Azure: is that blue or purple?
More a bluey-purple I’d say… oh, and a cloud-based computing platform Microsoft announced in October 2008.

So what does that mean then?
It’s essentially a hosted computing and storage service, run from Microsoft’s own datacentres and accessed by customers via the internet.

Tell me more…
Well, Windows Azure basically lets organisations boost the computing resources they have at their disposal without having to buy new servers – an approach also taken by Amazon’s EC2 and S3 services.

Imagine if you want to launch a new application or support one that’s adding millions of users very quickly – instead of having to buy extra kit to support those services yourself, you can run the service on Azure and let Microsoft’s servers provide the extra processing grunt, while an Azure tool called the Fabric Controller allows users to scale their application to cope with any extra upsurges in traffic.

The uses for Azure go beyond web applications though: businesses could use it to carry out high-intensity computing tasks such as financial calculations or batch video processing.

What about storage?
On the storage side you could move your data – corporate databases and the like – onto Azure, meaning it’s accessible from any web-enabled device on any operating system and you aren’t bearing the storage burden yourself. And you don’t need to use Microsoft-developed applications to work with your data in Azure either, which is significant.

How so?
Well it shows Microsoft is becoming less obsessed with keeping its technology closed and is prepared to let people develop applications from other vendors within its ecosystem, as well as encouraging interoperability.

So what’s in it for me?
As with most cloud computing technologies, the main selling points revolve around flexibility and cost. On the flexibility side, hosted services make it far easier for businesses to scale their computing needs up and down than on-premises tech, as computing power is provided on an on-demand basis.

On the cost front there’s obvious potential for savings from running applications on someone else’s servers – there’s no need to buy in extra hardware and the supplier foots the energy bill.

So what else is Microsoft doing with this Azure cloud computing malarkey?
Windows Azure is actually one part of a wider set of technologies called the Azure Services Platform (ASP). Like Azure, the other services that form the ASP are designed to allow businesses and developers to carry out various software tasks and computing processes beyond the confines of their corporate firewalls.

What can you use the Azure Services Platform for then?
Developers can build applications using .NET Services, test, debug and distribute them across the web with relatively little need for in-house computing support – similar to what Salesforce.com offers with its Force.com platform.

The other ASP services include: SQL Services, which is for working with relational data storage and querying; and Live Services, which is a set of technologies for handling user data and application resources to help with the building of social applications. Live Services includes things such as Mesh Services, which synchronises data across devices and applications, as well as ways to build functionality around identity, presence and search.

There are also plans to bring SharePoint and Dynamics CRM onto ASP to provide extensibility to the two applications.

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What’s Microsoft’s thinking behind this?
Well, it’s all about the cloud computing craze that’s gaining a lot of interest in the tech industry at the moment. With Google and Amazon, among others, really working to popularise hosted computing power and applications, Microsoft is looking to get itself a piece of the action.

So is this all about a tech dinosaur getting down with the IT kids?
I suppose you could say that. Microsoft is renowned for coming to internet services late but recently it’s been punting out a number of hosted products aside from Azure.

One example of Microsoft’s cloud push is Business Productivity Online Suite which features an online version of Exchange and SharePoint, with Dynamics CRM technology also set to be offered through BPOS in the coming months.

Dynamics, however, will also figure in Azure Services Platform. So what’s the difference between how Dynamics will work with BPOS and ASP?
According to Microsoft, ASP services are more for developers, focusing on putting functionality into applications – developers can add Live Messenger or Dynamics features into an online application for example. In contrast, Business Productivity Online Suite applications are basically hosted versions of Microsoft software which are used more or less in the same way as if they were located in the office.

It’ll be interesting to see if these services remain distinct or whether they eventually merge under the Azure banner. One would imagine Microsoft is exploring the options before really committing to one approach or the other.

Does all of this mean Microsoft could move completely away from on-premises software?
In the short term, that would be a big no. Despite what the likes of Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff are saying, it’s pretty unlikely in the foreseeable future. Microsoft’s revenue relies far too heavily on sales of on-premises software to even consider scrapping the concept.

While the company is starting to offer more cloud-based technology, it doesn’t feel that customers are ready to put all of their data and applications into the cloud basket. One Microsoft exec recently told silicon.com that the idea of everything being offered in the cloud is “folly” with a mixture of on-premises and online applications likely to be the norm in the future.

It might also be the case that Microsoft’s desktop operating system is offered as a cloud-based product but this depends heavily on how the uptake of cloud computing develops.

Windows users have received updates via the web for some time and it wouldn’t be a surprise if major OS upgrades were soon something that could be acquired via the internet. Although the next iteration of the Microsoft OS, Windows 7, is unlikely to see a shift to this model, it could well be that its successor could provide that option – and be much more closely linked to Azure as a result.

So what’s the situation with Windows Azure now?
Speaking to silicon.com recently, head of software and services at Microsoft International, Steve Clayton, said: “There are a lot of people out there testing it and playing with it, there are a few people building applications on it. It’s sort of in pre-beta phase at the moment and we’ll hear more about it this year.”

Microsoft says Azure is officially available as a “community technology preview” but is likely to be commercially available be the end of 2009.

Can’t wait!
Neither can Microsoft…