Ozzie details Azure, Microsoft's cloud version of Windows

Microsoft targets Amazon's EC2 service with Azure technology, Ray Ozzie says at PDC show

LOS ANGELES — Ray Ozzie, Microsoft Corp.'s chief software architect, today detailed Windows Azure, a cloud computing version of its operating system that the software vendor says will enable developers to build and host online services on a Windows-based IT infrastructure.

Windows Azure is the foundation of a new Azure Services Platform that is designed to compete with Amazon.com Inc.'s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) service as a scalable application-hosting environment, Ozzie said during a keynote speech at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference, which kicked off today in Los Angeles. Microsoft is releasing a Community Technology Preview version of the Azure Services Platform to PDC attendees and eventually will make the technology available worldwide through its data centers.

The announcement of Windows Azure was expected; Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had said during a public appearance in London on Oct. 1 that the company was readying a Windows cloud offering and would announce it within a month.

According to Ozzie, a team of Microsoft developers began working on Azure just before Amazon unveiled EC2 in beta mode two years ago. Just last week, Amazon removed the beta tag and said that EC2 is now ready for production uses, while also adding beta-level support for Windows and Microsoft's SQL Server database. Previously, EC2 only supported Linux.

Ozzie verbally tipped his hat to Amazon for bringing its cloud offering to market before Microsoft and other vendors. "All of us are going to be standing on their shoulders," he said, as the IT industry increasingly transitions from selling software that's installed on corporate networks to running applications over the Internet via cloud computing environments hosted by large vendors.

However, Ozzie added that Microsoft had "somewhat broader and different objectives" than Amazon in developing Azure. Unlike Amazon, he noted, Microsoft has the responsibility to support a vast global network of software developers as well as all of the applications that already have been built on top of Windows, SQL Server and its other infrastructure software.

Ozzie dipped into the past to show how cloud computing has evolved beyond the virtualization and utility models that he said have been present in corporate IT systems for 30 years or more. Previously, companies created networks for their own employees and didn't expect to be serving customers and business partners outside the firewall, he said. But, he added, "things are materially different when building systems to serve the world of the Web."

Nonetheless, developers can use Microsoft's familiar .Net tools to build applications for Windows Azure. Microsoft itself used .Net to develop the new cloud environment, said Amitabh Srivastava, vice president of the Windows Azure team. Srivastava, who took the stage after Ozzie to describe Azure in more detail, said that over time, Microsoft will host all of its own Web-based computing services on Azure.

The key element of Windows Azure is a Fabric Controller tool that "manages the life cycle" of online services, Srivastava said. The Fabric Controller "views all of the data center as a fabric of shared hardware resources that can be managed and shared with all the services there," he explained. That enables Azure to update applications automatically, sparing IT staffers the hassle of updating apps on individual PCs throughout an organization, Srivastava said.

Windows Azure also separates applications from the operating system layer via the use of Microsoft's virtualization technology, which further helps to eliminate the need for IT to update PCs when applications are modified, according to Srivastava.

Ozzie didn't say when Windows Azure and the Azure Services Platform would become generally available, but he said that Microsoft officials will be discussing the cloud offering in more detail over the next several days at the PDC. Also at the conference, the company plans to hand out a pre-beta build of Windows 7, which is scheduled to be the successor to Windows Vista.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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