Tag Archives: windows azure

Microsoft backs Telefonica’s BlueVia mobile SDK – but the market is fragmented

Announced at Mobile World Congress last month, BlueVia is Telefonica’s effort to attract developers to its app platform. Telefonica is the largest phone operator in Spain and also owns O2 in the UK, and has various other operations around the world.

In this case though, “Platform” is not just the devices connected to Telefonica networks, but also services exposed to apps via newly published APIs. BlueVia has APIs for sending and receiving SMS messages, delivering mobile ads, and obtaining information about the current user through a User Context API.

Things like sending a text from an app are nothing new, but a difference is that BlueVia will pay the developer a cut from the revenue generated. Along with ads, the idea is that an app can generate a revenue stream, rather than being just a one-off purchase.

The news today is that Microsoft is backing BlueVia with a toolset and marketing to Windows platform developers. There has been an SDK for Microsoft .NET for some time, but today Microsoft and BlueVia have delivered a new SDK for .NET which includes both server and client side support for the BlueVia APIs. On the server, there are templates for Windows Azure and for BlueVia ASP.NET MVC2 and WCF (Windows Communication Foundation) applications. On the client side, there are Silverlight controls such as a DialPad, an Advertising control, and a text to speech control. Microsoft also provides hooks to Windows Live Services in the hope that you will integrate these with your BlueVia applications.

The snag with developing your app with BlueVia APIs is that it will only work for Telefonica customers, thus restricting your market or forcing you to code to different APIs for other operators. “If you want to expose an API in the way that Telefonica is doing, you need to be a Telefonica customer in order to be able to use it,” says Jose Valles, Head of BlueVia at Telefonica.

If you further restrict your app’s market by targeting only Windows Phone, it gets small indeed.

Valles says there is hope for improvement. “We are working with the industry and with WAC in order to standardise this API,” says, assuring me that the reaction is “very positive”. WAC is the Wholesale Applications Community, a cross-industry forum for tackling fragmentation. Do not count on it though; it strikes me as unlikely that a cross-industry group would accept BlueVia’s APIs as-is.

There is also a glimpse of the challenges facing developers trying to exploit this market in the BlueVia forums. This user observes:

During the submission process we could only submit the app for a single device model while it is actually supported on hundreds of models. So please also explain how to specify all the supported models during the submission process

The answer: BlueVia has defined around 20 groups of compatible devices, and you can only upload your app for one at a time. 20 uploads is better than hundreds, but still demonstrates the effort involved in trying to attain any kind of broad reach through this channel.

BlueVia is in beta, but Valles says this will change “in the next few weeks”. That said, it is already up and running and has 600 developers signed up. “It is already commercial, whoever wants to come in just needs to email and we will send it to him,” he says.

The idea of the operator sharing its ongoing revenue with app developers is a good one, but be prepared to work hard to make it a reality.

How is Windows Azure doing? Few mission critical apps says Microsoft

I attended an online briefing given by Azure marketing man Prashant Ketkar. He said that Microsoft is planning to migrate its own internal systems to Azure, “causing re-architecture of apps,” and spoke of the high efficiency of the platform. There are thousands of servers being managed by very few people he said – if you visit a Microsoft datacenter, “you will be struck by the absence of people.” Some of the efficiency is thanks to what he called a “containerised model”, where a large number of servers is delivered in a unit with all the power, networking and cooling systems already in place. “Just add water, electricity and bandwidth,”, he said, making it sound a bit like an instant meal from the supermarket.

But how is Azure doing? I asked for an indication of how many apps were deployed on Azure, and statistics for data traffic and storage. “For privacy and security reasons we don’t disclose the number of apps that are running on the platform,” he said, though I find that rationale hard to understand. He did add that there are more than 10,000 subscribers and said it is “growing pretty rapidly,” which is marketing speak for “we’re not saying.”

I was intrigued though by what Ketkar said about the kinds of apps that are being deployed on Azure. “No enterprise is talking about taking a tier one mission critical application and moving it to the cloud,” he said. “What we see is a lot of marketing campaigns, we see a lot of spiky workloads moving to the cloud. As the market start to get more and more comfortable, we will see the adoption patterns change.”

