Microsoft polishes Azure, but are users convinced?

There are updates galore for the Redmond giant’s cloud platform but are developers and customers happy with the new features?

News broke this week of Microsoft’s spring cleaning service currently being performed on the Windows Azure cloud computing portal.

As well as paying lip service to the more routine elements of a platform – including improvements to billing, management and SQL Azure database functionalities – the company also announced a more tangible change in form of the first Windows Azure software development kit (SDK), which includes language libraries for Node.JS – a JavaScript based software platform often used to build web servers.

Microsoft also detailed an Apache Hadoop-based service for Azure to augment the platform's Big Data capabilities for advanced data analytics. The maximum database size for SQL Azure will triple, moving from 50GB to 150GB, and will include a new price cap for the largest SQL Azure databases, reducing the price by what is effectively 67 per cent per gigabyte.

So that is both developers and customers served then, in theory. But what do both of these camps really think of Microsoft’s most recent efforts with Azure?

Shrewd observers will notice Microsoft’s latest Azure enhancements all fall into what we might label as the core operational mechanics of the platform i.e. the word ‘performance’ doesn’t feature. This has been the subject of some debate on developer forums and comment sites.

The MSDN What's New in Windows Azure website, last updated on 13 December, mentions the word performance just once.

“The new portal has a Metro-style user interface with new features including new workspaces with the ability to more easily monitor databases, drill-down into schemas, query plans, spatial data, indexes/keys and query performance,” it read.

Microsoft has been criticised over the last year to 18 months for opening up chunks of its cloud infrastructure too slowly – or slower than Amazon at least – so one can only ruminate as to whether the current open sourcing move has been taken to garner community contributions focused on increasing speed. Software developers, after all, just hate hanging around waiting don’t they?

So programmers are perhaps now being served better, eventually -- but what of the customers?

Martyn Jobber is CEO of Hydra, a search-focused firm producing a SaaS-based marketing tool for online brand analysis. His company is using Azure to deal with the changeable nature of web-based product promotions as they fluctuate dependent on product roadmaps and seasonal promotions.

“Windows Azure is integral to the workings of Hydra's One Platform as it allows us to deal with the sheer volume of data that needs to be processed and analysed across our business,” said Jobber.

“This application could only work in Azure because it needs to grow and shrink dynamically with the immense scale required to deal with the number of phrases and words our customers use. These new updates will be extremely beneficial to our business as we continue to grow and improve the services we offer our customers,” he added.

In terms of a customer quote this is arguably rather too generic to draw very much insight from, but at least the company appears happy to have gone on the record.

Balancing both sides of the developer-customer equation, one would like to argue that both entities should have an appropriate (if not equal) degree of influence on Microsoft’s cloud offering – although it is hard to judge whether this has been so up until now. A new, more open Microsoft cloud may now await.

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