Azure: The Cloud OS

Saturday , 15, April 2017 1 Comment

When choosing a platform to build an application for, developers need to consider a number of common factors – skillset in the market, end user reach of the platform, supportability, roadmap, and so on. This is one of the reasons why Windows Phone has had such a difficult time; development houses won’t choose to invest time into it because of limited user reach, uncertain roadmap and support, and the need to develop new skills. There’s just no incentive there to do so, and there is much risk.

Reaching Equilibrium

When I say application delivery platform, I refer to any of a number of areas, including:

  • Desktop Operating Systems
  • Mobile Operating System
  • Virtualisation
  • Cloud Platforms

In each of these areas, during their birth as a new delivery paradigm there tend to be many contenders vying for developer attention. I strongly believe that in any category, over time the number of commonly used and accepted platforms will naturally tend towards a low number as a small subset of them reach developer critical mass, and the others lose traction.

Once you reach this developer critical mass, a platform becomes self-perpetuating. End-user reach is massive, developer tools are well matured, roadmaps are defined, and needed development skills fill the market. Once a few platforms in a category reach this point, no others can compete as they can’t attract developers, the laggards wither and die, and the platforms in the category become constant.

I call this process HomeOStasis

  • In the Desktop and Server arena this has tended to Windows and *nix.
  • In the Mobile arena Android and iOS.
  • In Virtualisation land we predominantly have VMware and Hyper-V.
  • In Cloud there is currently AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud Platform.

It’s still a contentious view, both among hardware vendors and IT Pros as we haven’t quite reached that HomeOStatic point with cloud yet, but I can’t see cloud native as landing as anything other than AWS, Azure, and GCP. SoftLayer and Oracle do fit the bill, but in the certainty of eventual HomeOStasis, I don’t see them gaining the developer critical mass they need to become the core of the stable and defined cloud platform market.


Cloud and Virtualisation

Note that this isn’t Cloud vs Virtualisation, each are powerful and valuable application delivery platforms with their own strengths and weaknesses, and designed to achieve and deliver different outcomes, just like desktop and mobile operating systems.

Virtualisation is designed to support traditional monolithic and multi-tier applications, building resiliency into the fabric and hardware layers to support high availability of applications which can take advantage of scale-up functionality.

Cloud is designed to support containerised and microservice-based applications which span IaaS and PaaS and can take advantage of scale-out functionality, with resiliency designed into the application layer.

Yes you can run applications designed for virtualisation in a cloud-native environment, but it’s rarely the best thing to do, and it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to take advantage of most of the features which make cloud so attractive in the first place.


Hybrid Cloud and Multi Cloud

Today, the vast majority of customers I speak to say they are adopting a hybrid cloud approach, but the reality is that the implementation is multi cloud. The key differentiator between these is that in hybrid cloud the development, deployment, management, and capabilities are consistent across clouds, while in multi cloud the experience is disjointed and requires multiple skillsets and tools. Sometimes organisations will employ separate people to manage different cloud environments, sometimes one team will manage them all. Rarely is there an instance where the platforms involved in multi cloud are used to their full potential

Yes there are cloud brokerages and tools which purport to give a single management platform to give a consistent experience across multiple different cloud platforms, but in my opinion this always results in a diminished overall experience. You end up with a lowest-common-denominator outcome where you’re unable to take advantage of many of the unique and powerful features in each platform for the sake of consistent and normalised management. It’s actually not that different to development and management in desktop and mobile OS’s – there have always been comparisons and trade-offs between native and cross-platform tooling and development, with ardent supporters in each camp.

Today, the need to either manage in a multi cloud model, or diminish overall experience with an abstracted management layer is a direct consequence of every cloud and service provider today delivering a different set of capabilities and APIs, coupled with a very real customer desire to avoid vendor lock-in.


Enabling True Cloud Consistency

The solution to this has been for Microsoft to now finally deliver a platform which is consistent not just in look and feel with Azure, but truly consistent in capabilities, tooling, APIs, and roadmap. Through the appliance-based approach of Azure Stack, this consistency can be guaranteed through any vendor at any location.

This is true hybrid cloud, and enables the use of all the rich cloud-native capabilities within the Azure ecosystem, as well as the broad array of supported open-source development tools, without the risk of vendor lock-in. Applications can span and be moved between multiple providers with ease, with a common development and management skillset for all.

Once we have reached a point of HomeOStasis in Cloud, platform lock-in through use of native capabilities is not a concern either, as roadmap, customer-reach, skillset in the market, and support are all taken care of.

A little-discussed benefit of hybrid cloud through Azure Stack is the mitigation of collapse or failure of a vendor. An application which runs in Azure and Azure Stack can span multiple providers and the public cloud, protected by default from the failure or screw-up of one or more of those providers. The cost implications of architecting like this are similar to multi cloud, however the single skillset, management framework, and development experience can significantly help reduce TCO.

Azure Stack isn’t a silver bullet to solve all application delivery woes, and virtualisation platforms remain as important as ever for many years to come. Over and above virtualisation through, when evaluating your cloud-native strategy, there are some important questions to bear in mind:

  • Who do I think will be the Cloud providers that remain when the dust settles and we achieve HomeOStasis?
  • Do I want to manage a multi cloud or hybrid cloud environment?
  • Do I want to use native or cross-platform tooling?
  • What will common and desirable skillsets in the market be?
  • Where will the next wave of applications I want to deploy be available to me from?

I’m choosing to invest a lot of my energy into learning Azure and Azure Stack, because I believe that the Azure ecosystem offers genuine and real differentiated capability over and above any other cloud-native vendor, and will be a skillset which has both value and longevity.

When any new platform paradigm comes into being, it’s a complete roll of the dice as to which will settle into common use. We’re far enough along in the world of cloud now to make such judgements though, and for Azure and Azure Stack it looks like a rosy future ahead indeed.

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