Monday afternoon with Amitabh Srivastava, the corporate vice president and distinguished engineer who heads up Windows Azure, to find out more details on Microsoft's new operating system for the cloud.
Srivastava's could hardly contain his excitement for finally being able to talk about his project -- one that has been oft-rumored but never publicly disclosed during the past two years of development. And it's not surprising why: if Windows Azure succeeds, it could define computing for the next decade.
Just as it has done for mobile devices and PCs, Microsoft has built a new operating system for the Internet (hence the "Windows" name). It wants developers to write applications that run in the cloud, just as they do for PCs, and in turn engender the same partner ecosystem that has helped to establish the dominance of Windows.
The value proposition is hard to deny: using the same tools they know intimately, developers can port or design applications for the cloud. Microsoft takes care of the rest: hosting with guaranteed uptime (SLAs will be offered), deploying updates, and additional frameworks bringing new features. Moreover, these applications can communicate with software running on the PC or other devices through Microsoft frameworks.
Surprisingly, Microsoft isn't using its existing virtual machine Hyper-V technology from Windows Server for Azure. The company has developed a completely new hypervisor that is faster because it can rely on a completely homogeneous datacenter environment (Srivastava did say that some of the work done for Azure may make it to Hyper-V). The Azure hypervisor will allocate resources on the fly, depending on an application's requirements.
Sure, Google and Amazon can offer the same hosting, storage and even cloud-based computing capabilities, but they lack the cohesion and tools necessary to promote development. That's what's new about Windows Azure Srivastava says, explaining that it's a "level above" everything else.
Srivastava told us that Azure has been architected from the ground up to be simple and fast, but most importantly: modular. Windows Azure is simply the core of Azure Platform Services, which is what developers and users will actually interact with. Developers can pick and choose the features they need from a second layer, such as a database, business tools, or even functionality provided by a third-party application.
But despite the promise of Azure, there are a number of roadblocks standing in Microsoft's way of making Windows the standard for application development on the Web as it is on PCs.
First of all, Microsoft doesn't have the greatest track record on the Internet, and it's not clear that developers will jump onto the Windows Azure bandwagon. Will businesses be willing to commit to a proprietary platform and lock their cloud applications to Microsoft's datacenters?
There are also a number of things Microsoft hasn't yet decided about Windows Azure that could lead to a tepid response. Pricing hasn't been set, and likely won't be until later next year. Even the features of Azure could change, potentially rendering initial applications incompatible with future updates.
Still, Srivastava is extremely upbeat about the potential. He wants feedback to guide the future of Windows Azure and is confident Microsoft can provide a solution that will forever change the way businesses operate on the Web. Cloud computing appears to be an inevitable future, and with its development acumen, Microsoft could very well be in the best position to lead it.