Microsoft’s continued move towards inclusion

The technology race over the last three decades created an environment of… well, armed war camps.  The US vs. THEM mentality was most clearly seen in the marketing wars.  For 30 years, Apple has been taking very clever shots at Microsoft culminating in the “I’m a Mac” ad campaign between 2006 and 2009 (66 total commercials worldwide).


Culture is one side of the fight… the other is technology.  Microsoft was big business and Apple was the underdog fighter… but in the area of technology, which platform you choose and what that meant to software availability became critical.


Honest competition remains a huge component of the IT industry; but, as the complexity of technological ecosystems grow (almost exponentially), the opportunities for collaboration increase among the different hardware/software platforms.  Microsoft has recognized this time of opportunity and has engineered Windows Azure with collaboration in mind rather than exclusion.  The Azure team has been quietly leading the industry by identifying complementary non-Microsoft technologies and integrating them with Azure.


Not that long ago, few would have ever expected that Microsoft would create a cloud platform that makes spinning up a virtualized Linux server as easy as a Microsoft one.  Few would have anticipated that Microsoft would build tools to provide a powerful and comprehensive mobile services backend for iOS developers or that they would be so excited to offer a Windows Azure SDK for Node.js and build Node.js into so many of Microsoft’s key development tools.


However… that is exactly what they have done.


This complementary Windows Azure strategy is starting to pay off and developers from ‘the other side’ are getting excited about Azure too.  Justin Williams, the owner of Second Gear and an iOS and Mac app developer recently got to dive into Microsoft technologies when he acquired Glassboard in December from Sitrion (formerly NewsGator).


Glassboard is a private social network focused on sharing, coordinating, and collaborating with highly specific groups of people.  While Glassboard is accessible through iPhone and Android apps as well as through the website, the backend is Microsoft Azure and uses other Microsoft technologies like ASP.NET 5.0, WCF, Visual Studio, and C# tied together with the mobile apps via a REST API.


Justin may not have much good to say about WCF — something he plans to replace with the ASP.NET Web API 2
but has high praise for Azure and the other components of Glassboard’s backend.  He’s particularly impressed with Azure’s Cloud Services and the ability to have the number of instances running dependent of demand; a feature that cut 40% off of the CPU costs when he implemented it.  Glassboard is also taking advantage of Azure’s table and blob storage infrastructure which he notes is competitive Amazon’s popular S3 cloud storage.


Over all, he’s optimistic about the direction Microsoft is heading:


I had an eye on last week’s announcement of Microsoft’s new CEO.  Obviously because I follow the technology industry, but also because I now have a vested interest in Microsoft going forward.  You see, Glassboard’s entire backend is powered by Microsoft technologies: Windows Azure to be specific. 

Satya Nadella, the new CEO at Microsoft, was the head of the Azure side of Microsoft’s business before ascending to the top of the food chain, which is why I’m optimistic about the company’s future.  I truly believe Azure is the best thing the company is doing right now. 

Most people are surprised when I tell them that since I inherited an Azure backend rather than choosing it on my own accord, but I think that is what makes my thoughts more interesting. 


Justin isn’t the only one in the Apple community who’s impressed with Azure.  Brent Simmons is a Mac and iOS developer… well known for his love of Apple going all the way back to his first computer in 1980, an Apple II Plus… says that he got his first taste of Azure when the Azure team hired him to produce tutorial videos for Azure’s iOS features and tools.  His experience there led him to declare — on Macworld no less — that “Microsoft is no longer the enemy.”  While still indulging in a bit of sarcasm and being a little ahead of the time of his readership there this is no less striking of a shift in attitude brought about because of Azure.


In a blog post regarding Satya Nadella’s promotion to CEO, Brent went into a little more detail about Azure’s Mobile Services and what he sees as the new Microsoft:


I have some experience with Azure — with Mobile Services, specifically.  Yes, they paid me to create some videos, and they’ve sponsored two of my podcasts.  Which I agreed to only because I like what they’re doing. 


Creating services for iOS apps doesn’t sound at all like the Microsoft I used to know.  Using Node.js and JavaScript doesn’t sound like that Microsoft.  The old Microsoft would create services for their OSes only and you’d have to use Visual Studio.  […]

But in the Azure group, at least, there’s recognition that Microsoft can’t survive on lock-in, that those days are in the past. 


Apple developers aren’t the only ones paying attention either.  Microsoft’s support for Linux and their partnership with major Linux distribution developers like Canonical and SUSE has been creating a growing buzz for some time now (SUSE, John Fail, Ostatic, ZDnet)


While having a few versions of Linux available right in the VM setup is notable, one of the most interesting examples of Microsoft’s commitment to the open source community is VMDepot, a part of Microsoft Open Technologies which allows users to upload preconfigured Virtual Machine images.  These images can then be used by anyone to create a Windows Azure VM.  With approximately 960 images to choose from VMDepot provides a fantastic starting point for users who want a way to setup an Azure VM quickly and easily.


(NOTE: Uncommon Solutions would caution against using the pre-configured images unless you are technologically adept as VM Depot is a community-driven catalog of preconfigured operating systems, applications, and development stacks that can easily be deployed on Windows Azure.  Microsoft does not screen these images for security, compatibility or performance, and does not provide any license rights or support for them.)


Another important component is the Windows Azure SDK for Node.js and the cross-platform command line tools.  Traditionally, you might expect that command line administration of Azure VMs would require PowerShell and PowerShell is certainly available.  But Microsoft also wanted to offer a way to do command line administration in a cross-platform environment and they did so by leveraging the power Node.js which you can install on Windows, OS X, Linux and SunOS.


Want to see it in action? Channel 9 has a great video comparing PowerShell and the Azure CLI tools.


Microsoft cares about open source and they’re committed to it.  Scott Hanselman, a member of the Web Platform Team summed it up perfectly:


We’re putting source on GitHub, many groups are using Git with TFS internally for projects, and we’ve open sourced (not just source-opened) huge parts of .NET and are still pushing.  We’ve open sourced Azure hardware specs, opening SDKs, and we’re making systems more pluggable than ever. 


There’s no clearer example of Microsoft’s commitment to open source and to integration with many other closed source platforms and technologies than Windows Azure.


We at Uncommon don’t think we can overestimate the importance of Azure to Microsoft and the commitment they are making to it.  Considering the promotion of Satya Nadella (their cloud strategist) to the staggering investment they’re making into Xbox Live Compute (see: Silicon Angle, Venture Beat, Gizmodo, Games Industry) Azure is a big part of Microsoft’s strategy going forward.


If Azure is so good that it’s winning Apple-only developers and open source heavy-weights over to a Microsoft platform… the only inescapable conclusion to be drawn is that the future is bright for Azure and Microsoft.