Tag Archives: azure

Ten things you need to know about Microsoft’s Visual Studio LightSwitch

Microsoft has announced a new edition of Visual Studio called LightSwitch, now available in beta, and it is among the most interesting development tools I’ve seen. That does not mean it will succeed; if anything it is too radical and might fail for that reason, though it deserves better. Here’s some of the things you need to know.

1. LightSwitch builds Silverlight apps. In typical Microsoft style, it does not make the best of Silverlight’s cross-platform potential, at least in the beta. Publish a LightSwitch app, and by default you get a Windows click-once installation file for an out-of-browser Silverlight app. Still, there is also an option for a browser-hosted deployment, and in principle I should think the apps will run on the Mac (this is stated in one of the introductory videos) and maybe on Linux via Moonlight. Microsoft does include an “Export to Excel” button on out-of-browser deployments that only appears on Windows, thanks to the lack of COM support on other platforms.

I still find this interesting, particularly since LightSwitch is presented as a tool for business applications without a hint of bling – in fact, adding bling is challenging. You have to create a custom control in Silverlight and add it to a screen.

Microsoft should highlight the cross-platform capability of LightSwitch and make sure that Mac deployment is easy. What’s the betting it hardly gets a mention? Of course, there is also the iPhone/iPad problem to think about. Maybe ASP.NET and clever JavaScript would have been a better idea after all.

2. There is no visual form designer – at least, not in the traditional Microsoft style we have become used to. Here’s a screen in the designer:


Now, on one level this is ugly compared to a nice visual designer that looks roughly like what you will get at runtime. I can imagine some VB or Access developers will find this a difficult adjustment.

On the positive side though, it does relieve the developer of the most tedious part of building this type of forms application – designing the form. LightSwitch does it all for you, including validation, and you can write little snippets of code on top as needed.

I think this is a bold decision – it may harm LightSwitch adoption but it does make sense.

3. LightSwitch has runtime form customization. Actually it is not quite “runtime”, but only works when running in the debugger. When you run a screen, you get a “Customize Screen” button at top right:


which opens the current screen in Customization Mode, with the field list, property editor, and a preview of the screen.


It is still not a visual form designer, but mitigates its absence a little.

4. LightSwitch is model driven. When you create a LightSwitch application you are writing out XAML, not the XAML you know that defines a WPF layout, but XAML to define an application. The key file seems to be ApplicationDefinition.lsml, which starts like this:


Microsoft has invested hugely in modelling over the years with not that much to show for it. The great thing about modelling in LightSwitch is that you do not know you are doing it. It might just catch on.

Let’s say everyone loves LightSwitch, but nobody wants Silverlight apps. Could you add an option to generate HTML and JavaScript instead? I don’t see why not.

5. LightSwitch uses business data types, not just programmer data types. I mean types like EmailAddress, Image, Money and PhoneNumber:


I like this. Arguably Microsoft should have gone further. Do we really need Int16, Int32 and Int64? Why not “Whole number” and “Floating point number”? Or hide the techie choices in an “Advanced” list?

6. LightSwitch is another go at an intractable problem: how to get non-professional developers to write properly designed relational database applications. I think Microsoft has done a great job here. Partly there are the data types as mentioned above. Beyond that though, there is a relationship builder that is genuinely easy to use, but which still handles tricky things like many-to-many relationships and cascading deletes. I like the plain English explanations in the too, like “When a Patient is deleted, remove all related Appointment instances” when you select Cascade delete.


Now, does this mean that a capable professional in a non-IT field – such as a dentist, shopkeeper, small business owner, departmental worker – can now pick up LightSwitch and and write a well-designed application to handle their customers, or inventory, or appointments? That is an open question. Real-world databases soon get complex and it is easy to mess up. Still, I reckon LightSwitch is the best effort I’ve seen – more disciplined than FileMaker, for example, (though I admit I’ve not looked at FileMaker for a while), and well ahead of Access.

This does raise the question of who is really the target developer for LightSwitch? It is being presented as a low-end tool, but in reality it is a different approach to application building that could be used at almost any level. Some features of LightSwitch will only make sense to IT specialists – in fact, as soon as you step into the code editor, it is a daunting tool.