I also asked whether Microsoft has any auto-scaling features along the lines of Amazon’s Elastic Beanstalk planned. Apparently it does. After acknowledging that there is no such feature currently in the platform, though third-party solutions are available, he said that “we are working on truly addressing the dynamic scaling issues – that is engineering work that is in progress currently.”

Amazon’s Elastic Beanstalk auto-scales your cloud application

Amazon has announced Elastic Beanstalk, which lets you deploy an application to Amazon’s EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) and have it scale up or down, by launching or terminating server instances, according to demand. There is no additional cost for using Elastic Beanstalk; you are charged for the instances you use.

Here is a dialog from the control console that says a lot about how the new service works:


As you can see, you can specify both a minimum and a maximum instance count, where the number is between 1 and 10,000. You can also control the “Trigger”, the metric that makes Elastic Beanstalk create or terminate instances.

Currently Elastic Beanstalk is for Java applications running on the Apache Tomcat application server, on a standard Amazon Linux virtual machine. However, the following comment in the FAQ indicates that Amazon is investigating other platforms:

Yes. Elastic Beanstalk is designed so that it can be extended to support multiple development stacks and programming languages in the future.

The innovation here is not so much in the technology, which stiches together a number of existing services, but rather in how easy and cheap it is to get started. The cost of entry is almost nothing; in fact, Amazon says you can run Elastic Beanstalk on its free usage tier, for a low-use application. Even I you expect it to remain low-use Elastic Beanstalk provides some other useful features like health monitoring.

It seems to me that this new service is cloud deployment as it should be: removing the administrative burden of scaling your application according to demand. Other platforms like Google App Engine also do this, but with more restrictions on how you design your application. Platforms like Microsoft Windows Azure let you scale your application, but you have to log into the console and spin instances up or down yourself.

One final observation: despite considerable unhappiness in the Java community about the way Oracle is managing the platform, there are still excellent reasons to use it, and Amazon has just provided one more.

Bob Muglia leaving Microsoft, CEO Steve Ballmer searching for new cloud leadership

Microsoft has announced that Bob Muglia, President of Server and Tools, is leaving Microsoft.

In his memo, Steve Ballmer says:

Bob Muglia and I have been talking about the overall business and what is needed to accelerate our growth. In this context, I have decided that now is the time to put new leadership in place for STB. This is simply recognition that all businesses go through cycles and need new and different talent to manage through those cycles.

It is always hard to tell from the outside, but in my encounters Muglia has been among the most articulate and confident of Microsoft’s top executives. I have also noticed in my regular look at Microsoft’s financials that the Server and Tools business has performed consistently well for as long as I can remember.

Most recently, Muglia took over the Azure business and seemed to know where he was going with it. He is also responsible for developer tools, and while his remarks about Silverlight at Microsoft’s PDC in November were disappointing to developers on that platform, they showed a clear sense of direction.

In this context, it seems surprising that Ballmer is in search of “new and different talent”. It does sound as if Ballmer and Muglia do not see the future of the cloud business – which is the focus of the memo – in the same way.

The key question: in what way did Ballmer and Muglia’s vision differ? I guess we will get some more clues as today’s news is discussed.

Update: Mary Jo Foley has posted Bob Muglia’s internal email to his team:

Later this year, I’m moving on to new opportunities outside of Microsoft, so I wanted to take a few minutes to share with you what’s important to me in life and leadership.

The foundation of who I am is based on living with integrity. Integrity requires principles, and my primary principle is to focus on doing the right thing, as best I can. The best thing, to the best of my ability, for our customers, our products, our shareholders, and of course, our people.

Just sugar, or did Muglia feel that staying at Microsoft would compromise those principles?

Since the announcement, the reaction across the industry has shown the high regard in which he is held, and bewilderment at why he is being let go. Here’s Redmonk analyst James Governor on Twitter:

Another exit: Microsoft server chief Muglia leaving company normally i say so what but this is TERRIBLE for microsoft

The Microsoft Azure VM role and why you might not want to use it

I’ve spent the morning talking to Microsoft’s Steve Plank – whose blog you should follow if you have an interest in Azure – about Azure roles and virtual machines, among other things.

