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Should Your Business Be Looking to the Cloud?

Your path to blue skies might be through Windows Azure Platform.

The Hype

Information technology is well known for its hype. Hype is so prevalent in the IT industry that the industry renowned Gartner Corporation, the information technology research, advisory, and think tank company, compiles an annual "Hype Cycle" Report on the maturity of potentially transformative technologies. The report evaluates a curve over time that starts with a "Technology Trigger" and flows through "Peak of Inflated Expectations" to "Trough of Disillusionment to "Slope of Enlightenment" and finally ends to infinity with a "Plateau of Productivity". The key for the "enlightened" business owner, CIO, CEO, or CTO is "Mastering the Hype Cycle" and systematically evaluating and adopting technology in business to fuel innovation, growth, efficiency, and ROI without succumbing to hype. As a business owner and CEO, I find that the best way to insulate your business from the hype cycle is knowledge and understanding. Knowledge garnered from careful investigation, understanding, and trusted advisors.

One technology that has received a lot of hype is Cloud Computing. In Gartner's August 2010 Hype Cycle Report it specifically highlighted Cloud Computing with the following statements:

"Cloud-computing implications. The adoption and impact of cloud computing continues to expand. In Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, cloud computing overall appears just topping the peak, and private cloud computing is still rising. Cloud/Web platforms are featured, along with mobile application stores, to acknowledge the growing interest in platforms for application development and delivery." - Gartner 2010 Hype Cycle Report
The time to garner a knowledge and understanding of Cloud Computing is now. Cloud Computing is important to your business because it has the potential to make a revolutionary change in how you think and apply computing resources. Cloud Computing has the potential to deliver real savings to your bottom line while streamlining the use and application of IT resources within your business.

Unfortunately like most new technologies one term means many different things to many different people. As a result I am going to cover Cloud Computing as it pertains to Microsoft's Cloud Computing Strategy and specifically Microsoft's Cloud Computing Platform called Windows Azure.

What Is the Cloud?

In reality there is nothing new about cloud computing. The concept of cloud computing goes back to the 1960s. However, the definition has evolved over time. Initially in the evolution "The Cloud" referred to "The Internet". But more recently the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) provides the following general definition of Cloud Computing:

"Cloud computing is a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction." - National Institute of Standards & Technology.
Traditionally companies managed their information technology on-premise. This provides the company with a high degree of control over their assets, but at a high cost of capital expenditure and human capital in terms of labor to maintain these systems.

In order to reduce IT costs, businesses looked for cheaper ways to reduce their capital expenditures and reduce the workload on human IT resources. This became the new definition of "The Cloud".

The first cloud systems were introduced in the form of Software as a Service (SaaS) and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). These services are maintained off-premise in a subscription or pay per use service model. Most current cloud computing offerings are one of these two models. Sales Force, Amazon, and Microsoft all have been industry leaders in SaaS and/or IaaS cloud offerings. Microsoft has a long history of being in the cloud. Microsoft has been delivering "Cloud Services" for over fifteen years. Microsoft's cloud offerings over those 15 years started with Hotmail and Windows Update and includes MSN, now called Windows Live, followed by Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS).

Virtualization has made a profound impact on the expansion of cloud computing in expanding the ability of autonomic computing where computing can be commoditized into pay-per-use based on processing power and computing resources.

The most recent evolution of the cloud taxonomy now includes Platform as a Service (PaaS). Windows Azure is a Platform as a Service.

Windows Azure Explained

Windows Azure is just one element of Microsoft's Cloud Computing Strategy. There are a wide variety of Cloud Services and Cloud Technology offerings from Microsoft. For the purposes of this article we are focusing on Windows Azure and the Microsoft offerings under this umbrella.

At the core, Windows Azure is a service offering, collection of technologies, and platform for developing and deploying line of business applications to the cloud.

As defined by Microsoft: Windows Azure™ is a cloud services operating system that serves as the development, service hosting, and service management environment for the Windows Azure platform. Windows Azure provides businesses with on-demand compute and storage to host, scale, and manage web applications on the internet through Microsoft® datacenters.

Windows Azure contains the core foundation for applications that you want to run and the data you want those applications to store or have access to. This is called the Windows Azure Platform. This platform runs on a cloud operating system which in turn runs on top of the core hardware infrastructure.  Applications you deploy to the Windows Azure Datacenter run on top of these components within the Windows Azure Platform.

From a developers perspective an application built to run on the Windows Azure Platform is developed exactly the same way that any other standard ASP.NET Application is developed for the .NET Framework. The same toolset, Microsoft Visual Studio, is utilized in developing a line of business application to be deployed and operate on the Windows Azure platform as any other ASP.NET application by applying a few techniques and patterns specific to Windows Azure. Likewise the database is developed on SQL Server just like it is developed and deployed to SQL Azure. Only a few minor differences are taken into consideration for developing for Windows Azure.

