By Tom Carter - Senior Developer at Shaping Cloud
With the release of Windows 8, Microsoft took a huge step into the Cloud unifying the user with their cloud profiles such as Twitter, Facebook and Linked-In and bringing a new level of integration into the apps themselves. Whilst this is a big and significant move it is only the first of many innovations around the Operating System and the cloud. This article aims to look at what the current Microsoft Cloud OS looks like as well as taking a look into the near future to see what may be around the corner.
“Operating systems are like underwear — nobody really wants to look at them.” – Bill Joy.
At the recent TechEd North America [http://northamerica.msteched.com/] there was a big drive towards Cloud OS and People-Centric IT – essentially, the idea of simplifying how users access their applications and data on many platforms and devices. If you haven’t already, you should really check out Andrew Conway’s talk [https://channel9.msdn.com/Events/TechEd/NorthAmerica/2013/FDN03#fbid=Z7TlpeBa6kB] from the conference which covers the current reality of all this – binding together products like Windows Server 2012 [http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/server-cloud/windows-server/] and Intune [http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/windowsintune/pc-management.aspx]. The Brad Anderson keynote from the same conference is also a great overview on the direction of the MS ecosystem. The subject may seem IT-focused but it’s actually the opposite – it’s how users can safely work on information the way they want, whenever and wherever they want to.
Let’s think about what an operating system does at a really high level – it provides an abstraction layer between hardware and applications we want to run, for ease of development and for safety. From a user’s perspective, the OS is a container that holds all of their programs and data – apart from a file manager, they hardly ever interact with the system and mainly focus on the programs that are installed. A ‘good’ OS gets out of the way and lets the user get straight to what they want. A limitation of systems that reside on a single machine is that when I head out of my home or office, I lose all my programs and data – there’s no way for me to use the services I’ve paid for unless I invest in more infrastructure – RDP and VPN tools, perhaps.
The idea of a cloud OS takes what we’re used to with a traditional OS (running programs and interfacing with hardware) and abstracts it – instead of software running on individual machines, we have applications that run on many, transparent to the person running or consuming the service. From the perspective of the user, they’re no longer using a program on a machine but consuming a service that lives in an arbitrary place. Because the service runs on an API common to all machines, it becomes easier to scale and failover. This is concept the drives Platform as a Service (Azure’s tour de force) [http://blogs.technet.com/b/haroldwong/archive/2013/02/18/migration-and-deployment-windows-azure-as-a-paas.aspx]. There’s a great whitepaper describing some of the concepts behind the Microsoft cloud OS here [http://download.microsoft.com/download/1/0/7/107D3951-9732-421D-8B57-AC19530F24D1/Private%20Cloud%20Making%20It%20Real.pdf] which is made more interesting because it’s focused towards on-premise solutions.
The recently announced Windows Azure Pack for Windows Server [http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/server-cloud/windows-azure-pack.aspx] is a major piece to this puzzle – allowing administrators to manage their on-premise data centre the same way they would on Azure – allowing you to form a ‘holy-trinity’ of clouds – private, Azure and 3rd party.
These tools can make technology departments more effective at responding to business needs, perhaps even utilising external compute resources on Azure when there’s a need to scale quickly, and let them focus more on the needs of employees and customers. It allows the technology and the technical personnel to become more people-centric.
When you look at new Server 2012 R2 (and earlier) features alongside Windows 8, Office (2013 and 365) and Windows Azure, a strategy and vision starts to emerge – where a user’s profile becomes the centre of everything. A great example of this is Windows Azure Active Directory [http://www.windowsazure.com/en-us/services/identity/] – the name is a bit misleading as it’s a different beast to Active Directory Domain Services (ADDS). It can manage a user’s identity and federate with other identity providers, providing single sign-on to any application –it’s already used for Azure, Office 365, Dynamics CRM and Intune. Now a user can have one username and password for a LOB application, Office 365 and a third party system, synchronised with ADDS for user management - becoming a great way to manage a user’s access rights. This leads to a really nice user experience – if you’re using Office 2013 combined with Office 365 no matter what machine you sit down at, as long as it’s got Office, you get all your recently used files, library links and social features – all you have to do is sign in.
Windows 8 itself allows sign in using LiveID – this is great for simplifying the way a user accesses the Windows Store and reducing the number of logins a user has to remember. This sign in experience might also offer a glimpse of the future – making it technically feasible to immediately install apps that are associated with a user’s identity and display them on the Start screen –mimicking the setup of your home or office PC on any machine. These apps can then access LOB apps or SharePoint Online to form KPIs or alerts in live tiles. With Windows 8, the development experience for Windows got closer to phone and tablet devices with WinRT [http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windowsphone/develop/jj681690%28v=vs.105%29.aspx] a perfect future would mean that this software is totally portable between desktop and mobile devices. This could be great for ‘Bring Your Own Device’ scenarios where services can be consumed no matter what device is in use.
The industry is quickly moving away from users that are tied to applications on their office or home machine and towards liberating them so they can work with the same powerful capabilities anywhere – they can finally stop worrying about the system underneath and get on with what interests them. In many ways, it’s a case of “Back to the Future” sharing many of the concepts behind the original mainframes, the key difference now is the availability and speed of the internet connections that are delivering this vision across a multitude of platforms and devices. There is a lot more still to come but it is clear that the direction has been set.
Tom Carter - Senior Developer at Shaping Cloud
Tom has led and developed many of the bespoke systems delivered by Shaping Cloud. He has an insatiable passion for new technology and will often be experimenting with new languages and frameworks during his free time that he then brings into our projects. He has organised and spoken at the UK Windows Azure User group and is part of Microsoft’s exclusive Windows Azure Insiders program that gives him exclusive access to the latest developments in the Cloud platform.