Why Azure’s cloud chief believes Microsoft is in prime position

Jason Zander is corporate VP at Microsoft overseeing Azure sales and engineering

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What is Microsoft’s container strategy? I know there are Windows containers but Azure has also embraced Docker and Kubernetes. Is Microsoft at somewhat of a disadvantage here because containers are primarily a Linux-focused technology?

Actually, from a computer science perspective, containers have been around for two decades. It goes all the way back to operating systems and isolation levels. As a technology, containers have been a mechanism for a very long time and we started supporting containers on the Azure platform along with our deep learning stuff over two years ago.

We’ve been a deep investor in Docker projects to help make that even easier and we’re one of the biggest contributors on the open source side of Docker. Internally, we’ve been using container technology for Microsoft products for probably the better part of five years. What we’ve done most recently is take that same technology and made it a first-class part of the Windows Operating System. That is something we’re bringing to market with Windows Server 2016.

From that perspective, Azure has provided containers for Linux for two years. We’ve given container support for Windows itself and the orchestrators. The other thing I’d say is we’re basically an open platform and so from that perspective we’re supporting all workloads whether they’re Linux or Windows, open source or not, take your pick, it doesn’t really matter. At this point I feel like we’re uniquely positioned to bridge those Linux and Windows ecosystems.

You mentioned some higher-level technology services like machine learning and artificial intelligence. There is also talk of technology like serverless computing, which I know you address with Azure Functions. What would you say to customers who may struggle with rolling out these new technologies? Do you see a lot of demand at this point?

Yes, absolutely. Think about this in a larger context: We believe going forward that every company is a software company, even if you’re in a more traditional environment, such as manufacturing for example. Even if I’m not a traditional software company, I will be going forward because the best way to get the most out of my business, to optimize it, to save costs and to open new markets is to leverage data and software to help with that next run of innovation.

We’re seeing a lot of that kind of work happening. The top-level thing we’re trying to do is democratize that technology and make it more accessible not only to developers who build software but also those customers that want to get insights. We’ve got a very comprehensive solution that starts all the way down with developers and APIs in hardware and goes all the way up into things like Power BI and Excel. We offer ways to leverage that same kind of technology but you don’t have to be a software or data scientist to be able to do it. If you think about it in those terms then I absolutely expect broad adoption. This is also part of other things that we see, like Bots-as-a-Service and intelligent agents like Cortana. All those things are elements that we’re going to experience in our day-to-day lives.

A lot of the code that underpins these new technologies are open-source. I know open source is something that has been a priority for Microsoft in recent years. Has that been a directive from Satya Nadella to focus and embrace open source?

I worked in developer tools for a long time and the first open-source license I did for Microsoft was 10 years ago. I shipped open source with Visual Studio and we did an open-source license for IronPython, which is Python on .NET. So from my perspective, I’ve actually been involved with the company in open source for a long time. The way I would put it is we really want to make sure that we’re meeting our customers where they are and we’re giving them first-class solutions.

That means first-class solutions for Linux as well as Windows. On the open source side, a couple of the things we’ve done is try to make sure that our platforms are a great place to run open-source software. Azure in particular, we’ve had a big focus on that. The other thing is we’ve tried to take our technology and engage more deeply with the open-source community. We opened up the .NET Framework, for example and now we’ve had Google join the .NET Foundation recently. I would say that we’re definitely doing even more to engage the open source community. It’s a first-class thing for us, which might surprise some people, but I think it’s important because it's what our customers want.

I wanted to ask you about another story I wrote recently from the Open Networking User Group or ONUG. A group of large companies like GE, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and others put together a white paper with a wish list of items that they wish that they could see cloud providers implement. It talked a lot about making it easier to move workloads among cloud providers, like between Azure and AWS for example. Or having a common northbound API for major public clouds or common encryption platform between clouds. It seems like cloud vendors don’t have any inherent incentive to allow this sort of portability among cloud vendors. Are these things that Azure would ever enable?

I think usually when somebody asks for the kind of functionality, what they’re really looking for is understanding about vendor lock-in. We want to make sure that we’ve got a good solution to help with that. We’re definitely embracing an open environment like we just talked about. There are lots of open-source solutions that people typically target for running their PaaS layers and we have full support for that.

We think that’s a great way for you to build your software, so we give you that kind of openness. I also think there is an advantage of having a competitive environment where vendors are not just shooting for a least common denominator approach to something. While that may give you some of the portability aspects, I think it also can have the potential to slow down your innovation, which is a big part of what the cloud is providing. Having vendors compete and do a good job innovating is still going to be very important. I think you can get a great combination: You can leverage open-source technology, you can target workloads to run where you want them to run and at the same time, we have the ability to provide new technology and you don’t have to wait for something else to come through. Beyond that, we’ll continue to support standards that make sense too.

This story, "Why Azure’s cloud chief believes Microsoft is in prime position " was originally published by Network World.

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