No topic has been hotter in enterprise IT over the past couple of years than "the cloud." The idea of hosting services, applications, databases and servers on powerful internet connected data centers offers a way for IT enterprise to move away from building and hosting everything in-house. Benefits include access from anywhere, scalability, fault-tolerance, and in many cases, additional expertise for running the physical data center from industry titans like Microsoft, Amazon or Google.
For the past 20 years or so, IT has been experimenting with outsourcing its IT people. Now, it seems, is the time to experiment with outsourcing the IT hardware. What does Microsoft have in store?
Microsoft's Cloud Operating System
Ever since Microsoft made the leap from the desktop to the server room, the Redmond software giant has offered an increasing array of server based applications and products. Some, like Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft SQL Server have taken corporate America by storm. Others fill niche rolls for specific industries or for Microsoft-only shops. However, all of these platforms traditionally rely on companies buying, installing, configuring, running and maintaining servers in corporate datacenters. The rise of cloud-based computing and the growing acceptance of governments and corporations to consider using cloud-based providers prompted Microsoft to launch its own cloud offerings in the form of Windows Azure.
Windows Azure is both a platform as a service, and an infrastructure as a service that supports a wide range of frameworks and programming languages. It specifically offers customers a way to take advantage of the same type of cloud-computing environment offered by Amazon, Google and others with a focus on tightly integrated, highly-optimized Microsoft platforms and services. Enterprise IT departments can host everything from in-house applications, to complete Windows Server 2012 servers on Microsoft's Azure cloud. But, IT is rightfully hesitant to simply hand over the entire data and networking infrastructure to another vendor, no matter how well known. So, Microsoft's cloud proposition includes the ability not only to use the Azure public cloud, but also to use the same technology for a company to run its own private cloud, and most intriguingly of all, the means to do both, to create a hybrid cloud.
However, in order for all this to work seamlessly each and every part of the system needs to be ready and able to function both in the in-house datacenter and out on the public cloud. Microsoft has been hard at work updating and creating products that allow IT to do just that. The melding of these products together creates the Microsoft Cloud OS. As announced recently, the products necessary to turn the Cloud operating system into a reality are almost ready to go. Essentially, Microsoft has brought bits of Azure into the traditional server products, and then built the hooks necessary for Azure into those same platforms.
New Features to Make the Cloud OS
The Cloud OS, then, is not a new operating system at all, but rather a series of features and functionalities that make the coming R2 versions of Microsoft's key server products more compatible and transferrable with the cloud, and Azure in particular.
The lynchpin in the whole system, of course, is Windows Server. The new Windows Server 2012 R2 operating system will be fully integrated with the necessary Azure hooks. Windows Azure uses the very same Hyper-V service that is built into Windows Server 2012. That guarantees compatibility between on-premise systems and the cloud, but how do you get them working back and forth?
New features coming in Windows Server R2 allow for faster VM live migration. Deduplication and compression for example, ensure that everything is transferred as quickly as possible. In addition, exporting and cloning of virtual machines can now be done without stopping the VM. That allows administrators to move back and forth between the cloud without having to plan for downtime. Even better, Hyper-V Replica will now support a third, or tertiary system. There is no need to move or transfer VMs when you can already have them replicated where you want them to be next. And, if you're worried about the migration, administrators can live migrate virtual machines from Windows Server 2012 to Windows Server 2012 R2. Just get your new environment up and running and then move VMs when you are ready. Right on its heels comes the ability to manage systems and resources across the cloud with System Center 2012 R2. New features include built-in IPAM integration, better built-in switch management and new cloud based reporting metrics.
Even Visual Studio 2013 gets in on the act. With this cloud-ready version, imagine a development environment where you can keep replicas of your production VMs (those tertiary copies) and then test against them, giving you a real-life environment without affecting current systems. It's like testing in production, but in a good way.
All of these products are scheduled to have preview releases this summer, and full versions released by year-end.
Missing from the list is SQL Server, which is a key part of most Microsoft based IT infrastructures. Microsoft SQL Server 2014 will be the first version to fit within the paradigm of the Cloud OS. However, Microsoft's flagship database offering won't be ready until early 2014. New cloud features include the ability to backup directly to Windows Azure as well as the ability to create an always-on replica on Azure. Taking it a step further, Microsoft's SQL Server with Azure integration will allow for a SQL Server to reside on-premise, while keeping data in the Azure cloud.
When it all comes together, Microsoft's R2 cloud offering allows companies many options to run their enterprise computing. Companies can choose to keep everything in-house with backups in the cloud for failover or scalability purposes. A company could also choose to host certain applications out on the cloud with others hosted in-house. Combined with Microsoft's Hyper-V virtualization system, companies can move, duplicate and backup virtual machines across datacenters, the Azure cloud, or even export them to another provider's cloud. These decisions could be made, changed and changed again, since wherever the parts are, they all work the same. All made possible by the idea of a Cloud OS where each of Microsoft's traditionally on-premise server offerings should also work as well with Microsoft's cloud offering.
In the end, this evolutionary conception of Microsoft's enterprise offerings as a single Cloud OS may be just the right strategy the company needs to stay a power player in corporate IT.
Brian Nelson (MCSE, CNA) is a professional freelance writer and small business owner with the freelance writing business ArcticLlama, LLC. Brian’s experience includes network and systems administration, financial planning and advising, and he even has a degree in Biochemistry. Brian specializes in several areas of highly technical writing for ArcticLlama including technology, science and medical. He is also a freelance financial writer specialist. He lives in Colorado with his wife and daughter.
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