Beware the dazzle of Microsoft's Azure lure
Cloud clarity needed
When it comes to Microsoft's Azure Services Platform, it pays to be cautious.
Microsoft has joined IBM and others in trying to build its own version of what's beginning to look like a vast, mainframe-like computing and storage system in the sky.
In the case of Azure, you - the developer - will build your applications using the familiar Visual Studio, C#, Visual Studio, and ASP.NET that you'll then deploy to Azure.
Re-use existing Microsoft programming skills and technologies, never need to own another server, provision and spin up in relation to demand - that's the rhetoric that's been repeated during the last few months by Microsoft, and this week, it turned up at its VSLive and MSDN Developer conferences in San Francisco.
Yet it was clear people attending the shows struggled to come to grips with what Microsoft is offering. Even those from Microsoft and partners trying to evangelize or explain Azure couldn't completely answer some big questions, either because Microsoft hasn't got the answers or it's not sharing them.
Among the questions:
- Just how big a system will you be able to spin up and provision on Azure, and how quickly?
- What's to prevent Microsoft from "stealing" your ideas?
- Is the service going to be available from Microsoft only, or will Azure also be available through partners?
- Will you be able to analyze the performance of your application, and tell whether its Azure or your own application that's at fault if there's a problem?
- Does Azure come with a relational database?
Some of these answers will depend on the sheer capacity Microsoft puts in place and how it backs these up with service level agreements (SLAs).
For example, Microsoft repeated the current industry meme that its own particular cloud will be for everyone from two-person start ups to enterprises.
To do this, though, Microsoft will need raw capacity backed by some rigorous SLAs and reliable management systems to ensure everyone gets exactly what they want when they want it.
Early attempts to push Azure at Microsoft's two shows this week proved there was a long way to go. Attempts to install applications on Azure hit delays, as you'd expect with early software: It wasn't clear whether these were down to network latency of slowness of Azure.
You won't be able to test applications online, instead you'll do it on the machine were you've got Visual Studio and an instance of Azure running. Also, it seems, you won't get any information on the performance of Microsoft hardware fabric.
On storage, Azure is a structured database but it's not relational. There's no enforced referential integrity - you have to write your own - and you don't get views or triggers. Links between tables will be different to what you're familiar with in SQL Server.
One VSLive delegate conceptualized the Azure storage system by comparing it IBM's old Indexed Sequential Access Method (ISAM ), where an application would use an API to search indexes and find data files - different to relational data. Hence: mainframe in the sky.
And yet, just as things looked like they were becoming tangible, it seems they are set to change. Microsoft told The Reg  Monday Azure's going relational, as it's putting as many features as possible from its SQL Server database in to Azure as quickly as possible in response to partners' feedback.
Azure is a cloud indeed for Microsoft: It's difficult to contain and harness, and its shape is constantly shifting.
In a sign of the work ahead in conceptualizing the cloud, nailing down the features and then delivering, it was telling that while Microsoft evangelized Azure in San Francisco, up in Redmond Microsoft it announced the formation of the Cloud Computing Futures group.
This is a research and development unit that will partner with others to "explore hardware innovations while simultaneously building the software stack to exploit new hardware designs," Microsoft said. The initial target seems to be to find ways of reducing power consumption in the data center.
Microsoft is in the same boat as software, hardware and services companies when it comes to the cloud: This is a new model, with a relative meaning, subject to crushing levels of marketing spin, and that owes more than a passing resemblance to models of computing past.
Expect things to change on Azure, as they should with any new software or service. Just let Microsoft be the one that takes the risks when it comes to making these changes.
Microsoft will, as it did this week, try to persuade you with tales of early adopters Energizer, Ingersoll Rand, or - that evergreen of Microsoft customer references - Coke. But beware. Jump too soon, before the details are finished and the services packaged, and you risk getting left high and dry when things change.
If you want an example of how uncertain things are inside Microsoft's online services world right now, look no further than its online Office bundle Equipt: launched with a flourish  last July - and finally killed  last week. ®