Microsoft is in the Cloud – What does that mean for the Data Professional?


imageThere has been a lot of buzz lately about "the
cloud" and what it means for IT, and the organizations they serve. I
just finished watching Steve Ballmer deliver Microsoft's vision for the cloud
,
wondering if it would be different than the offerings of other firms. It feels
like it is different. So what is that
strategy, and more importantly, what does that mean to the data professional?

First, let's recap what Steve mentioned for
Microsoft's strategy. The word "cloud" can mean a lot of things, from
hosting data (often called "somebody else's hard drives) to running
software where the user logs into an application hosted on a web server somewhere
(called Software as a Service, or SaaS). Microsoft actually has both. In fact,
we've had things like Hotmail (which is a service) and the various Live
offerings for quite some time. And we've had XBox Live, which is a hosted
environment that is kind of a hybrid - there's a "fat" or hardware
client that talks to the main server out on the web. There's also an offering
of a complete Microsoft Office, SharePoint services and even LiveMeeting in the
cloud - nothing to install, runs on lots of platforms, and more (details here).

But there's something new. Microsoft has two new
offerings, called Azure, and SQL Azure. Azure is more of a programming platform
that can host data, and SQL Azure is SQL Server in the cloud. But SQL Azure
isn't just a server you rent - we actually maintain the systems, handle the
optimizations and so on. You create databases and database objects. You can
take the data from SQL Azure and send it to a local SQL Server, and vice-versa.
There's also the ability (through something called Sync Services) to replicate
data between the two.

So how does the Data Professional meld in the
"cloud" to our day-to-day systems? How do we use Microsoft's strategy
in our own strategies? I've seen a couple of interesting uses so far from those
that are trying it out:

Front-End
Start, Back-End Archive
: In this
mode, companies spin up an application quickly (with no server build) into
Azure, backed by SQL Azure. They are able to quickly deploy the app, and if it
grows they can bring that data in-house or even bring a subset of that data
locally for reporting, keeping a smaller data-set up in SQL Azure.

Start
There, Stay There
: Some of the
companies I've seen are taking the application ideas and starting them in SQL
Azure or Azure (or both). No capital expense, no hardware purchases, no
installs, nothing to deploy. When the app is developed, you just point your
clients there and off they go. It's a pay-as-you-use system, so the costs mimic
the profit.

Start
There, Come Here
: In other cases,
organizations want to start projects quicker than they can get hardware and
software installed. So they follow the previous process, and then bring the
code and the database in-house when they are ready.

There are other strategies, such as using the cloud
as part of High Availability/Disaster Recovery or a remote-office access system
and so on, but whatever your reasons, you need to spend a little time getting
familiar with the cloud - and Azure and SQL Azure should be high on your
research list. Here's some places to get started:

Azure Overview: http://tinyurl.com/y8s52vh

Windows Azure Training Kit: http://tinyurl.com/5vrt7q

Writing a Azure Program in 5 steps: http://tinyurl.com/ye6chog

Azure Data Sync: http://tinyurl.com/ylsykfb

Future of programming with Azure Video: http://tinyurl.com/ykqsbsf

Reference list for Windows Azure: http://tinyurl.com/yze9azr

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