Windows Azure Services Platform Officially Announced

A couple of weeks ago, I noted that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had mentioned during an interview ahead of the Professional Developers Conference that Microsoft would be releasing an operating system designed to help developers produce cloud-based applications and services. You can read about that here.

This week, Microsoft higher-up (seriously, who keeps track of all those titles anyway?) Ray Ozzie made the official announcement of the new Windows Azure.

The announcement was pared with the release of a technology preview of Azure, which is apparently somewhere between "alpha" and "beta," falling roughly at the "it-would-be-beta-but-first-we-want-to-see-people’s-reactions-so-we-know-if-we-need-to-change-some-things-or-not-to-keep-all-of-our-hard-work-from-being-flushed-down-the-drain-if-we-have-misjudged-what-the-users-want" part of the development cycle.

Only members of Microsoft’s professional developer organization will get access to the technology preview.

Windows Azure

Essentially, Azure would be used by developers to create applications that would run on servers "in the cloud."

The concept is that instead of a software company buying and maintaining an expensive data center and all the networks and security necessary to keep it running, they could host their applications on servers that are already setup and maintained by Microsoft.

The advantage of such an arrangement is that it is not necessary to pre-build capacity just in case it is needed. Instead, an operation could start with a very small amount of capability and then, if the rush hit all of the sudden, they could simply order more power from Microsoft.

A separate announcement from Dell says that Microsoft is working with the Dell Data Center Solutions group to build-out the Azure hosting platform.

Right now, this arrangement is offered by Amazon as their EC2 and S3 services. Google provides a similar, though not an exact match, service via its Google App Engine.

Google’s App Engine is also in a non-beta beta stage called a "preview release" right now. Given Google’s long standing habit of leaving applications in "beta" indefinitely, it is difficult to gauge where it is or is not going with the Google App Engine.

The advantage that Microsoft has over its competitors in this arena is that its developer tools are well established and widely used among both independent and corporate developers alike. Azure leverages this advantage by using existing Microsoft development technologies and platforms such as Visual Studio, SQL Services, .Net Services, and its latest venture, Live Services.

Theoretically, developers already familiar with such toolsets, could make the move to Azure with little additional training or development. Whether that pans out or not remains to be seen.

In addition, Azure supports all the key standards like SOAP, XML, and REST and also works with Ruby, PHP and Python, all of which have large well established developer communities.

No announcement was made about availability or pricing, but the Amazon version essentially charges based on use of resources.

Microsoft may choose to follow this system and offer the tools for a nominal charge, or even free, or it may choose the traditional route of selling/licensing the developer tools and platform and make the hosting free up to a certain amount of power and space.

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