7. LightSwitch is a database application builder that does not use SQL. The query designer is entirely visual, and behind the scenes Linq (Language Integrated Query) is everywhere. Like the absence of a visual designer, this is a somewhat risky move; SQL is familiar to everyone. Linq has advantages, but it is not so easy to use that a beginner can express a complex query in moments. When using the Query designer I would personally like a “View and edit SQL” or even a “View and edit Linq” option.

8. LightSwitch will be released as the cheapest member of the paid-for Visual Studio range. In other words, it will not be free (like Express), but will be cheaper than Visual Studio Professional.

9. LightSwitch applications are cloud-ready. In the final release (but not the beta) you will be able to publish to Windows Azure. Even in the beta, LightSwitch apps always use WCF RIA Services, which means they are web-oriented applications. Data sources supported in the beta are SQL Server, SharePoint and generic WCF RIA Services. Apparently in the final release Access will be added.

10. Speculation – LightSwitch will one day target Windows Phone 7. I don’t know this for sure yet. But why else would Microsoft make this a Silverlight tool? This makes so much sense: an application builder using the web services model for authentication and data access, firmly aimed at business users. The first release of Windows Phone 7 targets consumers, but if Microsoft has any sense, it will have LightSwitch for Windows Phone Professional (or whatever) lined up for the release of the business-oriented Windows Phone.

Ten years of Microsoft .NET – but what about the next ten?

Technology products have many birthdays – do you count from first announcement, or release to manufacturing, or general availability? Still, this week is a significant one for Microsoft .NET and the C# language, which was first unveiled to the world in detail at Tech-Ed Europe on July 7th, 2000. The timing was odd; July 7th was the last day of Tech-Ed, whereas news at such events is normally reserved to the first day or two – but the reason was to preview the announcement at the Professional Developers Conference in Orlando the following week. It was one of the few occasions when Europe got the exclusive, though as I recall most of the journalists had already gone home.

It is interesting to look back, and I wrote a piece for The Register on .NET hits and misses. However you spin it, it’s fair to say that the .NET platform has proved to be one of Microsoft’s better initiatives, and has delivered on at least some of its goals.

It is even more interesting to look forward. Will we still be using .NET in 2020?

There is no sign of Microsoft announcing a replacement for .NET; and little sign of .NET catching on in a big way outside the Microsoft platform, so in part the question is about how the company will fare over the coming decade. Still, it is worth noting that the role of the .NET framework  in that platform still seems to be increasing.

Most predictions are wrong; but the general trend right now is towards the cloud+device computing model. The proposition is that both applications and data belong in the cloud, whether public, private or hybrid. Further, it seems plausible that we will fall out of love with personal computers, with all their complexity and vulnerability to malware, and embrace devices that just work, where the operating system is locked down, data is just a synchronised local cache, and applications are lightweight clients for internet services. Smartphones are already like this, but by the end of this year when Apple’s iPad has been joined by other slates and small computers running Google Android, Google ChromeOS, Intel/Nokia MeeGo and HP WebOS, it may be obvious that traditional laptop and desktop computers will decline.

It turns out that the .NET Framework is well suited to this model, so much so that Microsoft has made it the development platform for Windows Phone 7. Why stop at Windows Phone 7 – what about larger devices that run only .NET applications, sandboxed from the underlying operating system and updated automatically over the Internet? Microsoft cannot do that for Windows as we know it, because we demand compatibility with existing applications, but it could extend the Windows Phone 7 OS and application model to a wider range of devices that take over some of the tasks for which we currently use a laptop.

In theory then, with Azure in the cloud and Silverlight on devices, the next ten years could be good ones for the .NET Framework.

That said, it is also easy to build the case against. Microsoft has it all to do with Windows Phone 7; the market is happily focused on Apple and Google Android devices at the high end. Microsoft’s hardware partners are showing signs of disloyalty, after years of disappointment with Windows Mobile, and HP has acquired Palm. If Windows Phone 7 fails to capture much of the market, as it may well do, then mobile .NET will likely fail with it. Put this together with a decline in traditional Windows machines, and the attraction of .NET as a cloud-to-client framework will diminish.

