Are Blue Skies Ahead for Microsoft Azure?

by Paul Rubens

OS Roundup: Microsoft is heading for the cloud, but its mission will not be without turbulence.

Last week at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles, the company announced its new Azure cloud computing platform would be moving from community technical preview status to a release version on the first day of 2010. "It's a cloud OS designed for the future but made familiar for today," Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software architect, said in his keynote.

Now here's the usual deal with brand new Microsoft OSes: You pay, and it doesn't quite do what you need it to. And isn't very secure. A little while later, Service Pack 1 comes out, at which point things get appreciably better and adoption comes more mainstream. You wish you'd waited.

There is little doubt that at its launch Azure will have teething problems, but for once customers won't be paying for the privilege of enduring them. Not for the first month, at least: Customers won't start being charged until February. That's because — bizarrely — the whole Azure billing system is apparently still in beta, which means there are probably plenty of undiscovered bugs in it that would result in unexpected or perhaps wildly inaccurate bills.

"For the first month, the month of January, we're going to be exercising our production provisioning systems and validating our billing systems for accuracy and completeness," said Ozzie. What does that mean? I suspect it means something like: "For the first month we are going to be testing our billing systems to see how well they work, if at all." It doesn't exactly fill one with confidence, does it? Things will probably improve with Azure Service Pack 1, or whatever its cloud equivalent turns out to be.

Microsoft made several additional announcements related to Azure last week, including Dallas, an interesting new service "allowing developers and information workers to easily discover, purchase and manage premium data subscriptions in the Windows Azure platform." Essentially, the idea is that in addition to letting a specialist provide the infrastructure to run your applications, why not let a different specialist supply your data? Data-as-a-service? Why not?

Dallas is really a subset of Pinpoint, another Azure add-on highlighted at PDC. The idea behind Pinpoint is that developers build applications for Azure, and then offer them on Pinpoint. Kind of like an AppStore for Azure. There's a certain irony here: Apple launched its iPhone AppStore to provide programs to run locally, as at the time there wasn't much interest in webapps; Pinpoint is an app store for Azure apps to replace applications run locally.

Web apps is clearly where Google thinks the future is. Last week the company launched the Chromium OS project, an open-source version of its ChromeOS, which it announced earlier this year and which it expects to be ready in 2010. Google's latest pronouncements on ChromeOS articulate many of the things that it sees as wrong with Microsoft's operating system model. The fact that Microsoft is spending so much time on Azure suggests — to some extent at least — it agrees with Google:

"Unlike traditional operating systems, Chrome OS doesn't trust the applications you run. Each app is contained within a security sandbox making it harder for malware and viruses to infect your computer. Furthermore, Chrome OS barely trusts itself. "

Welcome words for anyone involved in managing large numbers of Windows desktops. You can never be too paranoid when it comes to security.

Talking of paranoid, there has been plenty of fear and loathing following the revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) had a hand in the development of Windows 7, with speculation that the agency may have put some sort of "back door" into the OS to make it easier for the agency to see (in some unspecified way) what users are up to, who they are talking to, and what they are saying. Microsoft categorically denied this, it's reported, saying that it "has not and will not put 'backdoors' into Windows."

Which should put your mind at rest. Unless of course it occurs to you that if there was a backdoor into Windows, then that's exactly what the NSA would tell Microsoft to say ...

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Nov 24th 2009
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