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Microsoft backsteps Azure from platform to infrastructure cloud

Embracing Linux VMs 'cause it can't deny them

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Microsoft got so excited about its upcoming enhancements to the Windows Azure cloud, due to be divulged in detail tomorrow, that it jumped the gun on its own announcement, perhaps to try to steal a little thunder from cloudy announcements from Oracle and Red Hat.

The upshot is that Azure will no longer be just a platform cloud, providing a place for .NET applications to run and tickle SQL database and other services, but will now have a devolved side that will function as an infrastructure cloud – and one that will run Windows and Linux instances and their applications.

The rumors have been going around for quite some time that Microsoft would break down and support Linux on Azure in some fashion, but some will be surprised that Microsoft would turn at least a chunk of Azure into an infrastructure cloud after espousing all the joys of just giving customers a platform cloud.

Both Microsoft and Google have done this for years and in contrast to Amazon Web Services, which started out as an infrastructure cloud and which is evolving into a very sophisticated platform cloud as well. And one, El Reg should point out, that has customers using a mix of infrastructure and platform services.

So it will come as little surprise then that Microsoft is being pushed into the hybrid model because that is what the industry juggernaut is not only offering, but perhaps peddling to the tune of $2.1bn a this year if current trends persist.

To our thinking, once Microsoft conceded that it needed to offer infrastructure services on Azure with persistent storage, allowing customers to load up their own Windows instances and whatever software they chose atop it in a Hyper-V virtual machine, then it was a foregone conclusion that there would be very little Microsoft could do to stop customers from loading up a Linux operating system on the Azure infrastructure cloud. Not if it didn't want to make a big stink, anyway.

Microsoft has been working with Red Hat and SUSE Linux to ensure that their Linuxes run – and run well – on Hyper-V, after all. So rather than fight Linux, Microsoft has decided to embrace it, perhaps with the hope of stealing some business from AWS, Rackspace Hosting, IBM, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and other infrastructure cloud providers. Perhaps because it cannot ignore that Linux is growing faster than Windows.

Bill Laing, corporate VP for Server and Cloud at Microsoft, said in a blog post outing tomorrow's big "hybrid cloud" news that Microsoft would now be offering Windows Azure Virtual Machines, running atop Hyper-V and storing virtual machine images in the Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) format favored by Microsoft, thus allowing for VMs running on premises to be compatible with and moving fluidly to the portion of Azure that is now an infrastructure cloud.

It looks like Microsoft is going to be offering infrastructure services as a preview at first, with Windows Server 2008 R2 (both plain vanilla and with the SQL Server 2012 evaluation database) and Windows Server 2012 Release Candidate being options.

It also looks like one of the things that Windows shops might have been clamoring Microsoft for was a virtual machine on Azure in which to test their applications with the server version of Windows 8 – a perfectly legit use of cloudy infrastructure if there ever was one.

Those persistent virtual machines will also be allowed to run a number of different Linuxes, including Canonical Ubuntu 12.04, SUSE Linux OpenSUSE 12.1 and Enterprise Linux Server 11 SP2, and the CentOS 6.2 clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. RHEL itself did not make the cut.

Once you have VMs running on an infrastructure cloud, you need a virtual private network to link them together into a multi-tiered application, and that is precisely what Windows Azure Virtual Network is.

Like other virtual private cloud offerings, Microsoft is letting Azure link through the corporate firewall into the internal network, creating one seamless network to manage and linking the two sets of IT operations together. Network admins will be able to configure IP addresses and routing tables and set security policies that are consistent across the two networks that are linked to each other.

Microsoft also previewed Windows Azure Web Sites, and elastic infrastructure offering to create web sites using .NET, Node.js, and PHP and allowing for the deployment of web pages through Git and FTP as well as through Microsoft development tools such as Visual Studio and WebMatrix.

This part of the updated Azure cloud will also allow for WordPress, Joomla, NotNetNuke, Umbraco, and Drupal content management systems to be deployed in a few clicks. If you are in the business of hosting these tools on the cheap, you just got one big and hungry competitor. The web sites are back-ended by SQL Server and MySQL databases.

Microsoft will also be trotting out a new software development kit for Azure, with the June 2012 SDK having updates for Java, PHP, and .NET and adding Python to the mix. The command line in the SDK also now supports Macs as well as Windows. And it is also previewing a new Azure management portal, with lots of dashboards to monitor your VMs, storage, virtual network, SQL Database service (the Azure platform flavor of the SQL Server database), and web sites.

Redmond also plans to update a number of Azure services as part of its announcements tomorrow. Azure storage now has two levels of redundancy, with the existing geo-redundancy option (in two different subregions) now augmented with the less rigorous (and presumably less expensive) local redundancy in the same subregion.

Azure Caching now comes in two flavors as well: a managed multi-tenant cache or one that installs on web or worker servers you have in your Azure pool; this caching is compatible with Memcached and can be accessed using the SDK for .NET, Java, PHP, or Node.js applications.

Redmond is also previewing Windows Azure Media Services, again; this is a system that runs in Azure for encoding, formatting, storing, and streaming video content. ®

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