Can Windows Azure Pack Kickstart Microsoft’s Private Cloud?

Microsoft’s current private cloud strategy seems to be one that was designed with a lot of right hands not talking to the left ones. The services that most closely approach the cloud ideal (self service, elastic/dynamic resource provisioning) don’t have a unifying vision behind them, even when they come under the same branch. Just look at the wild differences between the self service portals available in System Center Virtual Machine Manager (now deprecated, more on that in a sec), Service Manager and App Controller which all present wildly different views for the same underlying infrastructure. You could argue that they’re designed with different purposes in mind and sure to an extent that’s true but the fact is there’s no overarching direction for them all to head towards. That is, until the Windows Azure Pack becomes generally available.

I talked a little bit about the pack in my day 1 post about the Windows Azure Pack for Server 2012 R2 and listed off the notable services it would be bringing to the server platform. At the time I couldn’t find much about it, save for the stuff that everyone was repeating in the keynote, but as the sessions I attended today reveal it’s actually been in the wild for the better part of a year now, just under a different name. Indeed when it was released I actually took Microsoft to task over it (remember this was before Windows Server 2012’s release) lamenting the seemingly half-assed attempt at standardising the cloud offering. Whilst I won’t backpedal on what I said there, it is true I have changed my mind significantly on what the Windows Azure Pack means for Microsoft’s private cloud endeavors and how that feeds into the bigger picture.

Azure Websites are a big part of this and I spent two sessions (MDC-B214 and MDC-B215, although arguably the first was the better one of the two) diving deep into the technology behind them. I was already familiar with the technology having used it to deploy a small application for a friend of mine, but apart from making it dead easy to deploy simple websites I wasn’t entirely sure what it was capable of. As it turns out it’s a pretty full-featured web hosting platform allowing you deploy ASP.NET, PHP,Python and Node.js applications directly from your source control (git, mercurial and SVN are all supported). Updates to this infrastructure are done out of band too which means you won’t have to wait for a major release or service pack to get issues with the underlying platform fixed. This is pretty awesome from a consumer perspective but it gets even better when looking from the inside out.

The Windows Azure Pack builds on top of System Center Virtual Machine Manager, Orchestrator and IIS. In its default form it provides you a replica of the Azure portal that contains all the services that the Windows Azure Pack enables. However it’s extremely extensible allowing you to brand the default Azure portal or — and this is key for hosting providers — bypass it completely and query the underlying API directly. This allows service providers with existing portals, whether they be publicly available or simply enterprise IT organisations, to integrate Azure services into their current platform offerings. The pack also includes the Web Gallery of applications which is again customisable, enabling you to develop custom solutions for your end users that can be deployed with minimal effort.

There are also plenty of automation options available thanks to the deep integration with Orchestrator and the Windows Azure Pack brings in an awesome in browser console for editing and running PowerShell scripts over virtual machines in your environment. This, combined with the vastly improved developer experience (something I can attest to having actually used it) means that the time and cost to take ideas to implementation is drastically reduced. Whilst the other features of the Windows Azure Pack are incredible in their own right I get the feeling that Azure Websites will be the primary catalyst for organisations and service providers adopting it with the other services seen as being the icing on the cake.

I love being turned around on products like this because it shows that Microsoft is listening to its customers, turning the biggest skeptics into evangelists. Whilst I lamented the seemingly tentative steps into bridging the public and private cloud mere days ago I’m happy to say that even those small steps have the potential to make a big splash in the larger cloud market. As always Microsoft is enabling its large network of partners to deliver capabilities developed in house and this is where the company has the potential to take an axe to the current kings of the cloud world. It’s not going to happen instantly but history has shown that Microsoft isn’t one to back down from a challenge.

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