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Ballmer in the clouds: 'Microsoft redefines, Amazon repackages'

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Big Steve made a point of saying that in the future, developers will be able to use Azure not only in the "public cloud" but from their own "private clouds" - ie their own data centers. "It will be many years before many governments will grow comfortable with their data or their citizen data living outside the jurisdiction," Ballmer said.

"This company is not likely to build a public cloud in Slovenia anytime soon. So someone should be able to implement a Windows Azure cloud in that country. They should be able to buy a device that looks like that - or a set of devices that looks like that - and have that be affiliated for the rapid advance of technology with other things going on the world."

Which is only a tad misleading.

Microsoft has no intention of providing a copy of its Windows Azure software infrastructure for private use. But it will roll certain aspects of that infrastructure into products like its Windows Server operating system and Microsoft System Center. "There are a set of things in the cloud that are unique to Windows Azure," said O'Brien, pointing to, among other things, the fabric controller that sits between your application and the Azure infrastructure. "These kinds of capabilities, over time, will show up in products that customers will be able to buy and deploy on premises...

"I hate to use words like parity and symmetry, because they set sky-high expectations. It's not going to be perfectly symmetrical because there are some things that you want to do in the cloud that you won't do on premise - and vice versa."

What's more, despite its emphasis on that added layer of abstraction, Redmond does intend to offer developers access to individual VMs. But these are intended for testing new applications and migrating existing apps from private data centers, and yes, they will only run Windows and certain predefined services.

"This will be a version of infrastructure-as-a-service that's constrained," as O'Brien tells it. "You won't be able to load up any arbitrary service you want to load up. We're going to give you a constrained base Windows 2008 image, and it's constrained in a way that Azure knows how to manage it." This option will arrive at some point this year.

If Microsoft is "redefining the programming model," it's doing so with Redmondian limitations. Which is only what you'd expect. The way we see it, all this comes down to personal preference. Do you want control over your VMs or not? Do you wanna code in Java or .NET and C#? But Ballmer doesn't like the suggestion that Microsoft is merely a follower.

"All great companies have a mix of proactive and reactive muscle," Ballmer said, as an answered that pointed question about whether Microsoft was merely reacting to the rest of the market. "Nobody ever wants to have to react to anyone else. Everyone would to have invented everything and be first with everything, but that's probably not practical. I'm keen on increasing our hit rate, in terms of early and often."

After pointing to Azure as one example of significant Microsoft innovation, he pointed to Bing. "There's been more innovation in the search market in the last year than in the preceding three," he said. "Why? Because there's been competition."

His eventual summary: "When it comes to most of these cloud dimensions, I feel we're at the front or tending to the front." ®

Update: This story has been updated to remove a suggestion that Azure locks you into Microsoft dev tools. It supports Eclipse, Ruby, PHP and Python.

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