Although developer platform VP Scott Guthrie, C# architect Anders Hejlsberg and others are doing an excellent job of evolving the .NET framework, it is the success or failure of the wider Microsoft platform that will determine its future.

Microsoft TechEd 2010 wrap-up: cloud benefits, cloud sceptics

Microsoft TechEd in New Orleans continues today, but I’m back in the UK; unfortunately I was not able to stay for the whole event.

So aside from discovering that walking the streets of New Orleans in June is like taking a Turkish bath, what did I learn? The biggest takeaway for me is that Microsoft is now serious about cloud computing, at least on the server and tools side represented here. As I put it in my report for The Register, the body language has changed: instead of “we do cloud if you must”, Microsoft is now pushing hard to promote Windows Azure and BPOS – hosted Exchange, SharePoint and Live Meeting – while still emphasising that Windows continues to give you a choice of on-premise servers.

That does not mean Microsoft is winning in the cloud, of course. There is a question in my mind about whether Microsoft is merely exporting the complexity of on-premise to serve it over the Internet, rather than developing low-touch cloud systems. I think there is a bit of both. Windows InTune is an interesting case. This is a sort of cloud version of system center, for managing laptops and desktop PCs.On the one hand, I was impressed with its ease of use in the demos we saw. On the other hand, what does managing the intricacies of desktop PCs have to do with cloud computing? Not much, perhaps, except that it is a task that still needs to be done, and if the cloud can make it easier then I’m all in favour.

Although Microsoft was talking up the cloud at TechEd, many of the attendees I spoke to were less enthusiastic. One telling point: I spoke to a training company in the vast exhibition and asked what were the most popular courses. Among other things, he said he was doing a lot of Silverlight, a little WPF, and that there was little interest in Windows Azure.

I also attended an “expert panel” on cloud security, which proved an entertaining affair. The lively Laura Chappell said the whole thing was a nightmare, and none of the other experts dared to disagree. I chatted to her afterwards about some of the issues. Here is a sample:

One of the things is ediscovery. You have something on your computer that indicates someone is planning something against the president of the united states. With the Patriot Act, they can immediately go to that service provider, and they don’t care if it’s virtualised across 10 different systems, they are going to shut them down, and they do not care who else’s stuff is on there, the Patriot Act gives them the power to do that. You went out of business, so did 7 other companies, and they don’t have a timeline, with the patriot act, for them to bring their servers back up.

If anyone sceptical of the benefits of cloud went along, they would not have come away reassured.

Finally, there was a ton of good stuff announced at TechEd. I attended a press briefing the day before, with sessions on Server 2008 RS SP1, InTune, and other topics. The most interesting part of the day was a session which I am not allowed to talk about; but I will say mysteriously that Microsoft’s strategy for the product was not too far removed from one that I proposed on this blog, though I am sure there is no connection.

The other announcements were public. If you have not checked out the new Azure Tools, don’t hesitate; they are much improved. Unfortunately I hardly dare to use Azure, because although I have some free hours from MSDN I’m worried about leaving some app running by mistake and ending up with a big credit card bill. Microsoft needs to make Azure more friendly for developers experimenting.

Windows AppFabric is now released and pretty interesting, though it was not prominent at TechEd. Given that many business processes are essentially workflows, and that this in combination with Visual Studio 2010 makes building and deploying a workflow app much easier, I am surprised it does not get more attention.

Microsoft maybe gets the cloud – maybe too late

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gave a talk on the company’s cloud strategy at the University of Washington yesterday. Although a small event, the webcast was widely publicised and coincides with a leaked internal memo on “how cloud computing will change the way people and businesses use technology”, a new Cloud website, and a Cloud Computing press portal, so it is fair to assume that this represents a significant strategy shift.

According to Ballmer:

about 70 percent of our folks are doing things that are entirely cloud-based, or cloud inspired. And by a year from now that will be 90 percent

I watched the webcast, and it struck me as significant that Ballmer kicked off with a vox pop video where various passers by were asked what they thought about cloud computing. Naturally they had no idea, the implication being, I suppose, that the cloud is some new thing that most people are not yet aware of. Ballmer did not spell out why Microsoft made the video, but I suspect he was trying to reassure himself and others that his company is not too late.