Windows Azure applications are deployed to one of three roles, where each role is in fact a Windows Server virtual machine instance. The three roles are the web role for IIS (Internet Information Server) applications, the worker role for general applications, and newly announced at the recent PDC, the VM role, which you can configure any way you like. The normal route to deploying a VM role is to build a VM on your local system and upload it, though in future you will be able to configure and deploy a VM role entirely online.

It’s obvious that the VM role is the most flexible. You will even be able to use 64-bit Windows Server 2003 if necessary. However, there is a critical distinction between the VM role and the other two. With the web and worker roles, Microsoft will patch and update the operating system for you, but with the VM role it is up to you.

That does not sound too bad, but it gets worse. To understand why, you need to think in terms of a golden image for each role, that is stored somewhere safe in Azure and gets deployed to your instance as required.

In the case of the web and worker roles, that golden image is constantly updated as the system gets patched. In addition, Microsoft takes responsibility for backing up the system state of your instance and restoring it if necessary.

In the case of the VM role, the golden image is formed by your upload and only changes if you update it.

The reason this is important is that Azure might at any time replace your running VM (whichever role it is running) with the golden image. For example, if the VM crashes, or the machine hosting it suffers a power failure, then it will be restarted from the golden image.

Now imagine that Windows server needs an emergency patch because of a newly-discovered security issue. If you use the web or worker role, Microsoft takes responsibility for applying it. If you use the VM role, you have to make sure it is applied not only to the running VM, but also to the golden image. Otherwise, you might apply the patch, and then Azure might replace the VM with the unpatched golden image.

Therefore, to maintain a VM role properly you need to keep a local copy patched and refresh the uploaded golden image with your local copy, as well as updating the running instance. Apparently there is a differential upload, to reduce the upload time.

The same logic applies to any other changes you make to the VM. It is actually more complex than managing VMs in other scenarios, such as the Linux VM on which this blog is hosted.

Another feature which all Azure developers must understand is that you cannot safely store data on your Azure instance, whichever role it is running. Microsoft does not guarantee the safety of this data, and it might get zapped if, for example, the VM crashes and gets reverted to the golden image. You must store data in Azure database or blob storage instead.

This also impacts the extent to which you can customize the web and worker VMs. Microsoft will be allowing full administrative access to the VMs if you require it, but it is no good making extensive changes to an individual instance since they could get reverted back to the golden image. The guidance is that if manual changes take more than 5 minutes to do, you are better off using the VM role.

A further implication is that you cannot realistically use an Azure VM role to run Active Directory, since Active Directory does not take kindly to be being reverted to an earlier state. Plank says that third-parties may come up with solutions that involve persisting Active Directory data to Azure storage.

Although I’ve talked about golden images above, I’m not sure exactly how Azure implements them. However, if I have understood Plank correctly, it is conceptually accurate.

The bottom line is that the best scenario is to live with a standard Azure web or worker role, as configured by you and by Azure when you created it. The VM role is a compromise that carries a significant additional administrative burden.

Ray Ozzie no longer to be Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect

A press release, in the form of a memo from CEO Steve Ballmer, tells us that Ray Ozzie is to step down from his role as Chief Software Architect. He is not leaving the company:

Ray and I are announcing today Ray’s intention to step down from his role as chief software architect. He will remain with the company as he transitions the teams and ongoing strategic projects within his organization … Ray will be focusing his efforts in the broader area of entertainment where Microsoft has many ongoing investments.

It is possible that I have not seen the best of Ozzie. His early Internet Services Disruption memo was impressive, but the public appearances I have seen at events like PDC have been less inspiring. He championed Live Mesh, which I thought had promise but proved disappointing on further investigation, and was later merged with Live Synch, becoming a smaller initiative than was once envisaged. Balmer says Ozzie was also responsible for “conceiving, incubating and shepherding” Windows Azure, in which case he deserves credit for what seems to be a solid platform.

Ozzie may have done great work out of public view; but my impression is that Microsoft lacks the ability to articulate its strategy effectively, with neither Ozzie nor Ballmer succeeding in this. Admittedly it is a difficult task for such a diffuse company; but it is a critical one. Ballmer says he won’t refill the CSA role, which is a shame in some ways. A gifted strategist and communicator in that role could bring the company considerable benefit.