyde

Mmm... Microsoft/ChromeBook partnership?

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

From a cloud near you. Now instead of shoveling it, the new Microcrap will fall from the sky! Instead of hogging your server resources, the new version will hog your bandwidth! Don't pay for assets that you can own and reliably measure. Instead pay in to a system with multiple points of failure, none of which you control! Now Microsoft can blame your ISP and your ISP can blame Microsoft! No one is at fault! Win-Win-Win! The good news? It certainly can't be your fault anymore! Stop blaming your employees and let your employees do the blaming! Now look at these skewed numbers and fuzzy math. See how much you can save? Throw away all of your computers, fire all of your employees and then complain about the unemployment rates in your locality. Give all of your money to Microsoft and move out of the country because the looting will start soon. I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords. (Yes I know I am being rediculous but I feel better now)

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

Is Microsoft's Azure platform a mystery to you or do you have a good handle on what Azure is and what is designed to do? I think TechRepublic members would like to hear about experiences regarding deployment and implementation of Azure. Have you got a story to tell?

jck
jck

It's not improbable, that somewhere between your building and "the cloud", that some $12 per hour backhoe operator who didn't get much sleep the night before cause he was watching the Jets vs Ravens monday night football game...is gonna put the scoop-end of the backhoe right through a fibre trunk down the road. Oops. Or better yet: You move to the cloud, and their servers fail, their redundancy fails, and your DB data for the past 48 hours is gone because their backups won't restore. Gonna walk into the cloud operations center and fire the backup guys yourself? Oops.

pgit
pgit

I'd forgotten about that episode. (Futurama) That show took a while for all the touchstones to emerge, I'd be thinking about something a week or two later and suddenly a scene would pop into my head and I 'got it.' Futurama was a lot headier than it appeared at first blush. Haven't seen any of the new ones. Hope they haven't lost their edge.

kandrolewicz2
kandrolewicz2

I can't believe that businesses are actually accepting this Cloud Stuff. Look at what happened at Amazon with people's music that was "out in the cloud" from Amazon. Because of a bug in the program they were cut off from all the stuff they purchased. Plus, now the espionage on your data begins. No longer can you be guaranteed to keep it safe, although they "tell" you it's safe. Of course, if you believe it is safe, let me sell you this Golden Gate Bridge I have for sale in New Mexico!

Rick S._z
Rick S._z

Microsoft can't even keep Hotmail running. Far less than a "cloud infrastructure" for virtualized Windows Servers, that's merely a SMTP/POP/IMAP Application Service. And yet, the claim is made that these people will be providing "enterprise-level" RASUI for a nearly full set of Windows Server 2008 API libraries. In my experience, the requirements of "Enterprise" computing start with availability at 99.999%, with a fully implemented recovery plan (with roughly 5 minutes of down timer per year) for EVERY possible failure. Only then do you start talking about things like "saving money", "managing growth", and "reducing asset inventories". And I haven't even BEGUN to talk about physical security, either. MS has a lot to prove, and a lot of previous failures to overcome, before any world-class ENTERPRISE is going to buy into anything remotely like this.

tigua
tigua

The cloud as I understand it is an attempt to go back to the mainframe-terminal concept on a much larger scale to create a never ending income stream for microsoft. And we all know how greate the mainframe-terminal concept is.

dbalfour
dbalfour

What if you run a multinational company with many offices - how are they all connected these days? MPLS maybe? Everyone depends on solid networking and should build in redundancy. WAN failures happen and you should have backup, cloud or no cloud.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

They will "add the biological and technological distinctiveness of other species to [their] own"

dbalfour
dbalfour

I am a consultant who sees many organizations every year. 5 minutes downtime may well be a goal but most organizations are a long way from that - even for core systems - let alone every system. You are right that MSFT has a lot to prove but don't make the mistake of thinking everything in the private garden is rosy because it most definitely isn't....