Microsoft's Cloud Vision has Color and Depth

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In the classic comedy, "The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy," a frustrated Ford Prefect can't understand why a bunch of marketing consultants shipwrecked on prehistoric earth can't invent the wheel.

"It's the simplest machine in the entire universe!" he cries.

"Well, all right mister wise guy; if you're so clever, you tell us what color it should be!" replies Marketing.

The descendents of those marketing consultants no doubt are working today for Microsoft, where they convinced CTO Ray Ozzie that his cloud computing framework needed a color, and that the color was "Azure."

Azure-the word formerly used to describe the color of a cloudless sky-is the name Microsoft settled on for its ambitious cloud computing framework. Although many of us will be suffering from CCFS (Cloud Computing Fatigue Syndrome) and inclined to view any cloud announcements with scepticism, it's clear that Azure is a serious and significant initiative on Microsoft's part. Azure underlies much of Microsoft's future technical architecture and is the foundation of initiatives such as Windows Live and Live Mesh.

Microsoft's massive revenue stream from the Windows operating system and Office suites has been viewed as under threat for some time. The emergence of free or cheap web-based services, such as Google Applications, foreshadows a future in which Microsoft's stranglehold on the corporate desktop is rendered irrelevant as rich desktop applications give way to web-based alternatives.

Software as a service (SaaS) offerings such as Google Apps are an acknowledged reality and a direct threat to Microsoft Office. However, the emergence of cloud computing platforms such as Google App Engine and Amazon Web Services represents an equal long-term threat because such platforms foreshadow a day in which applications will be deployed directly into cloud patforms which do not incorporate the Windows operating system.

Microsoft has long been aware of these trends and is determined to remain dominant in these next-generation architectures. Azure can be thought of as Microsoft's cloud operating system, leveraging the benefits of the company's lead roles in software development, operating systems and office applications.

Azure allows .NET developers to deploy applications directly into the cloud, provided these applications need to conform to rigid but well-documented Azure standards. In particular, Azure provides authentication, workflow, and messaging and storage services, and also allows the application to seamlessly scale with increasing transaction rates.

Azure provides a scalable cloud database offering-SQL Data Services-which offers simple but scalable structured data storage similar in concept to Amazon's SimpleDB and Google's BigTable. Ironically, SQL Data Services does not support SQL!

"Live services" provide the ability for Azure applications to synchronize with desktop .NET applications and to interoperate with Windows Live applications such as Hotmail Office Live, Maps and search.

Microsoft is building out massive and geographically redundant data centers to support Azure. Existing Microsoft online services Windows Live and Office Live are expected to be converted to the Azure framework over time, as well.

Azure was announced at last November's Professional Developers Conference and remains in Community Technology Preview ("Microsoft-ese" for pre-beta). It remains to be seen how much uptake occurs when it moves into production.

However, I suspect that its .NET focus and well-thought-out architecture will help it compete against Amazon's largely open source-oriented DIY approach and Google's python-specific offering.

Amazon has taken an early lead in commercial cloud computing, followed closely by Google. However, if Microsoft is coming late to the party, it does look like it will arrive dressed to kill.