Tag Archives: azure

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.