Microsoft unveils Azure cloud computing platform

Enterprise applications from Microsoft and third parties set to move into the cloud as the Windows maker reveals its enterprise utility computing ambitions.

Microsoft has today thrown its hat into the enterprise cloud computing market by unveiling a technology preview of its new utility computing platform called Windows Azure.

Going head-to-head with the likes of Amazon's EC2 cloud computing offering, Azure is an underlying services platform for developers looking to host, run and integrate their own applications and services in a Microsoft-based externally hosted (cloud) environment. Furthermore, it will allow developers to easily maintaining application and information links between the cloud environment and the traditional enterprise client, server and data centre structure.

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Azure will be hosted by Microsoft in its own worldwide network of data centres and sold as a service to users and developers. Applications and services written to run on Azure will also be hosted by Microsoft to take advantage of both utility processing and shared on-demand storage.

"The notions of virtualisation and utility computing were pioneered in the 60s, yet it is only now that it is really being pushed forward as the future of enterprise computing and the most viable delivery mechanisms for enterprise computing architecture," said Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software architect, speaking during the keynote at Microsoft's Professional Developer Conference in Los Angeles.

"We need to begin laying groundwork with model-based deployment, new approaches to storage, new application design methods, adoption of parallel computing and more," he added.

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Ozzie explained that the Azure Services Platform will allow developers to build applications that will work seamlessly in the cloud and with client or local server-side applications using existing tools and languages such as the .NET Framework and Visual Studio, as well as open source development environments and tools as well as making use of common internet standards including HTTP, ATOM and REST.

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The Azure Services platform comprises the main Windows Azure underlying system for hosting, managing, scaling and running applications, SQL Services for database reporting, processing and services, .NET Services for implementation of .NET Framework concepts, Live Services for integration between the cloud and client-side devices and applications, mobile devices and end user web sites.

Finally, SharePoint Services and Dynamics CRM Services will provide business content, collaboration and rapid solution development for key day-to-day business accounting and operational needs, putting Azure in direct competition with the likes of NetSuite, Salesforce, Oracle and SAP.

Microsoft also revealed details of a new project called "Atlanta" - a System Centre portal to allow IT managers to administer Azure and on-premise infrastructure as one.

While in its technology preview stage, which is effectively an early beta release, Azure will be free but will be offered without warranty, service level agreements or guarantees that applications written for it now will work on the final version.

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However, analysts attending the event were cautious in their outlook following the Azure announcement.

"Microsoft has finally put some meat on the bones of its cloud computing intentions. It has the potential for being a coherent strategy but it is too early to call it just yet. It relies a lot on educating a market that is still in the quagmires of SOA," said Bola Rotibi, principal analyst at Macehiter Ward-Dutton.

Microsoft has come into enterprise cloud computing with the sector still in its infancy, but with several competitors already situ with products that have moved beyond the initial beta stage, making the early days of Azure difficult to say the least.

"Nobody should assume that Microsoft will be the only company that aims to bring cloud services based on Microsoft Windows to market. A slew of Microsoft partners are able to offer cloud services and will continue to do so, even after Microsoft expands it portfolio," said David Mitchell, senior vice president of IT research at analyst firm Ovum.

"We should assume that there will be strong competition in the market and that customers need to make sure that they are genuinely able to move between suppliers, to help unlock the promises that cloud offers."

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