Microsoft: Windows Azure IaaS Is Not For New Apps

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

Azure may have an infrastructure option, but it’s not pitching against Amazon Web Services, says Microsoft’s Michael Newberry

Last week, Microsoft’s cloud service, Windows Azure, gained an Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) option.

Does this represent a bid to compete with other IaaS services such as the market leader Amazon Web Services (AWS)? To find out, we decided to ask Microsoft, and met up with Michael Newberry, Microsoft’s Azure lead for the UK, at a very busy Cloud Computing World Forum in London.

Azure like it?

Is Azure competing with AWS? In a word, no. While AWS busily hoovers up the business of running new applications in the cloud, by letting users launch virtual machine images on the cloud, Windows Azure is still focused on providing a cloud version of Windows for big Windows users.

Newberry plays down the move to offer infrastructure as a service, saying he is “not a big fan” of the terms IaaS and PaaS, as they may cause confusion. Also, Amazon is a partner whose toes Microsoft wouldn’t want to step on, even if such a thing were feasible in the cloud.

“We’ve got a very close relationship with Amazon,” he explains. “We are responding to customers ‘demands by letting them run applications within our data centres, but we want to keep working with other hosting providers that provide a differentiated service.”

So who is actually going to use the new infrastructure options, with the much-trumpeted ability to run (shock!) Linux within Azure?

It turns out that this option is mostly just to let customers move existing applications onto the cloud, Newberry says: “The announcement means you can take a virtual machine running in your data centre, package it as a virtual hard drive (VHD) and move it to ours. Because this is just a VHD image, you can do the same thing with Sharepoint sites, or SQL server data bases, or a Linux workload or MySQL databases.”

In other words, within Microsoft’s cloud, the future is the Azure OS – a cloud version of Windows – but it now accommodates apps which haven’t yet seen the light. “Taking advantage of your old stuff is what the hybrid cloud story is all about,” says NewBerry. “We have made it possible for existing applications to run on Azure.”

IaaS is there to accommodate old stuff, while “PaaS tends to play better to people doing new stuff.”

He’s keen on other new features added last week in “the largest release of new technology we have ever done” for Azure, such as the the Windows Azure Website, which lets non-IT people build websites in applications such as WordPress, and host and expand them as required, as well as new features for supporting streaming media.

Cloud security?

Security is still widely qu0ted as an issue for the cloud (and was the subject of a popular TechWeek webinar in May) and the most important tool for users at the moment seems to be the contract.

Large users are reportedly asking cloud providers for ISO27001 security certification (offered by Google last month), and Newberry claims Microsoft offers that – though he concedes that the certification applies to the platform only: “The Windows Azure platform is certified but not all services on the platform are certified”.

He agrees with Google, though, that users are asking for ISO27001 “Some customers ask for it – but it doesn’t come up all the time, in all honesty. More often customers want a detailed understanding of our security offering.”

G4S, for instance, came to Microsoft with a 170 point questionnaire three to four months ago, says Newberry.

Leap year troubles?

Despite the upbeat mood, February 29 2012 still casts a long shadow over Azure and its users as it was the day when a large portion of Azure (including the UK’s nascent government cloud or G-Cloud) fell down as a result of a time calculation that did not take the existence of leap years into account. As the clock changed to 29 February, a security certificate expired, and Azure fell down like a house of cards.

At the time, observers said lessons must be learnt and expected a permanent stain on Microsoft’s service from such an avoidable outage. Mobile maker RIM’s reputation suffered permanent harm when its BlackBerry service failed in October, but would it be the same for Azure?

Apparently not. Azure is having a good show at CCWF, and Newberry is happy. Other show visitors suggest unkindly that no one cared when Azure went down, because it has no users, but that isn’t true.

Microsoft’s theatre has big audiences, and large users, including Easyjet, are happy to stand up and sing the cloud OS’s praises. Newberry puts it down to a swift and open response to February’s failings.

“We learnt a lot,” he says. Microsoft quickly admitted this was a leap year bug, posted details of how it had happened, along with an explanation of how it would be avoided in future.

“Openness is part of the cloud culture,” says Newberry.

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