Microsoft Brings Azure Skies to Los Angeles

Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie
Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s chief software architect, speaking at PDC 2008

LOS ANGELES — Microsoft kicked off its Professional Developer Conference (PDC) today with the unveiling of its services platform, Windows Azure — highlighting a major step in the company’s shift to cloud-based services and away from its traditional reliance on installed software.

Azure isn’t a product aimed at a company’s datacenter systems — instead, it’s run on Microsoft’s (NASDAQ: MSFT) own datacenters, and will host services including Microsoft Live, SQL Services, .NET services, SharePoint services and Dynamics CRM.

In his first PDC keynote speech since replacing founder Bill Gates in the role of chief software architect at Microsoft, Ray Ozzie said that this year’s conference would be his chance to talk about the “fundamental transformation of the company toward services.”

Microsoft has long been making steps toward adding Internet-based services alongside its software offerings — an approach dubbed software-plus-services — while generally eschewing full-scale hosted, Software-as-a-Service-type offerings like the kinds popularized by

But the debut of Azure marks a major stride in the direction of SaaS, and according to Ozzie, the move aims to help businesses cope with the problem of scale. He said that because Internet-based companies and their developers deal with many more external users than they serve within their four walls, they need the power to handle exponential growth.

“The previously separate roles of software developer and operations have becoming increasingly intermeshed and intertwined,” Ozzie said. “Things are materially different when designing systems for the world of the Web than for the four walls of business.”

As a result, Azure will serve as a hub for Microsoft platforms and services — and will help businesses by providing affordable scale and availability.

“We expect customers will be bringing key apps and services to Azure because it will be the highest scale and most economic way to run those apps in the cloud,” Ozzie said.

To support Azure, Microsoft has been busily building a number of datacenters around the U.S. in recent months. In those datacenters, Azure runs throughout the systems, allocating resources as needed for services.

Everything from blogs to storage to services are provisioned dynamically, with resources increased or decreased as needed, by the Azure service. Because everything is spread over dozens, even thousands of systems, there is no single point of failure that can take an application down.

Amitabh Srivastava, a Microsoft corporate vice president and distinguished fellow for cloud infrastructure services, followed Ozzie on-stage to highlight the thinking behind Azure’s design.

“Unlike traditional operating systems that manage a single machine, Azure manages the entire global datacenter infrastructure,” Srivastava told the audience. Each processor is virtualized with an efficient hypervisor that is optimized for virtualized support and employs multiple levels of security.

Azure is modular enough that an application and even the operating environment can be upgraded while it is running, without taking it down or degrading performance, because it controls the service, not the server. With adaptive redundancy, a service can be stored across dozens, hundreds of even thousands of servers.

At the same time, Srivastava said that it’s possible to write, test, and debug code on your desktop with Visual Studio with no need to deploy the app to the cloud for testing.

“We are developers ourselves — we used the same tools in developing Windows Azure that you use,” Srivastava said.

He added that one of the key minds behind Azure had been David Cutler, the veteran operating systems developer who came to Microsoft almost 20 years ago and developed what become Windows NT. Over the years, Windows NT has evolved to become Windows XP, Windows Vista, and eventually, it will become Windows 7.

Microsoft is making Azure available to PDC attendees as a Community Technology Preview. Ozzie said that what’s online now is just a fraction of what will eventually be offered.

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