Good question. Every single news story I’m reading about Microsoft’s new cloud computing platform, announced last night, is full of phrases like “foundational infrastructure”, “Dynamics CRM Services” and “hypervisor/virtualization technology”. Here’s an overview in tech layman’s terms.
Confusingly, Azure is two things – it’s an operating system, and it’s a set of things that work on that operating system. I’ll refer to the former as Windows Azure, and the latter as the Azure Services Platform, just like Microsoft are.
The announcement yesterday was primarily for developers, but it outlined most of what we can expect from Microsoft’s “cloud computing” platform. Cloud Computing, as a term, has been mis-applied to web services like Hotmail and Google Docs, but it actually represents something that runs at a deeper level than that in the operating system.
In Azure, Microsoft wants to take away the reliance on a browser to view all this stuff in, and allow an application to just be a tiny program that interfaces with a central server that all the processing is done on. You give the program a command, by clicking “bold” or by typing some text, and it tells the server what you want it to do – make text bold, or add info to a document. The server then sends back the new output, including your newly bolded, or extended text.
The advantages of such a system are massive – you get a computing system that’s considerably more secure, more backed-up, and more convenient. Only the server needs to run a virus-scanner. You never lose data if you accidentally do something wrong because the server backs up every change you’ve ever made, like a Wiki. Best of all, though, you can access your stuff from any “client” device connected to the central server.
That “client” device needn’t be a PC, it could be your mobile, your netbook, your games console – even your fridge. Also, if your client no longer has to do any of the number crunching work itself, it doesn’t need to be fast. We can get away with considerably less powerful machines to do our work on, driving costs down massively for businesses and consumers who don’t need to do anything very powerful locally.
Until now, cloud computing has been made difficult by latency – the speed at which you’re connected to the central server. Now that broadband is widespread, however, and it’s getting faster and more persistent, even on mobile devices, cloud computing is becoming a viable concept.
Microsoft are betting on cloud computing, and I think it’s a decent bet. It’ll be a while until they’ve got an implementation that they can actually show to consumers, but this could potentially revolutionise computing as we know it.
Was that clear? Useful? Have I got anything dramatically wrong? Let me know in the comments exactly how excited you are about cloud computing.
Windows Azure (via Techmeme)