At the Professional Developers Conference in Microsoft's Redmond headquarters this week, CEO Steve Ballmer and colleagues announced various new capabilities in Windows Azure, the platform-as-a-service offering whose success or failure will be crucial toward Microsoft's long term prospects in cloud computing.
While the PDC crowd is largely pro-Microsoft, those developers who are already building apps on Windows Azure give the service good reviews for its developer services and scalability.
"Windows is an operating system for a machine. And Windows Azure is an operating system for a data center," says Chris Hewitt, a developer at Readify, an app development consulting company in Australia.
Azure is ripe for innovation, Hewitt says. "There isn't really anything else out there that's similar to it. When Windows came out, Microsoft didn't know what was going to run on it, and they don't know what's going to run on this."
To win the cloud computing market, Microsoft will have to contend against the likes of Google's App Engine, and the VMforce partnership between VMware and Salesforce.com. Both of these are in the platform-as-a-service (PaaS) space, which provide developer-friendly tools for building and hosting Web applications.
But Microsoft also has to prevail against Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud. An infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) offering, Amazon EC2 provides access to pre-configured virtual machine images, whereas PaaS provides abstracted views of the underlying infrastructure. PaaS minimizes development complexity but allows somewhat less flexibility and portability of applications.
Microsoft believes platform clouds, rather than infrastructure clouds, are the way of the future, and Hewitt is inclined to agree.
"Absolutely, 100%," Hewitt says. "I don't want to deal with any of that stuff," he adds, by which he means the burden of managing virtual machines.