Azure Launches Cloud in a Box, But this one might be more than just CloudWash

Big news today was the announcement by Microsoft that it is releasing Azure technology to some hardware vendors. The ideas of this is to create a Windows Azure platform appliance that will form (according to Dell, one of the hardware partners) a “turnkey cloud platform available to enterprises to enable them to set up their own PaaS clouds within their organizations”. Microsoft articulates the proposition as:

Windows Azure platform appliance is a turnkey cloud platform that customers can deploy in their own datacenter, across hundreds to thousands of servers. The Windows Azure platform appliance consists of Windows Azure, SQL Azure and a Microsoft-specified configuration of network, storage and server hardware.

This reminds me a little of a statement I heard at Cloud Connect in San Jose – one vendor in particular was talking up their offering of a “private, customer owned, physical, on-premise cloud” – now, as then, most of the Clouderati were pretty quick to call this out as little more than cloudwash. In their defense, this is more than your usual “stick half a dozen virtual servers together and call it a cloud”, this appliance will involve hundreds or possibly thousands of servers in a highly standardized and preconfigured format. It brings, perhaps, some of the benefits of scalability and commoditization but retains some of the benefits (perceived or otherwise) of physical hardware and security.

Chattering across the airwaves I cam across a few conflicting views of this move. Vanessa Alvarez, cloud analyst at Frost and Sullivan, concurred with the early view of many of these sorts of announcement saying:

Cloud in a BOX…what an oxymoron if I ever heard one

Initially this seems a reasonable position to take – the cloud, after all, was built upon a premise of an amorphous, aphysical collection of assets which users could pick and chose at will, scaling up and down as they see fit. As soon as someone tries to introduce a product that seeks to contain that cloud, it’s easy to see how people see it as being oxymoronic.

But taking a less passionate and perhaps dogmatic view of what cloud is, and isn’t, I spoke with a broader group of people to assess reactions. I’ve written before at length about the concerns that larger organizations and especially Governments have about the location of their data. in fact the issues around jurisdiction are often held up as reasons that the cloud is not suitable for these types of use-cases. Th Azure appliance may just change this. Especially when we consider that, as Chris Auld points out

the term ‘appliance’ maybe a bit misleading. Appliance = shipping container full of servers running Windows Azure

so suddenly organizations with concerns about the location of their data can leverage cloud-like services. As Steve Ballmer pointed out in his keynote announcing the move:

Large enterprises and service providers deploying the appliance in their datacenters can tap the cloud services that Microsoft offers today while maintaining physical control of location, regulatory compliance and data.

Which, unfortunately, muddies the waters somewhat. If this move would see intensive hardware stacks, positioned in local areas that different organizations could utilize to obtain a “cloud like” experience, then I’d buy into the vision. However talk of the appliances being positioned within an enterprise’s own data center simply remind me of the virtual private cloud claims of the past. Part of the benefit of cloud is gained when mass hardware is shared between organizations allowing for the cloud-like efficiencies and bursting abilities that we’ve come to know and love – sticking a box, no matter how efficient that box is, within a private data center doesn’t really achieve that benefit.

The last line of the Microsoft press release gives some cause for hope however. In it Microsoft advise that:

Dell, eBay, Fujitsu, and HP intend to deploy the appliance in their datacenters to offer new cloud services.

In fact Barton George, Cloud evangelist at Dell, announced that:

Dell… will be taking this technology and creating ourselves a Platform as a service (PaaS) cloud.  We will in turn use this cloud to deliver both public and private cloud services to customers looking to develop and deliver next generation cloud services based on .Net.   This platform will be targeted at enterprise, public, small and medium-sized business customers as well as be used by Dell itself.

Either way, this is potentially a big deal. If it goes right, this could be the secret sauce that sees cloud go mainstream, beyond the Euro and US centric situation that is the status qu. As James Staten from Forrester says:

Microsoft gets to proliferate Windows Azure to more geographies, data centers, and users than it could purely on its own. Want Azure in Uzbekistan to ensure citizen data doesn’t leave that country? You got it, as ISPs can now offer Azure themselves. That’s an investment Microsoft itself probably couldn’t justify.

Microsoft is only releasing the Azure platform appliances to organizations above 1000 servers, Azure is, after all, designed to run at scale, it’s part of the design that survivability of node failures is predicated on having sufficient underlying nodes. This avoids it being just another virtualization tool that small ISPs jump upon to create their own pseudo cloud offerings.

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