Microsoft dives deep into the cloud
Cloud computing is a very popular topic, but when I ask most IT professionals to explain it, I always encounter varying degrees of confusion. This confusion is even prevalent regarding Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform. Because Azure fits into the middle tier of the cloud computing service model—Platform as a Service (PaaS)—it’s very developer focused, rather than IT pro focused. This doesn’t mean, however, that cloud computing won’t be vitally important for IT pros to understand for their future. In an effort to help explain what Microsoft is doing in cloud computing, I sat down at Microsoft’s 2011 MVP Global Summit with Windows IT Pro contributing editor, Microsoft technical fellow, and old friend Mark Russinovich to have him explain what Windows Azure is and how it’s important to Microsoft’s future. We also discussed the latest updates to Mark’s famous Sysinternals tools, as well as the completion of a personal project he’s been working on for a long time. Karen Forster, director of technical communications at Microsoft and former Windows IT Pro editorial director, joined us for the conversation.
Well-known among IT pros as the OS researcher who developed unique utilities for Windows by reverse-engineering the Windows OS, Mark joined Microsoft in 2006 when the company purchased his Winternals software company. As one of only 20 technical fellows throughout Microsoft, Mark occupies one of the highest individual contributor positions in the company—the technical track equivalent of the management track’s corporate vice president. An interesting aspect of Mark’s role as a technical fellow is that because he has no direct reports, he must accomplish his goals by his considerable influence alone. After moving from the Windows division, where he was involved in the planning of Windows 7 and its successor, Mark moved to the Azure team because he recognized the growing importance of both cloud computing and mobile computing trends. On the Azure team, he works with team leaders, as well as developers in various Azure divisions. He focuses on the design of the fabric controller, which Mark describes as “the [Azure] kernel, if you think of Azure as an OS—the kernel, which knows how to manage the server hardware and deploys services and defines what an Azure application is.”
Let’s see what Mark had to say about the importance of Azure to cloud computing and Microsoft, where he sees the cloud heading in the future, and Microsoft’s role in moving IT services into the cloud.
Sean Deuby: From the IT pro’s point of view, what exactly is Azure? How does it fit in with Microsoft’s other online properties? Is it truly different, or is it just another “Live” service?
Mark Russinovich: Cloud computing service models include Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), and Software as a Service (SaaS). What you’ve seen IT pros focus on is Infrastructure as a Service. So in their own data centers, provisioning servers, provisioning applications on those servers, managing them, monitoring them—Infrastructure as a Service is on-demand multi-tenant access to infrastructure resources.
Canonical examples include Amazon EC2, VMware, and Hyper-V. Those kinds of infrastructure clouds or virtualization platforms let you basically rent someone else’s server and deploy your OS and applications to that server—but other than that, those platforms try to look as closely like your data center as possible, to make it easy to just take your apps, lift them up, put them there, and as much as possible use the same management that you use to manage your on-premises data center applications.
There’s fidelity loss when you’re going to a public cloud like Amazon’s EC2. There’s higher fidelity when you go to a private cloud like VMware vCloud that providers such as Rackspace would provide. Or if someone else is hosting a Hyper-V cloud, you also get high fidelity. What PaaS tries to do is raise the level of abstraction up one level. The benefit of taking it up a level from an IT pro perspective and from a business perspective is that you’re not now in the business of worrying about provisioning the OS, provisioning of the runtimes, and provisioning the database and the other infrastructure services that these traditional server applications use or are built on. The benefit from a developer’s perspective is that you don’t have to worry about any of that stuff.
On top of that, the platform makes it really easy to write a cloud or a 24 x 7, highly available, highly elastic application. That’s what Azure is about—and PaaS from an Azure perspective for the compute part of it makes it almost brain-dead simple to write an app that’s multi-tier, multi-instance, and has this ability to scale up and down very quickly and be able to stay up 24 x 7 even in the face of hardware failures or configuration updates, or updates of the service to new versions.