Operating the cloud with Azure

Every body is talking about Azure - Microsoft's Operating System for the cloud. How can i not write something about it? After all i was there during the unveiling of this paradigm changing strategy was done by Ray Ozzie at PDC. Read the transcript of Ray Ozzie’s keynote or watch the video to know more.

So what is all this about? Azure, Cloud OS, .NET Services, Live Services and tons of other stuff? Let me try and paint the picture.

Let's first look into what is an Operating System (OS) all about? If anyone who is reading this post is old enough to remember the days when you have microprocessor devices without any operating system on them you will understand how the OSes have changed the world of computing - how they have made computing so much more accessible and useable by the common man. Let’s imagine what would a device without an operating system be like? Suppose you had to just copy a file from one location to the other. You would potentially have to do one or more of the following things. write a program in the instruction code of that particular processor that would instruct it to first 'mount' the source drive (assuming that the source hardware is plugged and understandable by the processor), 'mount' the target drive, tell the processor where is the beginning of the source file (location of the sector, block etc) and tell it the location where it should begin writing on the target, tell it the memory location where it will keep the read contents temporarily and its size, and then issue the machine instruction equivalent to writing the bits on the drive. It could be fairly more complex than this. Today we hardly recognize the complexity of all this when we issue the "copy" command or "drag and drop" the file from an usb drive to the hard drive. Why? Because the OS abstracts all this complexity for you! Disk Operating Systems were an important phase in the evolution of OSes - meant to abstract the complexity of creating, copying, deleting, managing files and disk input outputs in general they soon evolved into more complex and capable systems - managing other peripherals, memory, applications, drivers, etc for you and giving you an easy to use interface where in you can focus on working on your problems (be it writing code, word processing, data analysis) rather than having to deal with the internals of the machine or the processor. OSes laid the foundation of the rapid evolution of computing allowing a common person to use computers and get benefit out of it.

This is something that an OS running on our personal computers does. The common tasks that we expect a PC OS to perform include - managing memory, disks, peripherals, display, user interface, runtimes of software etc... Lets now take a step back and imagine if you were to build an OS that would run on a remote machine, which would be accessible to anyone in the world, allowing you to put your applications on it, run them, make it available to anyone in the world - what would be functions that would be expected from such an OS? What modules would it need to take care of all the possibilities and the scenarios that arise in the cloud so that is minimizes the complexity for the end user in the same way that the PC OSes have done? To bring the problem closer to a real scenario - lets add one more level of complexity - since it is not possible to have one big computer with enough computing resources and memory to address the needs of everybody in this world - it is obvious that the remote machine would actually be a complex cluster of thousands of machines/servers, raid drives and other resources. Now this OS that you are embarking to build would in effect be a sort of a mega-OS, an OS to manage thousands of OSes running on these thousands of machines (also in a virtualized environment). So what would be expected out of this mega-OS? Apart from all of the functionality that is provided by a common OS - it would need to make sure that if there is a failure of any of the OSes running on any of the machines, or if any of the machines goes down, or if the resources on any of the machine is falling short of requirement, or if new machines/OSes are added or pretty much anything to manage the possibilities in this huge cluster of machines that would almost be like a black box to the end user. To add to it - managing multiple users, their identity, their data, transactions, maintaining throughput etc...

This is exactly what Microsoft's OS in the cloud - Azure is all about. Azure is an Operating System that runs on the a huge cluster of servers located in multiple places across the world and is exposed to the users by way of various services (.NET Services, Live Services, SQL Services, Sharepoint Services, Dynamic CRM services) - such that they no longer have to worry about hardware, memory, load, electricity bills of data centers, maintenance, replacement, scaling the hardware and resources as their business grows etc. All they have to do is build their applications for Azure (almost in the same way as they did for Windows running on their customer's box with the additional task of keeping in mind the best practices and patterns for building effective and efficient cloud applications) and host them on the Microsoft data center running on Azure. Azure in the background will take care of ALL the underlying complexities of deploying it on one or more machines, load balancing, recovery form failure, guaranteed availability and other issues that are relevant to the cloud making your application immediately available to millions of Internet users.

Remember the impact that .NET had on the way we develop applications for the Internet? Imagine writing a webservice in native code, deploying it and testing it. Compare it to doing the same thing in .NET. I believe Azure is going to bring the same kind of revolution in the world of computing. The ease with which you can develop an application using traditional programming knowledge and tools like Visual Studio and host them in the cloud running on Azure and forget about the rest is simply phenomenal and anybody who has an eye on the future cannot ignore this.

This was a post intended as a primer into Azure. In the subsequent posts I plan to delve deeper into architecture of Azure, tools for Azure development and building your first Azure application. Keep a watch…and if I do not post soon…leave messages to force me to do so..:)