Following Good Practice, The Negative Bits About Windows Azure First, But Gems Included! :D

Ok, I’ve used Windows Azure steadily over the last year and a half.  I’ve fought with the SDK so much that I stopped using it. I decided I’d put together this recap of what has driven me crazy and then put together something about the parts that I really like, the awesome bits, the parts that have the greatest potential with Windows Azure. So hold on to your hats, this may be hard hitting.  ;)

First the bad parts.

The Windows Azure SDK

Ok, the SDK has driven me nuts. It has had flat out errors, sealed (bad) code, and is TIGHTLY COUPLED to the development fabric. I’m a professional, I can mock that, I don’t need kindergarten level help running this! If I have a large environment with thousands of prospective nodes (or even just a few dozen instances) the development fabric does nothing to help. I’d rate the SDK’s closed (re: sealed/no interfaces) nature and the development fabric as the number 1 reasons that Windows Azure is the hardest platform to develop for at large scale in Enterprise Environments.

Pricing Competitiveness? Ouch. :(

Windows Azure is by far the most expensive cloud platform or infrastructure to use on the market today. AWS comes in, when priced specifically anywhere from 2/3rds the price to 1/6th the price. Rackspace in some circumstances comes in at the crazy low price of 1/8th as much as Windows Azure for similar capabilities. I realize there are certain things that Windows Azure may provide, but my not, and that in some rare circumstances Azure may come in lower – but that is rare. If Windows Azure wants to stay primarily, and only, an Enterprise Offering than this is fine. Nailing Enterprises on expensive things and offering them these SLA myths is exactly what Enterprises want, piece of mind of an SLA, they don’t care about pricing.

But if Windows Azure wants to play in new business, startups especially, mid-size business, or even small enterprises than the pricing needs a fix.  We’re looking at disparities $500 bucks vs. $3500 bucks in other situations. This isn’t exactly feasible as a way to get into cloud computing. Microsoft, unfortunately for them, has to drop this dream of maintaining revenues and profits at the same rate as their OS & Office Sales. Fact is, the market has already turned this sector into a commoditized price.

Speed, Boot Time, Restart, UI Admin Responsiveness

The Silverlight Interface is beautiful, I’ll give it that. But in most browsers aside from IE it gets flaky. Oh wait, no, I’m wrong. It gets flaky in all the browsers. Doh! This may be fixed now, but in my experience and others that I’ve paired with, we’ve watched in Chrome, Opera, Safari, Firefox, and IE when things have happened. This includes the instance spinning as if starting up when it is started, or when it spins and spins, a refresh is done and the instance has completely disappeared!  I’ve refreshed the Silverlight UI before and it just stops responding to communication before (and this wasn’t even on my machine).

The boot time for an instance is absolutely unacceptable for the Internet, for web development, or otherwise. Boot time should be similar to a solid Linux instance. I don’t care what needs to be done, but the instances need cleaned up, the architecture changed, or the OS swapped out if need be. I don’t care what OS the cloud is running on, but my instance should be live for me within 1-2 minutes or LESS. The current performance of Rackspace, Joyent, AWS, and about every single cloud provider out there boots an instance in about 45 seconds, sometimes a minute, but often less. I know there are workarounds, the whole leave it running while you deploy methods, and other such notions, but those don’t always work out. Sometimes you just need the instance up and running and you need it NOW!

Speed needs measurement to prove out in tests. Speed needs to be observed. I need analytics on my speed of the instance I’m choosing. I don’t know if it is pegged, I don’t know if it is idle and not responding. I have no idea in Windows Azure with any easy way. The speed, in general, seems to be really good on Windows Azure. Often times it appears to be better than others even, but rarely can I really prove it. It’s just a gut feeling that it is moving along well.

So, those are the negatives; speed, boot time, admin UI responsiveness, pricing, and the SDK. Now it is time for the wicked awesome cool bits!