I thought the vox pop was mis-conceived. Cloud computing is a technical concept. What if you did a vox pop on the graphical user interface? or concurrency? or Unix? or SQL? You would get equally baffled responses.

It was an interesting contrast with Google’s Eric Schmidt who gave a talk at last month’s Mobile World Congress that was also a big strategy talk; I posted about it here. Schmidt takes the cloud for granted. He does not treat it as the next big thing, but as something that is already here. His talk was both inspiring and chilling. It was inspiring in the sense of what is now possible – for example, that you can go into a restaurant, point your mobile at a foreign-language menu, and get back an instant translation, thanks to Google’s ability to mine its database of human activity. It was chilling with its implications for privacy and Schmidt’s seeming disregard for them.

Ballmer on the other hand is focused on how to transition a company whose business is primarily desktop operating systems and software to one that can prosper in the cloud era:

If you think about where we grew up, other than Windows, we grew up with this product called Microsoft Office. And it’s all about expressing yourself. It’s e-mail, it’s Word, it’s PowerPoint. It’s expression, and interaction, and collaboration. And so really taking Microsoft Office to the cloud, letting it run in the cloud, letting it run from the cloud, helping it let people connect and communicate, and express themselves. That’s one of the core kind of technical ambitions behind the next release of our Office product, which you’ll see coming to market this June.

Really? That’s not my impression of Office 2010. It’s the same old desktop suite, with a dollop of new features and a heavily cut-down online version called Office Web Apps. The problem is not only that Office Web Apps is designed to keep you dependent on offline Office. The problem is that the whole model is wrong. The business model is still based on the three-year upgrade cycle. The real transition comes when the Web Apps are the main version, to which we subscribe, which get constant incremental updates and have an API that lets them participate in mash-ups across the internet.

That said, there are parallels between Ballmer’s talk and that of Schmidt. Ballmer spoke of 5 dimensions:

  • The cloud creates opportunities and responsibilities
  • The cloud learns and helps you learn, decide and take action
  • The cloud enhances your social and professional interactions
  • The cloud wants smarter devices
  • The cloud drives server advances

In the most general sense, those are similar themes. I can even believe that Ballmer, and by implication Microsoft, now realises the necessity of a deep transition, not just adding a few features to Office and Windows. I am not sure though that it is possible for Microsoft as we know it, which is based on Windows, Office and Partners.

Someone asks if Microsoft is just reacting to others. Ballmer says:

You know, if I take a look and say, hey, look, where am I proud of where we are relative to other guys, I’d point to Azure. I think Azure is very different than anything else on the market. I don’t think anybody else is trying to redefine the programming model. I think Amazon has done a nice job of helping you take the server-based programming model, the programming model of yesterday that is not scale agnostic, and then bringing it into the cloud. They’ve done a great job; I give them credit for that. On the other hand, what we’re trying to do with Azure is let you write a different kind of application, and I think we’re more forward-looking in our design point than on a lot of things that we’re doing, and at least right now I don’t see the other guy out there who’s doing the equivalent.

Sorry, I don’t buy this either. Azure does have distinct advantages, mainly to do with porting your existing ASP.NET application and integrating with existing Windows infrastructure. I don’t believe it is “scale agnostic”; something like Google App Engine is better in that respect. With Azure you have to think about how many virtual machines you want to purchase. Nor do I think Azure lets you write “a different kind of application.” There is too little multi-tenancy, too much of the old Windows server model remains in Azure.

Finally, I am surprised how poor Microsoft has become at articulating its message. Azure was badly presented at last year’s PDC, which Ballmer did not attend. It is not an attractive platform for small-scale developers, which makes it hard to get started.

Windows Azure is too expensive for small apps

I’m researching Windows Azure development; and as soon as you check out early feedback one problem jumps out immediately. Azure is prohibitively expensive for small applications.

Here’s a thread that makes the point:

Currently I’m hosting 3 relatively small ASP.net web applications on a VPS. This is costing about $100 per month. I’m considering transitioning to Azure.
Q: Will I need to have 1 azure instance per each ASP.net application? So if I have 3 web apps, then I will need to run 3 instances which costs about $300 per month minimum, correct?

