_Cloud computing has become perhaps the most overblown and overused buzzword since Service Oriented Architecture (SOA). However, that does not mean that it is not still going to have a huge impact on how we build solutions. Most organizations are trying to find their way with this new, must-have technology just like they did with SOA a few years back.

Like all tools, Windows Azure has its place, and helping in defining that place is what this article is all about. I have been impressed that Microsoft has been flexible over the first few years of Azure’s existence, and has responded to feedback and criticisms with tools and offerings to round out the platform. Digging into the details of where Azure stands today is the best way to determine if your solution will benefit from leveraging Microsoft’s cloud offering.

Azure contends in the Platform-as-a-Service space. It’s likely we all have heard of Software-as-a-Service. Companies like Salesforce.com have matured that space and proven that it works as a business model and a solid way to deliver solutions. One complaint by end users, though, is the lack of configurability, since someone else provides the interfaces. And even with customization capabilities, hosted software never can rise to the quality of building your own solution to your own specs.

Conversely, Infrastructure-as-a-Service has been with us as a viable choice for even longer, and it is taken as a proven model in most circles. With IaaS, you basically rent a server, whether it is a VM on Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) system or a hosted server at an Internet service provider. IaaS does not inherently remove the requirement to support the underlying platform with patches and configuration. It also leaves all the disaster recovery requirements in your hands.

PaaS is the next step in the progression. Brian Goldfarb, director for Windows Azure product management, described it this way: “With Windows Azure, Microsoft provides the industry’s most robust platform for developers to create applications optimized for the cloud, using the tools and languages they choose. With support for languages and frameworks that developers already know, including .NET, Java, Node.js and PHP, Windows Azure enables an open and flexible developer experience.”

The idea is to provide everything the developer needs except the code. Microsoft provides the hardware, the operating system, the patches, the connections, the bandwidth, health monitoring with automated server instance recovery, and even the tools for deploying. Smaller software companies can skip the need for an IT staff provided they can navigate the tools, which are tailored for developers. For larger companies, PaaS gets them to a point where they can achieve economies of scale that can only be had through provisioning many thousands of servers.

Microsoft is a prolific company when it comes to providing offerings and expanding solutions; over the years, it has not tended to err on the side of limited options for customers. Figure 1 shows a diagram of Microsoft’s Cloud offerings that span SaaS, IaaS and PaaS.

cloud continuum
Figure 1

Azure components
Windows Azure is the generic term, and when it was first announced, it was used to described the full offering. Windows Azure is still used to refer generically to the platform as a whole, but it really is only part of the story.

About Patrick Hynds

Patrick Hynds is a Regional Director for Microsoft and president of CriticalSites.