Microsoft Corp.'s long hold on power in the software industry has depended on its solid grip on developers. Programmers have written uncountable desktop and client/server applications over the decades that have inextricably linked independent software developers and corporate IT shops to Microsoft. Now the company aims to do the same for cloud-based software by luring loyal programmers to its Windows Windows Azure environment.
Still in beta, Azure features both proprietary tools that Windows developers will recognize and standard technologies that could appeal to programmers outside of Microsoft's orbit. Whether that strategy will work remains to be seen, since Microsoft trails Salesforce.com, Amazon.com, Google and others in entering the cloud, which Merrill-Lynch & Co. has estimated will be a US$95 billion market by 2011.
Azure's underlying operating system is a version of Windows Server 2008 that is currently running on virtualized two-core, dual-processor Intel servers. Steven Martin, Microsoft's director of connected system products management, says that unlike traditional developers, Azure application writers won't need to take hardware constraints into account when developing software because Azure is designed to scale up or down based on application demands. Moreover, he says, Azure's .Net Services and SQL Services incorporate characteristics of cloud computing.
For example, Danny Kim, chief technology officer at FullArmor Corp., a Boston-based IT services provider, used Azure's updated .Net workflow capabilities to automate endpoint provisioning and patching services for teachers in rural Ethiopia. Kim says teachers log in sporadically to the national government's Azure service, where systems administrators have a "script on steroids" that updates teachers' machines while it pulls down curriculum metrics from the remote laptops. He says that with Azure, the government doesn't have to worry about when or how often teachers access the service. "You can put workflow into the cloud, which helps you scale the application," Kim says.
Erik Johnson, senior director of research at Epicor Software Corp. in Irvine, Calif., says Azure is "not just computing in the cloud with storage," like the offerings from Amazon.com and Google. He says users also get additional programming capabilities, such as security tools in .Net that define how their identity or their application's identity is handled by the various services.