The user is correct. Each application consumes an “instance”, costing from $0.12 per hour, and this cost is incurred whenever the application is available.

Amazon also charges $0.12 per hour for a Windows instance; but the Amazon instance is a virtual machine. You can run as many applications on there as you like, until it chokes.

Google App Engine has a free quota for getting started, and then it is charged according to CPU time. If the app is idle, you don’t pay.

In addition, all these services charge extra for storage and data transfer; but in a low-usage application these are likely to be a small proportion of the total.

Summary: Azure’s problem is that it does not scale down in a way that makes business sense. There is no free quota, unless you count what is bundled with an MSDN subscription.

I realise that it is hard to compare like with like. A cheap Windows plan with a commodity ISP will cost less than either Amazon EC2 or Azure, but it is worth less, because you don’t get a complete VM as with Amazon, or a managed platform as with Azure, or the scalability of either platform. The point though is that by cutting out smaller businesses, and making small apps excessively expensive for customers of any size – even enterprises run small apps – Azure is creating a significant deterrent to adoption and will lose out to its rivals.

Check out the top feature request for Azure right now: Make it less expensive to run my very small service.

New HP and Microsoft agreement commits $50 million less than similar 2006 deal

I’ve held back comment on the much-hyped HP and Microsoft three-year deal announced on Wednesday mainly because I’ve been uncertain of its significance, if any. It didn’t help that the press release was particularly opaque, full of words with many syllables but little meaning. I received the release minutes before the conference call, during which most of us were asking the same thing: how is this any different from what HP and Microsoft have always done?

It’s fun to compare and contrast with this HP and Microsoft release from December 2006 – three years ago:

We’ve agreed to a three-year, US$300 million investment between our two companies, and a very aggressive go-to-market program on top of that. What you’ll see us do is bring these solutions to the marketplace in a very aggressive way, and go after our customers with something that we think is quite unique in what it can do to change the way people work.

$300 million for three years in 2006; $250 million for three years in 2010. Hmm, not exactly the new breakthrough partnership which has been billed. Look here for what the press release should have said: it’s mainly common-sense cooperation and joint marketing.

Still, I did have a question for CEOs Mark Hurd and Steve Ballmer which was what level of cloud focus was in this new partnership, drawing these remarks from Ballmer:

The fact that our two companies are very directed at the cloud is the driving force behind this deal at this time. The cloud really means a modern architecture for how you build and deploy applications. If you build and deploy them to our service that we operate that’s called Windows Azure. If a customer deploys them inside their own data centre or some other hosted environment, they need a stack on which to build, hardware software and services, that instances the same application model that we’ll have on Windows Azure. I think of it as the private cloud version of Windows Azure.

That thing is going to be an integrated stack from the hardware, the virtualization layer, the management layer and the app model. It’s on that that we are focusing the technical collaboration here … we at Microsoft need to evangelize that same application model whether you choose to host in the the cloud or on your own premises. So in a sense this is entirely cloud motivated.

Hurd added his insistence that this is not just more of the same:

I would not want you to write that it sounds a lot like what Microsoft and HP have been talking about for years. This is the deepest level of collaboration and integration and technical work we’ve done that I’m aware of … it’s a different thing that what you’ve seen before. I guarantee Steve and I would not be on this phone call if this was just another press release from HP and Microsoft.

Well, you be the judge.

I did think Ballmer’s answer was interesting though, in that it shows how much Microsoft (and no doubt HP) are pinning their hopes on the private cloud concept. The term “private cloud” is a dubious one, in that some of the defining characteristics of cloud – exporting your infrastructure, multi-tenancy, shifting the maintenance burden to a third-party – are simply not delivered by a private cloud. That said, in a large organisation they might look similar to most users.

I can’t shake off the thought that since HP wants to carry on selling us servers, and Microsoft wants to carry on selling us licences for Windows and Office, the two are engaged in disguised cloud avoidance. Take Office Web Apps in Office 2010 for example: good enough to claim the online document editing feature; bad enough to keep us using locally installed Office.

That will not work long-term and we will see increasing emphasis on Microsoft’s hosted offerings, which means HP will sell fewer servers. Maybe that’s why the new deal is for a few dollars less than the old one.