Now, The Cool Parts

Lock In With Mort

This topic you’d have to ask me about in person, many people would be offended by this and I mean no offense by it. The reality is many companies will continue to get and hire what they consider to be plug and play replaceable developers – AKA “mort”. This is really bad for developers, but great for Windows Azure. In addition Windows Azure provides an option to lock in. It is by no means the only option – because by nature a cloud platform and services will only lock you in if YOU allow yourself to be. But providing both ways, lock in or not, is a major boost for Windows Azure also. Hopefully, I’ll have a presentation in regards to this in the near future – or at least find a way to write it up so that it doesn’t come off as me being a mean person, because I honestly don’t intend that.

Deploy Anything, To The Platform

Have a platform to work with instead of starting purely at infrastructure is HUGE for most companies. Not all, but most companies would be benefited in a massive way to write to the Azure Platform instead of single instances like EC2. The reason boils down to this, Windows Azure abstracts out most of the networking, ops, and other management that a company has to do. Most companies have either zero, or very weak ops and admin capabilities. This fact in many companies will actually bring the (I hate saying this) TCO, or Total Cost of Ownership, down for companies building to the Windows Azure Platform vs. the others. Because really, the real cost in all of this is the human cost, not the services as they’re commodotized. Again though, this is for small non-web related businesses – as web companies need to have ops, capabilities, their people absolutely must understand and know how the underpinnings work. If routing, multi-tenancy, networking and other capabilities are to be used to their fullest extent, infrastructure needs to be abstracted but the infrastructure needs to be accessible. Windows Azure does a good deal of infrastructure, and it looks like there will be more available in the future. This will be when the platform actually becomes much more valuable for the web side of the world that demands control, network access, SEO, routing, multi-tenancy, and other options like this.

With the newer generation of developers and others coming out of colleges there is a great idea here and a very bad one. Many new generation developers, if they want web, are jumping right into Ruby on Rails. Microsoft isn’t even a blip on their radar, however there still manage to be thousands that give Microsoft .NET a look, and for them Windows Azure provides a lot of options, including Ruby on Rails, PHP, and more. Soon there will even be some honest to goodness node.js support. I even suspect that the node.js support will probably be some of the fastest performing node.js implementations around. At least, the potential is there for sure. This later group of individuals coming into the industry these days are who will drive the Windows Azure Platform to achieve what it can.

.NET, PHP, and Ruby on Rails Ecosystem (Note, I don’t support of the theft of this word, but I’ll jump on the “ecosystem” bandwagon, reluctantly)

Besides the simple idea that you can deploy any of these to an “instance” in other environments, Windows Azure (almost) makes every one of these a first class platform citizen.  Drop the SDK in my advice, my STRONG advice, and go the RESTful services usage route. Once you do that you aren’t locked in, you can abstract for Windows Azure or any cloud, and you can utilize any of these framework stacks. This, technically, is HUGE to have these available at a platform level. AWS doesn’t offer that, Rackspace doesn’t even dream of it yet, OpenStack doesn’t enable it, and the list goes on. Windows Azure, that’s your option in this category.

The Other MASSIVE Coolness is not Core Windows Azure Features, but They Provide a HUGE Plus for Windows Azure

The add ons to SQL Server are HUGE for enterprises with BI Reporting, SQL Server Reporting, etc. These features are a no brainer for an enterprise. Yes, they provide immediate lock in. Yes, it doesn’t really matter for an enterprise. But here’s the saving grace for this lock in. With the Service Bus and Access Control you can use single sign on to use this and OTHER CLOUD SERVICES in a very secure and safe nature with your development. These two features alone, whether you use other Windows Azure Features or not, are worth using. Even with AWS, Rackspace, or one of the others. The Service Bus and Access Control actually add a lot of capabilities to any type of cloud architecture that comes in useful for enterprise environments, and is practically a requirement for on-premise and in cloud mixed environments (which it seems, almost all environments are).

