What does Microsoft have to offer in the cloud?

There is a simple way to answer that, Microsoft has “lots” to offer in the cloud, arguably a more complete and coherent set of products than anyone else but then I would say that I’m an employee.  From a product viewpoint there are a myriad of offerings like Windows Azure, SQL Azure, Office 365 (currently BPOS) and Windows Intune is the newest into the stable of public cloud offerings not to mention Microsoft Dynamics.  Microsoft also has a full spectrum offering in the private cloud space too with Hyper-V Cloud (the combination of Hyper-V 2008 R2, System Center and a Self Service Portal).  Throughout the rest of this article I’ll outline what we mean by cloud and how we think about it and provide a window into each of these technologies.

What’s a cloud

When you engineer products you can’t  have some esoteric definition of a cloud you need some specific characteristics to engineer against and latch onto.  For this reason we use this definition of the cloud that provides some solid underpinnings and was created by the US Government National Institute of Standards and Technology.  The definition provides us a solid engineering foundation, I suggest a 5 minute read of the full document but the first paragraph is an interesting read, I’ve highlighted my favourite terms:

Cloud computing is a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction. This cloud model promotes availability and is composed of five essential characteristics, three service models, and four deployment models.

If you feel that definition is still a bit woolly then we will come to more detail in a moment, but those key words should be set into your mind when thinking about the cloud.  This is how of them:

On-Demand = always available
Shared = reduced cost per use
Rapidly provisioned and released = Little management needed to add more capacity for use and to free it up again for someone else to use
Promotes availability = it’s available when and where you need it and easy to make use of

Part of the NSIT definition goes into service models too and lists Software as a Service (SaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS),  Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) as ways of providing what users need.  Again this is a model that we follow and we’ve aligned our products and services around these.  It’s important too to understand the differences between the service models.

SaaS is a finished bit of software that an end user can just use.  This is where Office365 with it’s cloud based email and collaboration workloads sits and where other email services sit.  We’re very used to consumer facing SaaS solutions with Hotmail being a prime example.  Windows Intune and Microsoft Dynamics are our other public cloud based SaaS solutions, highly scalable, available, on demand applications.

PaaS is the foundation for building applications in the cloud and it’s where Windows Azure and SQL Azure sit.  The function of any platform is to provide a solid base upon which anything can be built but you don’t necessarily need to know how it’s underpinnings work.  For example to write a Windows application you don’t necessarily have to know the ins and outs of memory management.  With Windows Azure you don’t need to know that the platform manages a whole load of network components, servers and racks to get the job done.  Simply put platforms provide a level of abstraction.

IaaS is most akin to what we’ve seen for some time with virtualisation.  A lift and shift of workloads into an implementation that has the characteristics of a cloud.  It provides a simple slip road to the cloud but without the abstraction level of a platform, so it’s still necessarily to build a solution around the infrastructure itself.  One of the major signposts that should make you aware that something is an IaaS solution is if you need to place management around the solution to provide the characteristics of a cloud.  This is where Hyper-V Cloud lives.

Now that we’ve framed the general idea of a cloud lets look at Microsoft’s products.

Windows Azure

I’ve taken to starting with Windows Azure whenever I enter a discussion about cloud because so many people don’t get what Windows Azure is.  As above it’s platform that lets you build pretty much whatever you like and as such you’ll need some developers and an architect to design and build an application to sit on Windows Azure.  When they do that they’ll be able to create an application that has enough understanding about the role it’s performing to be able to take advantage of self scaling. 

Some people are beginning to think that Windows Azure is some sort of IaaS solution.  It’s not.  You can’t just place an existing workload into Windows Azure and take advantage of the cloudiness without architecting the solution to take that advantage.  I guess part of the idea that Windows Azure has some IaaS characteristics is that we’ve made some solid improvements like the ability to RDP into a Windows Azure role or that they web roles run a fully functional IIS (Internet Information Services) server exposing a bit more of the roles Windowsyness.  However Windows Azure roles are stateless and that takes some getting used to.   I think it’s enough of a mind shift (that nothing persists on the role between reboots that’s not in the original image) that you can see you need to design specifically for Windows Azure.

