TechEd, Microsoft’s flagship annual technology conference, descended on New Orleans this week (June 3-6) as thousands of attendees (including myself) gathered to hear the latest and greatest from the Redmond giant. I was initially disappointed with TechEd 2013 because it seemed to focus solely on the cloud theme, however, mixed among the many announcements and promises were substantial changes for developers.

Making Windows Azure more accessible

I usually don’t waste my time with a conference keynote address, but it can be interesting to hear the overall vision of an industry giant like Microsoft. Mixed in with the usual product updates and announcements was the massive changes to the Windows Azure pricing model. The major shift is Microsoft will now bill by the minute versus the old hourly approach, and actual minutes will be used so there will be no rounding like other vendors. In addition, billing for virtual machines will stop if/when an instance is stopped; this means you no longer have to delete instances to save money. Also, Windows Azure will integrate with MSDN, so MSDN subscribers will receive reduced rates as well as some free usage (via credits).

This is a big change that can only positively affect Windows Azure usage. From testing the service in the past, I confirm the pricing model left a lot to be desired and could be quite pricey. The pricing model resembles Google’s approach (although Google rounds up on minutes) and is more granular than Amazon’s offering. The key with the MSDN changes is developers and organizations now have robust environment for development and testing, which can only lead to cost savings with less of a need for on premise development and test environments.

The use of Windows Azure for development and testing lends itself to what seems to be Microsoft’s cloud hybrid approach, whereas companies have infrastructure both in the cloud and onsite. All of this relies on Windows Azure offering robust and easy-to-use services, which is something that I have not witnessed; I’ll have to take the latest offerings for a test drive. Check out this Scott Guthrie post about Windows Azure for more details on the changes. Also, the Windows Azure blog provides timely information.

A sampling of individual conference sessions after the keynote did not totally calm my nerves with regards to Windows Azure and its offerings being ready for prime time. One session focusing on the cloud version of SQL Server (SQL Azure) included various comments and jokes from the presenters about the scaled down product features available in the cloud and how they will be available next year. One example is the lack of ability to run jobs in SQL Azure. The workaround was to run a job on a local SQL Server that calls stored procedures in a SQL Azure instance. Is it just me, or does that just seem to complicate development and support? This hybrid approach was common to many of the sessions.

Application development

The acquisition of InRelease by Microsoft demonstrates its focus on application lifecycle management (ALM) and DevOps. It helps companies improve the quality and efficiency of new product releases. It will be integrated with upcoming releases of Team Foundation Server (TFS) and Visual Studio (2013 versions for both were announced to be released later this year).

Several of the sessions I attended offered a chance to get a peek at Visual Studio 2013. I was irritated at first because I am just now becoming familiar with Visual Studio 2012; this feeling quickly passed as I witnessed some of the new features. One of the more talked about features is an IntelliSense-like feature that provides information on your code — pop-up information about unit tests and such. The presenters kept telling us about its greatness, so I can only assume it is great and will wait to the official release to make a final decision.

One of the more interesting features of Visual Studio 2013 was the adoption of Bootstrap as the default layout for all generated content; it’s another example of Microsoft adopting industry-accepted standard technologies. Visual Studio 2013 promises tighter integration with Azure so it is easier to take advantage of that platform. Finally, the Cassini Web server is gone with Visual Studio 2013.

Many of the advances with ASP.NET follow the One ASP.NET goal where you longer care so much if you’re using something like MVC or Web Forms for an application since it is all ASP.NET at its core. ASP.NET 2012.2 is currently available to be used now while we wait for the 2013 versions of everything.

Coming soon

While there were product versions announced as coming soon (like Visual Studio 2013), there were no major product versions for developers during the conference — everything was like movie previews, as you were told what was coming soon with new versions of Visual Studio, SQL Server and so forth. The announcement of Windows 8.1 came with a lot of fanfare, as it promises to address many of the drawbacks of the current Windows 8 offering and many folks were excited about Windows Server 2012 R2.

Walk a mile in my shoes

This was not my first time at the New Orleans Convention Center, but there is a part of me that hopes it may be the last because the place is huge. It is a long building that runs along the water. One session was at the very far end of the place, and the presenter got many laughs when he welcomed everybody to Alabama. As usual, the food and other amenities at the conference were first rate, whereas the wireless service continued to disappoint. The product showroom was another long walk, but there were many great offerings with Xamarin leaving the biggest impression on me — I can’t wait to dive in to mobile development with it.

Here and now

One drawback of TechEd 2013 and similar conferences is the lack of focus on the here and now; that is, we all have projects and problems with code that uses current or past technologies. While there are no sessions or speeches given on these topics, there are countless so-called experts at various Microsoft and vendor booths who are available on the conference showroom floor to discuss and sometimes help. These were invaluable a few years ago when I attended and had an ongoing ASP.NET issue.

I recommend TechEd to anybody working with Microsoft technologies — the opportunity to network and meet fellow techies is worth it.

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