Other major pluses that I like with Windows Azure includ:

  • Azure Marketplace - Over time, and if marketed well, this could become a huge asset to companies big and small.
  • SQL Azure – SQL Azure is actually a pretty solid database offering for enterprises. Since a lot of Enterprises have already locked themselves into SQL Server, this is a great offering for those companies. However I’m mixed on its usage vs. lower priced mySQL usage, or others for that matter. It definitely adds to the overall Windows Azure Capabilities though, and as time moves forward and other features (such as SSIS, etc) are added to Azure this will become an even greater differentiation.
  • Caching – Well, caching is just awesome isn’t it? I dig me some caching.  This offering is great. It isn’t memCached or some of the others, but it is still a great offering, and again, one of those things that adds to the overall Windows Azure capabilities list. I look forward to Microsoft adding more and more capabilities to this feature.  :)
Summary
Windows Azure has grown and matured a lot over the time since its release from beta. It still however has some major negatives compared to more mature offerings. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel for those choosing the Windows Azure route, or those that are getting put into the Windows Azure route. Some of those things may even help leap ahead of some of the competition at some point. Microsoft is hard core in this game and they’re not letting down. If anyone has failed to notice, they still have one of the largest “war chests” on Earth to play in new games like this – even when they were initially ill prepared. I do see myself using Windows Azure in the future, maybe not extensively, but it’ll be there. And win a large share of the market or not, Microsoft putting this much money into the industry will push all ships forward in some way or another!

2 thoughts on “Following Good Practice, The Negative Bits About Windows Azure First, But Gems Included! :D

  1. Adron,
    I’ve been doing a bunch of Azure work since last December, and I have to agree with a lot of your points, but I’d like to add to a few of them.

    – The Admin UI has definitely had problems. I’ve seen it claim that a deployment took multiple *hours* to complete when it actually only took minutes. But they have cleaned it up a lot, especially in the last few months. I haven’t had any problems with it for a while, and I run it exclusively in Chrome.

    – They do offer ways to monitor instance performance. You can RDP directly into an instance and do anything you could with a non-virtual server, including PerfMon, TaskManager, etc. Their Diagnostics solution will also write out PerfMon counters to storage for you. Admittedly it’s a pain to set up, and you need a tool (eg, Cerebrata’s Diagnostics Manager) to really use it. But I can go right now and see the CPU usage graph for every one of my instances over the last 3 months, if I want to.

    – SQL Azure is better than it sounds in some ways, and worse in others. We were migrating an existing SQL Server based app. We looked at running SQL Server in AWS, but getting guaranteed I/O was difficult. In Azure, it’s just done for you. They also do mirroring for you automatically, which is just great. On the down side, the performance caps are opaque, and there is not _currently_ any way to take a real backup.

    – Caching is somewhat similar to SQL Azure. It’s very easy to set up, but suffers from performance opacity. Also, the transaction & connection quotas can be problematic.

    – One last thing – they are moving *fast* on this stuff. They’re releasing major improvements multiple times per year, and minor ones practically every day. In another year, or even six months, it could be a whole different game.

    Regards,
    BKR

    • Hey BKR, I’m with ya on that. The progress they’re making (even though I’m always wanting and looking for MORE progress) is truly amazing! Microsoft has really turned around a lot of their dev organization (even though w/ 50k+ or however many devs, probably a LONG way to go still).

      The Caching and SQL Azure I’m interested in how they’re going to deal with that opacity in an ongoing basis. With the logging/reporting you mentioned, that sounds mostly like the existing diag for the machines, but not for azure itself and what it is doing with the actual nodes. Also, am curious about what programmatic access I can get to those types of things that would be autonomous of running on the actual instances. I have a lot of research I need to do into their diag abilities at this point. 6 months ago it was pretty much a non-starter.

      You can easily call me impressed though! :) I’ll be working with, and hosting the upcoming Windows Azure User Group here in Seattle and am really stoked to be having Steve Marx come and give a presentation about the state of affairs with Azure.

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