PDC 2008 FAQ: What is Windows Azure and why should you care?

The big news for day 1 at PDC 2008 was the introduction Windows Azure, Microsoft's "operating system for the cloud," and its associated Azure Services Platform. Microsoft also outlined future plans for its own online services. We've put together a quick FAQ to help you digest the news and what it means.

What is Windows Azure and the Azure Services Platform? Windows Azure serves as the foundation for developing applications that run in the cloud. What this means is that it essentially turns servers across the Internet into a massive distributed operating system, running applications that both interact with PC-based software and run within a Web browser.

The Azure Services Platform is the complete solution for businesses. Microsoft will host applications built by third parties, as well as the company's own Web services, such as Exchange Online, CRM Online, and more. In incorporates .NET Services (for programming familiarity), SQL Services (for databases and reporting), Live Services (for interacting with user devices) in addition to SharePoint and CRM services (for business content and collaboration).

Why has Microsoft built Windows Azure? Microsoft says we are moving toward the 5th generation of computing, in which applications will no longer be confined to the PC. In addition, the Internet has become the primary method in which customers interact with businesses. But enterprise architecture has previously been designed as inward-facing for employees and partners. Windows Azure changes this by providing businesses a scalable, customer-facing platform for deploying applications and services.

Haven't we heard of this before with a different name? Microsoft did launch an initiative dubbed "Hailstorm" in 2001 that aimed to expand its online services and unify identity with Passport. Hailstorm made an appearance at PDC 2001 as .NET My Services, but was eventually scrapped. Hailstorm, however, was focused more on consumer services than building an enterprise platform that aims to fundamentally change the way applications and services are built and accessed.

Is this Microsoft's response to Amazon's Web Services? Sort of. Microsoft acknowledges that Amazon was the pioneer in this space with its Elastic Compute Cloud and Simple Storage, and admits the industry will be standing on Amazon's shoulders. However, Microsoft sees Azure to be far broader than Amazon's Web services offerings, and wants to build strong integration with existing software tools.

As a developer, do I have to learn a completely new platform? No, although developers will need to build applications with the cloud in mind. Windows Azure applications can be built with existing tools like Visual Studio, although there are new technologies to take into consideration. .NET Services and SQL Services will provide new cloud-oriented capabilities, and Azure Tools for Visual Studio provides templates to work from. "Oslo" a new tool from Microsoft will help with modeling distributed applications will include a new programming language called "M."

As a consumer, why should I care about Windows Azure? You don't need to worry about the enterprise architecture behind cloud-based applications, but they will be a primary beneficiary. Windows Azure will bring more functionality to Web applications, and enable businesses to more quickly deploy and update services at a lower cost. PC software isn't going away just yet, but Windows Azure will give you more options.

Is Microsoft moving all of its software onto the Web? Microsoft said at PDC 2008 that all of its enterprise software will be offered online as a service. However, the company did not say the Azure versions will replace existing tools. In fact, Microsoft will likely utilize Windows Azure to make its software more useful -- the aim of its software+services initiative. For example, Microsoft Word can integrate with CRM Online and SharePoint Services. But some Azure services, such as Exchange Online and CRM Online, could replace locally hosted versions.

What's all this I hear about "identity"? Identity is a major drawback of current software+services offerings. Sharing user information between services and unified authentication has been a struggle due to different standards. With Azure, Microsoft has implemented what it calls the Federation Gateway that works with a variety of standards. The Microsoft Services Connector communicates with the gateway to share user information with Active Directory and make it so users don't need to even log in to Azure services.

When is Windows Azure going to be available -- is there a beta out now? Early betas of Azure SDKs and Visual Studio Tools are available now. Microsoft is also accepting some users for its Azure Services Platform and will begin hosting applications in the coming weeks. More applications will be accepted over time, and features will be added to Azure.

Although the basics are there, the company acknowledges that Azure is in its early stages and will change based on developer feedback throughout the rest of 2008 and 2009. Microsoft officials said that incompatibilities are likely as Azure morphs, which could lead many developers to wait. During this development period, Microsoft will not be charging for Azure.

Here's what you get with with the Windows Azure Community Technology Preview: 2000 VM hours, 50GB of storage, and 20GB of bandwidth per day.

How much will it cost? For now, Microsoft has not specified any final pricing for Windows Azure or the Azure Services Platform. The company only says pricing will be competitive with the marketplace (such as Amazon's offerings). However, it's clear that Microsoft expects to bring in significant revenue from Windows Azure-based services (such as Exchange Online and CRM Online) before the end of 2009.

Do you have any questions about Azure? Post them below, and we will try to get the answers for you.

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