Microsoft: Features still missing in Azure

Microsoft is quickly ramping up its Azure cloud platform, though some capabilities are still missing

Due to an early emphasis on getting the right architecture for its Azure cloud platform, which went live in February, Microsoft's cloud service is still missing key features that are available in the company's standalone products, said Microsoft executives at the company's 2010 Tech Ed conference, being held this week in New Orleans.

"Even though Windows Azure is being used in a wide variety of applications, there are still features missing," admitted Bob Muglia, president of Microsoft's servers and tools division, in an interview. He was quick to add that Microsoft does plan to offer most of the major features still not available within 12 to 18 months.

"This is not to say every single feature will be there [in this time frame], but the major gaps will start to close," Muglia said. He mentioned a number of features that only recently have been added to the Azure versions of Microsoft products: One is SQL Server's support of geolocation coordinates as a data type. Another is support of .NET version 4.

Other features, such as SQL Server Integration Services, have yet to be incorporated into the Azure version, however.

During a press conference on Monday, Muglia said that when approaching the cloud, Microsoft chose to focus on cloud-specific attributes such as the ability to automatically scale up to as many instances as needed, or to fail over automatically should one location go down.

"We chose to build the platform with all these attributes, even at the cost of the features that you need aren't yet available," he said.

The challenge of cloud-enabling applications involves more than simply putting the software online, Muglia explained. "When we built Windows Server Azure, we didn't just take Windows Server and host it in a data center. We asked what it would take to build a global-scale cloud platform."

As a result, the company decided to focus on making a platform that would be as scalable as possible, to give it the ability to keep multiple copies of data on hand, and to hit the other requirements that are touted as advantages of cloud computing. "We'll get a subset running first, and then we'll add features over time," he said.

Muglia pointed to the SQL Server Azure edition as an example of this approach. He noted that a single instance of SQL Server Azure is running "across thousands of computers in six data centers around the globe," he said. Nobody else has run a single database across so many distributed servers, he said.

Domino's Pizza was one of the early adopters of Azure, noted Prashant Ketkar, who is Microsoft's director of product and field marketing for Windows Azure. For Super Bowl Sunday, a popular American sporting event held in January, the company was able to spin up more instances of its online ordering system to handle additional traffic.

When asked about Azure compatibility, Ketkar said that it would take some work in moving an application that currently runs on Windows Server over to Windows Server Azure. By the end of the year, Microsoft will offer the capability to move such programs without any reconfiguration, though these apps won't be able to take advantage of Azure's scaling and other native features, he said.

Robert Wahbe, who is corporate vice president of server and tools marketing for Microsoft, noted that the Azure platform has a more sophisticated approach than that offered by potential competitors like Google and Amazon due to the fact that it will provide a single platform for all instances of software, whether they run internally on Azure itself, or on another .NET-based cloud platform. "No one else is doing that," he said.

Muglia said that thus far, e-mail and collaboration applications have been most often ported to the cloud. More complex applications, such as enterprise resource planning applications, are not as common.

Small businesses are more likely to move to the cloud before large ones, because they tend to write their own programs less often, he said.

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