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For the uninitiated, Azure is Microsoft's Platform-as-a-Service system for developing, testing, deploying and maintaining cloud applications. It's Microsoft's response to competing cloud development platforms such as Google's App Engine, Amazon's Elastic Beanstalk, Salesforce.com's Force.com, and startups such as AppHarbor.
Hosted by Microsoft within its data centers, Azure includes the Windows Azure cloud operating system, SQL Azure cloud database, and Windows Azure AppFabric services -- the latter essentially cloud middleware that supports both on-demand and on-premise applications. Azure is integrated with Microsoft's Visual Studio development toolkit, allowing programmers to use it as the integrated development environment for developing and publishing Azure-hosted applications.
In late March, Microsoft released the Windows Azure Toolkit for Windows Phone 7 for building Windows Phone 7 applications that use services running on Windows Azure.
Because Azure relies on Microsoft's own database system, some developers worry about vendor lock-in. And the Azure platform doesn't support Git, a free, distributed revision control system many developers use for collaboration and code deployment.
Microsoft updates the Azure platform every few months and the company's ultimate goal for Azure (and, in fact, for all its cloud offerings) is to achieve functional parity with its on-premise offerings. Microsoft's view is that for the immediate future many businesses will take a hybrid approach to IT, using a mix of cloud and on-premise systems. That's why core Microsoft software such as Visual Studio and .NET for development and System Center for management can be used across both types of systems.
Azure is hosted in Microsoft data centers, but the company touts the opportunities the Azure PaaS offers channel partners. VARs can sell and support the Azure service and manage customer relationships while ISVs can use Azure to deliver their Software-as-a-Service applications directly to their customers. Hosting partners can use Azure to deliver software such as customized SharePoint. And systems integrators can set up, integrate and connect cloud-based services with other SaaS applications and on-premise systems.
Microsoft has a number of new Azure services and features in the development pipeline. By mid-year, for example, Microsoft will offer SQL Azure Reporting for embedding reports within Windows Azure applications. That capability is now available as a Community Technology Preview. Another key technology building block in CTP stage and due later this year is SQL Azure Data Sync, tools for building applications with geo-replicated SQL Azure data that synchronizes on-premise applications with cloud and mobile applications.
Also due for a CTP release by mid-year is Windows Azure Content Delivery Network for IIS (Internet Information Services) Smooth Streaming, technology for building media streaming capabilities into Azure apps.
The Azure ecosystem also includes Windows Azure Marketplace where developers and IT professionals can buy, sell and share software components, services and training for completing Azure applications. The Marketplace includes Azure Datamarket where developers and information workers can acquire third-party data, Web services, and self-service business intelligence and analytics they can incorporate into Azure applications.
Next: The Channel View Of Azure