Microsoft and free aren't words that you expect together in a sentence. While the prolific operating system maker has been generous in offering discounted licenses to students and to developing nations, it has always made sure it got its fair slice.
Well for a limited time, developers will get to use and test a unique new OS from Microsoft -- Windows Azure -- entirely for free. The new OS marks the release of Microsoft's long awaited cloud computing operating system.
For those in the dark about cloud computing, you're not alone -- the abstract concept is a new one and very challenging to developers. In basic principle, it’s the concept of offloading tasks from workstations to cloud clusters -- high powered groups of servers. This setup leverages modern high-speed internet connections to deliver data storage, applications hosting and more.
Cloud computing is tremendously popular, as it is widely viewed as the future of web hosting. One key reason for this is that cloud computing allows applications to easily scale to match rising or falling demand, without shifting local hardware. In order to deliver increasingly rich applications over an internet interface, moving to a cloud computing architecture becomes increasingly necessary. However, until now cloud computing lacked a single iconic operating system specially designed for it.
That has all changed with the release of Microsoft's Azure. The new OS is a community preview, available free to any developers. This is a slight departure from Microsoft's RM/Beta/Alpha sequence typical to many of its operating systems, though it has done community previews of other releases before.
"How long until the OS hits the market," is one question many will ask. Microsoft's Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie was on hand to answer questions about the new OS, and he fielded this one. He stated, "Well, when we finally determine that it achieves the objectives from a completeness perspective and a reliability perspective that our customers would expect of us, then we'll go commercial. And when it does, it will be profitable from birth because we're going to price it to be that way."
While Microsoft's OS is similar, according to Mr. Ozzie, to Amazon's EC2 web service in some respects, it is overall rather unique. Some users will be confused, he says, to restart their computers only to find their hard drives empty. Despite the .NET foundation, developers will have to adapt to the new storage system and adapt to the new error handling system.
Mr. Ozzie says that Microsoft's growing interest in data centers and serving is the key to the company's success. He says, "It's a business that we will be in probably as long as there will be a Microsoft. ... Cloud computing is ultimately going to be 'do you trust this provider to have more to lose than I have to lose as a company if they mess me up?' And Microsoft has both the capacity to invest and the willingness to be in that end of a business, and give that kind of a trust assurance to developers and enterprises."
While many outside the development community will meet the news of this new Microsoft OS with a bit of confusion as it’s not something they can easily experience, the bottom line is that this OS will help drive a new generation of feature-rich websites. And while cloud computing from an architecture standpoint might be perplexing to some, being able to use rich applications like word processing online, with free storage, would be easy to understand, and a highly desired development.
As for Mr. Ozzie, he firmly believes the new OS represents the future of Windows, and is perhaps more critical than even Windows 7. He says that in 20 years, cloud computers will be household items and the once foreign concept will have been embraced, much as the personal computer was two decades ago. Says Mr. Ozzie, "It's a new kind of computer that 20 years from now we'll wonder how we did without."