Why Microsoft took its cloud private
'Mi Azure es su Azure'
Analysis Tongues were wagging that Microsoft was set to announce a cloudy infrastructure and data center partnership with Japanese server maker Fujitsu sometime this week. And it turns out that what Microsoft actually did at its Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington, DC on Monday was tap Dell, HP, and Fujitsu to deliver private or hosted versions of Microsoft's Windows Azure platform appliance.
The Windows Azure platform appliance, which was also announced Monday at the conference, is the Azure Windows services cloud and related back-end servers (as in the software usage of that term, and basically limited to the SQL Azure implementation of SQL Server at this point) that have been set free to roam in your data centers or in third-party data centers on specific stacks of servers, storage, and switches. It scales from "hundreds to tens of thousands of servers," according to Microsoft.
Because Microsoft is still essentially a software company (at least in the data center, if not on the desktop with keyboards and mice and in the living room with the Xbox game console), none of the details of the Dell, HP, and Fujitsu Azure hardware stacks were provided, but the announcements did offer a few hints.
As El Reg reported back in October 2008, Dell's Data Center Solutions bespoke system group won the primary contract to provide the server and storage for the initial Azure cloud built by Microsoft.
Neither company provided feeds and speeds of the machines being installed back then, or the data centers they are housed in, and the word on the street was that Microsoft would eventually also host some of Azure in its massive containerized data center in the Chicago suburbs.
Knowing when to let go
It's pretty clear from the many surveys by IT market researchers, server and operating system vendors — which are tense about cloud computing and its effect on server revenue streams — and cloudy infrastructure providers hoping to ride the cloud phenom, that companies are very keen on having more flexible IT, but not so keen on letting go of it.
And that's why Microsoft's announcement of an appliance version of the Azure cloud is important, and why Dell, HP, and Fujitsu have pushed their way to the front of the line.
Actually, it would be equally honest to say that these three vendors have been pulled to the front of the line by Microsoft itself, and for one very simple reason: Microsoft needs Azure to run on the x64 iron upon which data centers are already comfortable running their own Windows workloads.
Dell and HP are already Microsoft's platform providers for Azure. The word on the street is also that Azure has more Dell iron than HP iron at this point, but this has not been confirmed by Microsoft and is subject to change just as the nameplates shift around in other data centers as new generations of machines come to market with their feeds, speeds, and pricing.
HP is the world's dominant supplier of Windows platforms, followed by Dell, but Fujitsu has a strong presence in Europe and Asia. If you have these three selling and supporting the hosting of Microsoft Azure appliance software in data centers, and then move on to allow them to sell actual physical Azure appliances based on their own gear, then you have a lot of the bases covered.
Dell is cooking up a little something it calls the Dell Services Cloud to run the Azure platform appliance in a data center of its choosing (it could be one owned by Microsoft or it could be something completely different), and the company will eventually sell Azure appliances like it sells PowerEdge servers and PowerVault storage today.
Dell's Services group is implementing the "limited production release" of the Azure platform appliance software stack announced by Microsoft on Monday, but the company has not said when it will be generally available or when the Azure appliances proper will be ready for sale. The only specific thing that Dell did say in its announcement is that its services group operates clouds today, offering managed hosting and software-as-a-service cloudy infrastructure for more than 10,000 customers around the globe thanks to its Perot Systems acquisition last year.
News from the Frontline
HP said that its partnership with Microsoft on the Azure platform appliance was an extension to the "Frontline" partnership that the two companies cooked up in January and backed up with $250m to jointly sell and support Windows-based software stacks based on HP's ProLiant x64-based servers, Integrity Itanium-based servers, StorageWorks storage, and what was then called ProCurve networking.
The Windows components include Windows Server 2008 and its Hyper-V virtualization hypervisor, Exchange Server mail server, and SQL Server database programs. Frontline systems will eventually include Microsoft's ERP and BI application software, too. HP said it has put 11,000 people on the Frontline effort, and that there were 32,000 combined HP-Microsoft partners who would be certified to peddle the Frontline stacks.
It's not yet clear what the HP-Microsoft partner angle will be for the Azure platform appliances based on HP iron, but it seems a reasonable guess that this will be a ProLiant-only affair.
HP's announcement said merely that the company was a "primary infrastructure provider" for the Azure platform, and that it will put the Microsoft stack on its ProLiant servers and various networking products (HP doesn't have a brand here any more, other than "Networking" in the wake of the 3Com acquisition).
Also, it will allow customers to deploy the Azure cloudy software on PODs (short for Performance Optimized Datacenters, or what we call containerized data centers) as well as more traditional brick-and-mortar data centers. No word on when any of this will be ready for sale, of course, but HP echoed Dell and said that it was working with Microsoft to get that "limited production" Azure stack deployed in HP's own data centers for customers to use, and then added that it would be able to do so by the end of the year.
Fujitsu didn't say much more, but said that it, too, would be hosting the Azure platform appliance software for customers to use in its Tatebayashi data center by the end of 2010, followed by other locations around the globe. Fujitsu said that it would be running some of its own applications on that hosted version of the Azure stack, and would be selling a line of services to help customers move to cloudy Windows.
Fujitsu will eventually sell and support a complete Azure stack to drop into customer data centers — presumably on Xeon-based Primergy and PrimeQuest servers, and ignoring Itanium-based PrimeQuest boxes — and added that it will train 5,000 consultants to help customers either rent or own Azure appliances for their Windows workloads.
eBay signs up
An eBay partnership with Microsoft regarding Azure, also announced Monday, is more about eBay using the Azure appliance than selling capacity on Azure appliances or selling hardware/software stacks to IT end-user customers. The two companies said that eBay was installing the Azure appliance in two of its data centers sometime this year, and reminded everyone that eBay's iPad listing page (which you can see here) already runs on the public-cloud version of Azure.
Dell, eBay, Fujitsu, and HP are early adopters of the limited production release of the Azure platform appliance stack, and that leaves Microsoft plenty of time to line up the rest of the x64 server and various storage vendors, which have to partner with all the key system-software providers on x64 iron or they can't hope to sell their servers.
So don't think that IBM, Cisco Systems, NEC, Oracle, Silicon Graphics, and maybe even a bunch of whitebox server makers are not eventually going to be invited to the Azure appliance party. Ditto for EMC, NetApp, and a slew of key storage makers. Their invitations are in the mail. And their attendance will be required — eventually, but probably not until later this year and early next, when the kinks of the Azure platform appliance are worked out, other Windows servers are cloudified, and customers are ready to deploy real applications on Microsoft's cloudy stack. ®