Windows Azure get new hybrid cloud, infrastructure as a service features

Microsoft has announced new preview features in Windows Azure, its cloud computing platform, which introduce infrastructure as a service features as well as improving its support for hybrid public/private clouds.

The best summary is in the downloadable Fact Sheet (Word document). One key piece is that virtual machines (VMs) can now be persistent. Previously Azure VMs were all conceptually stateless. You could save data within them, but it could be wiped at any time since Azure may replace it with the original you created when it was first deployed.

Supported operating systems are Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows Server 2012 RC, and four flavours of Linux.

One of the features mentioned by VP Bill Laing is the ability to migrate VHDs, the virtual hard drives used by Hyper-V and Azure, between on-premise and Azure:

Virtual Machines give you application mobility, allowing you to move your virtual hard disks (VHDs) back and forth between on-premises and the cloud. Migrate existing workloads such as Microsoft SQL Server or Microsoft SharePoint to the cloud, bring your own customized Windows Server or Linux images, or select from a gallery.

Windows Azure Virtual Network lets you extend your on-premise network to Azure over a VPN. This sounds like the existing feature called Windows Azure Connect first announced at the end of 2010, though since Azure Virtual Network is also a preview this seems to be talking a long time to come to full release.

Windows Azure Web Sites is a new web hosting offering. Previously, Azure was focused on web applications rather than generic web sites. This new offering is aimed at any website, running on Internet Information Server 7 with supported frameworks including ASP.NET, PHP and Node.js. MySQL is supported as well as Microsoft’s own Azure SQL Database based on SQL Server.

There is also a new management portal in preview. Azure SQL Reporting is out of preview, and there are also new services for media, caching, and geo-redundant storage.

My guess is that Microsoft-platform customers will welcome these changes, which make Azure a more familiar platform and one that will integrate more seamlessly with existing on-premise deployments. No doubt Microsoft also hopes to compete more effectively with Amazon’s EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud).

One thing which I will would like to know more about is Azure’s elasticity, the ability to scale on demand. Laing describes Azure Web Sites as a “highly elastic solution,” and the Fact Sheet mentions:

the ability to scale up as needed with reserved instances.

It is not clear though whether Microsoft is offering built-in load balancing and scaling on demand, an area where both Azure and System Center 2012 (Microsoft’s private cloud management suite) are relatively weak. That is, scaling is possible but complex to automate.