An inside look at Microsoft’s booming cloud business

The ability to host Azure infrastructure on premise in a hybrid role is a key differentiator

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their own unique lifecycle.  They can each be updated individually, they can be rolled back individually, they can be scaled individually. 

The benefit is it increases your agility for application deployment without sacrificing availability, which is a really hard problem for a lot of apps today.  We have monolithic apps -- front end, middle tier, back end -- it’s very hard to scale and have a lot of agility without risking your availability. 

With microservices you can get all three.  With Service Fabric we’ve got a lot of built-in capabilities that take advantage of that microservices awareness.  You can update a single microservice.  It will automatically roll back if it detects a problem and none of the other microservices will be impacted.  It’s fully aware of the health state of all of those microservices and it even offers a stateful microservice so you can keep track of state for each one of those sets.  I think it’s going to be pretty exciting to see that next generation of app deployed.

Is it related to Azure Functions?

I typically call Azure Functions a server-less platform, a sort of micro-compute platform, while Service Fabric is the full application … it’s all of the pieces put together and it has knowledge of the health and interaction between all of them.  Azure Functions is really geared toward executing a single operation. It’s in the same ballpark of application design, but they’re addressing different parts of the platform.

The key thing with Azure Functions is the way you program and manage it as a simple function.  You’re writing a snippet of code, whether it be JavaScript or C# or whatever, that will execute in the portal experience and you don’t worry about spinning up a VM. There is no concept of a server at all.  All you’re doing is running that snippet of code and executing it based on some event.  We demoed an IoT based signal that launched a function.  The developer didn’t care whether a server popped up or not.  It doesn’t matter.  It just ran the code and it was done.  That’s the concept behind the serverless approach.  You don’t have to manage a VM and don’t have to pay for that.  You’re paying for just the execution of that function.

When you said cloud is encouraging adoption of new technologies you mentioned software-defined networking, what are you seeing there?

Software-defined networking ends up being one of the more innovative aspects of the platform.  The way in which we scale and the way in which we expose that scale to customers requires a huge amount of investment in our software-defined network.  A good example of this is our load balancers which were all hardware-based when we started and we ended up converting them to a full software solution.  It was really the only way we were going to scale to the size and the magnitude we need now. 

We’ve also exposed the full software-defined network capabilities to customers.  This comes in the form of customers being able to define their network security groups, customers being able to define their routing rules and enabling partners like Barracuda and F5 to be able to deploy virtual clients. 

All of these are effective changes in the way customers can expect to work with the platform they’re deploying, and the rate of change they can now make is hugely improved.  Suddenly you can change things that used to require modifying and updating a physical device, by going into our portal and entering a few numbers and hit submit and you’ve now changed all of your security rules.  It makes it really agile.

It’s also an exciting recruiting opportunity because it drives a lot of interest. Five years ago software-defined networking and machine learning felt like science fiction, and now they are becoming practical science.

Is security still top of mind for customers considering Azure?

Network security and their control over their security is a big factor.  Besides being able to expose some of the capabilities I mentioned, we have additional services like the Azure Security Center that integrates with these tools and will alert customers when things aren’t configured properly. 

The best example of this is if you have a virtual machine that’s not behind the Web Application Firewall (WAF) and you want all of your virtual machines to be behind the WAF, this will tell the system administrator this is a security concern. That’s important because the cloud lets customers be more agile and they need security solutions that match that agility.  So yes, it’s an important conversation with almost every customer.

Closing up here, let’s talk a bit about competition.  I presume Amazon is your biggest competitor, and for your team in particular, how do you square up?

One of the two areas where we show a lot of strength in the market is of course hybrid, as we’ve discussed.  And that’s the full capabilities … the Azure Stack story, the disaster recovery story, the backup story.  A lot of customer are excited about our comprehensive hyperscale public cloud complemented by that full hybrid story. 

And the other area driving excitement is the open and huge amount of choice we offer in Azure.  One of the tenets of the platform is to offer customers the choice to deploy whatever they want … being able to deploy Linux solutions (we offer perhaps the best Red Hat support of any of the public clouds), being able to offer fantastic Cloud Foundry support with Pivotal, while also offering fantastic advanced services like Azure Functions and Service Fabric. 

I think the combination of these services and partner solutions make us attractive to customers who are looking to take advantage of the full power of the cloud.

Any closing thoughts?

I knew this movement was going to take off, you could see the excitement brewing with customers, but the rate at which it’s happening has surprised me.  The deployment and growth we’re seeing in Azure and the cloud in general is mind-blowing. It’s really exciting.  Daunting, but exciting.

 

This story, "An inside look at Microsoft’s booming cloud business" was originally published by Network World.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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