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So What Is a Windows Azure Appliance Anyway?

The biggest idea to get across about the Windows Azure Appliance, which some are calling Azure in a box, is that it's a work in progress.

In the world of computing there are words with meaning attached to them that are hard to overcome. If we were to play the word-association game and you were told to say the first thing that came to mind when presented with a list of terms, what would you say for the word windows? For most it would be Microsoft. If you were given the word appliance, chances are you might say a piece of hardware.

The Windows Azure cloud computing appliance announced at Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) a few weeks ago conjured up many visualizations of a similar vein. The problem is, there's really no physical product available from any of the vendors mentioned as partners, nor will there be any time in the next six to twelve months. You can buy hardware from all of the system vendors, and some currently sell everything you need to stand up a data center, but you won't find a Windows Azure appliance in any product catalog -- at least not at the present time.


HP's Approach

Scott Farrand, VP of Industry Standard Servers and Software for HP, gave the following description of HP's roadmap for rolling out Windows Azure products and services.

"At HP we're taking a three-pronged approach to the Windows Azure Appliance development. First, we're standing up instances of Windows Azure in our Enterprise Systems (ES) data center. It will initially be used for internal use and slowly made available to select ES customers." In case you don't remember, ES is the new name given to the former EDS that HP purchased some time back.

"Prong number two is essentially a professional services offering that will provide application modernization, meaning they will evaluate your existing enterprise applications and go through the business analysis process to convert those applications to run in the cloud. The target cloud in this case would be the Windows Azure Platform running either on-premises, in HP's ES data center, or some combination of the two," Farrand said.

A hybrid approach to using both corporate and out-sourced data centers has a lot of advantages from both a development and control perspective.

"Thirdly, HP will eventually provide a turnkey product that would include everything from the computing and networking infrastructure to the Windows Azure software components," Farrand said. The key word in the preceding sentence would be "eventually," as they have not put any time frame on having this third prong available for customer delivery.

Existing Appliances

One of the things you should equate with the Windows Azure Platform is huge scale. That means lots of multi-processor servers, high-speed network connectivity and massive amounts of storage. Building something like that from scratch is no small task in terms of time or money. Sun Microsystems made a big splash a few years back with their data center in a shipping container. It had everything you would need in terms of computers, running the Sun Solaris operating system or another non-Sun OS, networking and storage along with appropriate cooling and power distribution. All you had to do was plug it in and turn it on.

HP has a similar offering in their POD (Performance Optimized Datacenter) product. HP will build a system to your specifications, package it in either a twenty or forty-foot shipping container, and deliver it anywhere in the continental US in six weeks. They will deliver one anywhere in the world in twelve weeks. Google was awarded a patent some time back for the basic elements of a data center in a container. While they have a patent, they don't have any product to go along with it.

Bottom Line

The biggest idea to get across about the Windows Azure Appliance, which some are calling Azure in a box, is that it's a work in progress. For the moment it translates to the announced partners standing up instances of the Windows Azure Platform in their own data centers to get experience with building and maintaining the systems and software. For some like eBay it translates to working prototype instantiations of a Windows Azure-based service.

Ultimately, it will transform into something you might recognize today as a true appliance. You buy one, take delivery, plug it in and boom -- you have a cloud-scale data center. In the meantime, you'll just have to settle for using Microsoft's servers to get a taste of what's to come.

Paul Ferrill, based in Chelsea, Alabama, has been writing about computers and software for almost 20 years. He has programmed in more languages than he cares to count, but now leans toward Visual Basic and C#.
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