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Microsoft smoothes path to Azure for Windows shops

Microsoft made the on-ramp to Azure easier for Windows users by adding loads of new features. But customers still need time to wrap their heads around the cloud idea.

This article is part of a special report on how cloud computing is changing IT.

Microsoft wants Windows Azure to be as synonymous with cloud as Windows is to PCs, and it’s doing whatever it can to make Azure the path of least resistance for its enterprise customers.  

But even as Microsoft touts a services world, IT pros remain grounded and cautious of public cloud computing.

Two-year-old Windows Azure provides a cloud Platform as a Service (PaaS) and, as such, eliminates the infrastructure and software management tasks associated with on-premise operating systems, including managing virtual machine images and patching. Adoption has been hampered, not only by the platform’s immaturity, but also by the problem of moving applications and data onto a cloud platform – work that usually needs a developer’s skills.

Late last week at its Professional Developers Conference (PDC), Microsoft released significant new capabilities for Windows Azure designed to eliminate some of the objections that keep IT managers from moving applications to public clouds. One of the most important new Azure capabilities is the Windows Azure Virtual Machine Role, which lets IT pros run instances of Windows Server 2008 R2 in Microsoft’s Azure cloud. Unlike the other Azure services that provide a PaaS, the Virtual Machine Role provides Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), so companies have administrative control over their own virtual Windows Server instances.

In most cases, this feature makes it possible to move applications directly from on-premise to Microsoft’s data centers without developer involvement. At the same time, it removes the burdens of maintaining the OS with software patches or hardware maintenance, said Rob Sanfilippo, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash.-based independent analyst firm.

Windows Azure Virtual Machine Role, which is akin to a similar service currently in Amazon Web Services, will be available as a public beta by the end of 2010. Windows Azure will also support Server Application Virtualization by the second half of 2011, letting administrators deploy virtualized applications onto the Windows Azure worker role rather than the VM role.

The second feature is analogous to running Microsoft’s on-premises App-V product, which allows a client to access virtual instances of an application running in a self-contained environment on a server. With Server Application Virtualization, companies can deploy server app images to Azure and to be accessed by end users on an as-needed basis remotely over the Internet, Sanfilippo said.

It could save organizations on hardware costs and deployment effort. “For example, a line-of-business application that is used infrequently by multiple users could be deployed using Azure Server Application Virtualization, and users could share the single deployment if they use the application at different times,” Sanfilippo said.

The feature will also make application access easier for remote users and end users that are not running the OS required by the application, he said.  

Reasons not to bite: Culture shock and price
Rob McShinsky, a senior systems engineer with Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., runs a private cloud at the hospital using Windows Server 2008 R2 and Hyper-V R2. He said the new features clear a path to Azure.

“If you are looking at moving to a VM running in the cloud, it will be an easy step to take, especially since all the tools and the platform are familiar,” McShinsky said.

“The concern about moving data to the cloud isn’t about the performance, or availability, it is the stress factor – the psychological hurdle of trusting an outside entity.”

Rob McShinsky, a sr. systems engineer with Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center

Though Microsoft has removed the roadblocks for getting onto its cloud, the company hasn’t explained how to retreat from the cloud, said Roger Jennings, a California-based Windows Azure consultant, tech blogger and author of the book Cloud Computing with the Windows Azure Platform.

“It is now a question of how easily and quickly you can move applications from the cloud back on-premise to your data center. I haven’t heard anything about that,” Jennings said. “Microsoft needs to prepare a demo showing a fair-sized operation moving from the cloud back to on-premise.”

Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center’s McShinsky said Microsoft also has to overcome the general mistrust IT pros hold toward public clouds.

“The concern about moving data to the cloud isn’t about the performance or availability. It is the stress factor – the psychological hurdle of trusting an outside entity,” McShinsky said. “It was the same with virtualization and anything else; you try it out with your test and dev environment and go from there.”

To make Azure worthwhile, Microsoft also needs to entice companies with a price point that reduces costs even further than virtualization has, McShinsky said.

Microsoft’s Azure pricing model has been criticized before, so at PDC, the company responded by introducing new entry-level pricing. Beginning Jan. 7, 2011, Windows Azure will include lower pricing for “Extra Small” Windows Azure instances, priced at $0.05 per hour for 1 GHz CPU, 768 MB of memory, 20 GB of storage and low I/O. Comparatively, the Extra High Windows Azure Instance costs $0.95 per hour for eight, 1.6 GHz CPUs, 14 GB of memory, 2,040 GB of storage and high I/O.

Whether or not the price dip is incentive enough to lure companies to Azure depends on the amount that companies currently spend on IT infrastructure and platform management.

Azure 2011: What it will and won’t include
Microsoft unveiled some other new features coming in Azure last week, including SQL Azure Reporting Services, which will be generally available in the first half of 2011.

Reporting Services is one of the last major features supported by on-premises SQL Server, but not SQL Azure. Analysis Services is another major feature not yet supported by SQL Azure, but Microsoft has said nothing about whether it would add this feature.

IT pros are also waiting to see data compression and transparent database encryption, which would provide data privacy to prevent Microsoft from accessing sensitive data, Jennings said. Database encryption technology is included in SQL Server 2008 and 2008 R2.

Microsoft also disclosed several Azure AppFabric features, including Caching Services, a feature formerly code-named Velocity released in the Windows Server AppFabric extensions, which will improve performance tremendously, Jennings said. That capability will be generally available in the first half of 2011. 

Other new features revealed at PDC include the ability to build VM role images directly in the cloud, as an alternative to building images on-premises and uploading them over the Internet. This update will be available in 2011. Microsoft will also add support for Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2008 SP2 in the VM Role sometime next year. As of now, Microsoft supports Windows Server 2008 R2 in the guest OS.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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