Windows Azure is the place for new stuff.

SQL Azure

SQL Azure is a highly scalable SQL infrastructure.  A database on SQL Azure is to all intents and purposes just the same as a data base on SQL Server which means that all those existing DBA skills are still valid and valuable.  The secret sauce of SQL Azure is that it’s got failure built in (just like Windows Azure).  Hang on! It’s build to go wrong!  Are you MAD?  Nope, it’s built so that when something fails it keeps on going; every bit of data is stored 3 times in the data centre in a fully redundant way.  When something does go wrong the live copy is switched and the second copy is used to build a 3rd live copy a little like a RAID5 array of SQL Servers (but obviously it doesn’t use RAID).  SQL Azure is a superb highly available SQL environment and you could pop almost any existing SQL database onto it, you could place your existing customer database there now if you’d like.

Office 365 and BPOS

And now we segway into Software as a Service Solutions which unlike Windows Azure and SQL Azure are ready to use no development required.  BPOS (uncommonly known as Business Productivity Online Suite) is the currently available public cloud productivity service which provides Exchange and SharePoint features.  Office 365, which will be released later this year, is the new generation of productivity and differs because provides Exchange 2010, SharePoint 2010 and Lync 2010 provided as public cloud services and in some licensing scenarios, that we expect to be the most common, the full Office 2010 Professional Plus application suite to install locally.  It doesn’t end there though because the SharePoint 2010 collaboration features include Office Web Apps that allow documents to be editied in the browser without the need to have Office installed locally.  Essentially it does everything for productivity.

For me though the killer feature, being an IT Pro, is that Office 365 integrates with what you already have.  You don’t need to create a whole bunch of new user accounts and manage passwords and the hassle that entails because it can be safely integrated with Active Directory for authentication and to provide that ever so useful Global Address List for your company.

Probably the major reason people will go for Office 365 is the dramatic cost savings and ease of migration.

Windows Intune

Wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to manage all the client computers in your organisation without having to deploy a server infrastructure to look after them?  That’s what Windows Intune does, cloud based management of client computers.  If provides the ability to manage Windows Updates, Firewalls, to do remote control, to inventory to understand software in the organisation and to ensure license compliance for Microsoft products.  Oh yes it also comes with malware based on award winning, enterprise scale and consumer loved technology out of the box and to be able to manage that malware defence across the whole organisation from the web.

Hyper-V Cloud

And we’re into the home strait with IaaS for which Microsoft provide the Hyper-V tool set.  Microsoft don’t host a public Hyper-V Cloud that you can place your workload into, instead you can take the Hyper-V Cloud guidance and implement your own private cloud (one that’s for the sole use of one organisation) or select a hoster that provides a hosted Hyper-V Cloud and offload to them.  Why doesn’t Microsoft do this?  Hosters are able to better meet the bespoke requirements of those seeking to use IaaS today, you can have a more bespoke service provided by a hoster.

Hyper-V Cloud is the combination of a couple of technologies because virtualisation alone (Hyper-V) does not create a cloud – anyone trying to tell you it does hasn’t RTFM recently.  To meet the definition of a cloud there must be some automation and intelligence so System Center is added to the mix to provide that (System Center can successfully manage VMware by the way as part of cloud without the need to convert the VM to Hyper-V).  That covers the shared and rapidly provisioned and released parts of the NSIT definition but a 3rd component is required to cover on-demand: a self service portal.

The self service portal is the friendly face to the Hyper-V Cloud, it’s what the users (er) use to access the clouds resources when they need them.  Need a HR workload, turn it on.  Need a Finance work load, turn it on.  The Self Service Portal is created by the Administration team in conjunction with the owners of those applications from HR and Finance (or any other arbitrary team that has a function) so that people within those departments never need know about networking and hard drives and servers and bits and bites and ip addresses and … they just need to know they need a HR Application.  Back to a level of abstraction.




This article was originally posted on the Cloud Power Blog at ITpro.co.uk

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