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Windows Azure – What it means to Microsoft Dynamics users and customers?

I attended PDC 2009 last week and enjoyed every moment of it. Things seem to be changing for Microsoft with far too fast changing competitive landscape. And Microsoft has an interesting challenge to play catch up or be thought leaders in computing technology. They seem to be doing both and trying hard to be thought leaders. The significant theme in this PDC was Windows Azure – a platform meant for cloud computing. And there are some interesting bits about the platform in terms of how Microsoft is approaching it.

There is a much different strategy to Azure if you compare it with Amazon EC2 and there are similarities with Google App Engine. Azure is a computing platform and is not meant to be used as a server bank with on demand elastic availability unlike EC2. To Microsoft credit, that is a very attractive idea in .NET world and has merits in a number of scenarios – as an example avoid human dependence for server/application management. Azure seems to be the next biggest bet that Microsoft is taking and so far I think they are on the right track. There were some very interesting talks from Azure team, an outstanding presentation by Manuvir Das that explained Azure’s past and talked about it’s future. One of the key differences in Microsoft offering though is - SQL Azure. There is nothing from Amazon or Google that really comes close to SQL Azure. With a very well crafted scale out strategy, SQL Azure may be the the key winner for Microsoft. But due to scale out nature, it has limited application to existing applications unless re-architected.

So what does all this mean to mid size customers running Dynamics ERP, CRM, Sharepoint, Exchange and custom written .NET applications or plumbing. This question has two different answers for home grown or otherwise written .NET applications and non .NET applications from Microsoft Dynamics stable

For .NET applications, there are two key areas where all CIOs in these mid size organizations should consider Azure. Azure would also significantly change how mid size IT operations would be run in future:

  1. Cost Saving – I am calling this out first given the current economic scenario and the continual pressure to fulfill customer demands while reducing the cost at the same time. Setting up Development, Test & Staging environments and providing global access has been a friction factor for launching many application initiatives. With Azure, that problem is pretty much gone. You can fund a new project with a very minimal upfront cost in infrastructure or time. The billing model for Azure when running in Production is likely to be much lower than what it would cost internally or with a hosting company. Our recommendation for new applications is to evaluate Azure as the first platform option for all future .NET initiatives. A natural question would be about existing infrastructure – right now Windows Azure has limitations on what all you can deploy and you might end up doing expensive evaluation or trial and error. There are offerings on the card that would make EC2 like fully controlled Windows instances a reality on Azure. Our recommendation for existing applications is to wait till 3rd quarter of 2010 before moving existing applications to Azure. 
  2. Enterprise like scale up and fault tolerance capability – This would be my number 1 reason had the economic condition been different. With Windows Azure and the deep investment behind this, there are significant gains for mid size companies to get enterprise like scale up and fault tolerance capabilities at zero upfront cost and very reasonable operating cost. Capability to launch additional instances of web servers (called Web Roles in Azure world) on demand is extremely attractive.

Does Azure change the way I run Dynamics ERP and CRM software today or how I would run it tomorrow? – Official Microsoft word is that yes, some day all Microsoft Products would transition to Azure. My personal opinion is that this is unlikely to happen – there would be changes in the way Microsoft would offer these products to end customer but moving to Azure may be far fetched given the current technology platform and existing customer base. Dynamics CRM is already offered via Microsoft Online Services. Other Dynamics Offerings would be either coming from Microsoft or other partners.

So get Azured and start preparing for the next generation always available apps!

Pankaj Kumar is the CTO of Ignify. Ignify is a technology provider of ERP, CRM, and eCommerce software solutions to businesses and public sector organizations. . Ignify is a Microsoft Dynamics Inner Circle Partner  and ranked in the top 18 Microsoft Dynamics partners. Ignify has been included as the fastest growing business in North America for 3 years in a row by Deloitte, Inc Magazine and Entrepreneur Magazine.