From the businesses perspective there is no difference in deploying and operating an application on-premise versus off-premise in the cloud on Windows Azure. The only real difference is the model in which the servers and licenses are purchased and maintained.

In the on-premise model the business would do a capital purchase and depreciate the servers and software licenses over time. The business would be responsible for the day to day operations and maintenance of those IT resources.

In the cloud or off-premise model the business does not have to worry about the day to day operation and maintenance of the IT resources. The business simply pays for the compute time, data transfer, and data storage usage as an expense on a monthly basis. The business pays for the resources it uses on a pay-per-use and pay-per-consumption model.

It is also important to note that businesses have the option to integrate on-premise IT assets with off-premise assets in the cloud. In these scenarios the business may have to consider certain patterns and techniques afforded by Windows Azure to achieve this integration.

Business Reasons for Moving Applications to Windows Azure

Despite the hype, cloud computing is here to stay and is fast changing the landscape of information technology and how businesses view and utilize IT resources. You should be evaluating and educating yourself at how to apply cloud applications and services in your business.

At the macro level, you should consider that virtually every major computing vendor has and is currently investing heavily in cloud application and cloud services. With a global recession, businesses are looking to do more with less. Cloud computing affords us a compelling model to accomplish this goal. Windows Azure and the Microsoft Cloud Offerings have the potential, when applied and utilized properly, to increase your efficiency, lower your IT costs, and streamline your business processes.

Annually Microsoft invests approximately 9 Billion dollars in R&D. This year 75% of all Microsoft Engineers are working on new cloud applications and new cloud services. By the end of this year according to Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, that number will rise to 90% of Microsoft's 40,000 engineers. Technology leaders like Microsoft do not invest this heavily on technology that is a fad or has no real chance of succeeding.

Some key reasons for a business to consider building and deploying a line of business application to the Windows Azure Platform:
  • Scalability & Flexibility - Applications are able to scale almost infinitely and almost instantly on demand with enormous storage capacity, computing power, and geo-location.
  • Replace Capital IT Investment - Provides the option for the business to trade capital IT investment for usage based expenditure.
  • Work On-Premises and/or Off-Premises - Windows Azure integrates with existing on-premise infrastructure. Businesses can eliminate to the need to expand costly on premise IT resources by expanding in the cloud.
  • Cost Benefit & Pricing Model - With Windows Azure businesses can reduce operation and hardware costs by paying for just what they utilize.
  • Levels the Playing Field - With Windows Azure even small businesses can afford an enterprise-class datacenter.
  • Get Products and Services to Market Faster - By utilizing Windows Azure businesses can get products to market faster. No longer do they have to worry about fixed IT assets when considering deploying a line of business application, product, or service. Those assets are there ready to utilize at a moment's notice in the cloud.
  • Startup - Startup companies and seasoned businesses can deploy products and services to the cloud and evaluate and scale based on market condition. They can rapidly scale up or scale down instantly while minimizing costs or increasing costs as usage increases due to seasonal or market needs.

Evaluating Moving to Windows Azure

First of all, spend some time educating yourself on the cloud and cloud terminology - this article is a good start. Do not simply jump on the Window Azure and Cloud bandwagon. You need to carefully develop a cloud computing strategy for your business as part of your information technology strategy. The best way to do this is to engage a Microsoft Certified Partner and have a cloud assessment performed for your business. A cloud assessment will take the general value proposition of the cloud and turn it into a very specific risk/reward analysis for your company. From this assessment you will able to answer critical questions about how the cloud can impact your business and from that, you can make informed decisions and form a sound cloud strategy, as well as, a cloud roadmap for your business. From a Cloud Computing Assessment you will learn:
  • Analysis of what applications make sense for you to move to the cloud
  • Insight into the Cloud Computing pitfalls where you face the highest risk level
  • Proven tactics for ensuring your organization's security and privacy in the cloud
  • Strategies for a smooth adoption of cloud computing

In technology adoption, the risks are often great! Can you afford not to get an expert to help you? What is the potential impact of on your business if you fail to act? Get a Cloud Computing Assessment and craft an effective Cloud Computing strategy for your organization. You may qualify for a Microsoft-funded Cloud Computing Assessment delivered by a certified Senior Solutions Architect from Bit-Wizards. With a two-hour investment of your time, a Cloud Computing Assessment by Bit-Wizards can produce a 30+ page custom report that provides the information you need to evaluate the impact of the cloud on your business and formulate an effective cloud strategy. Call us today!


Vincent W. Mayfield, Chief Executive Officer
Vincent W. Mayfield