Microsoft Azure has historically lagged far behind Amazon’s EC2 in the market and in the hearts and minds of most developers. Azure started out life as a Platform as a Service (PaaS) offering which pretty much no one wanted. Indeed most developers wanted Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) – like EC2 has had since day one. The difference between PaaS and IaaS means that you can deploy and manage your own application in the cloud vs. being constrained to compiled / packaged offerings. Further Amazon has been innovating at such a rapid pace that pretty much at every turn Azure has looked like an inferior offering by comparison.
In mid-2011 Microsoft moved their best development manager Scott Guthrie onto Azure. Also working on the Azure project since 2010 is Mark Russinovich arguably Microsoft’s best engineer. At this point Microsoft truly has their “A” team on Azure and they are actively using it with Outlook.com (replacement for Hotmail) and SkyDrive (deeply integrated into Windows 8). Amazon EC2 is still the gold standard in cloud computing but Azure is increasingly competitive. The Azure Store is a step in the direction toward building parity. The Store was announced in the fall of 2012 at the Build Conference and has come a long way in a short period of time. By way of reference Amazon has something similar Called the AWS Marketplace.
There are actually two different entities. The Azure Store is meant for developers and the Azure Marketplace is meant for analysts and information workers. My sense is that the Marketplace has been around for longer than the Store as it has a much richer set of offerings. Some of the offerings overlap between the Store and the Marketplace. For example, the Worldwide Historical Weather Data can be access from both places.
- Both have data and applications.
- Both operate in the Azure cloud
- Windows Azure Store: Integration point is always via API
- Marketplace: Application are accessed via a web page or other packaged application such as a mobile device; Data can be access via Excel, (sometimes) an Azure dataset viewer, or integrated into your application via web services
What is confusing to me why there are so many more data applications in the Marketplace than there are in the store. For example, none of the extensive Stats Inc data is in the Store. It may be that the Store is just newer and it has yet to be fully populated. See this Microsoft blog entry for further details.
I went and kicked the tires of Azure Store and came away very impressed with what we saw. I saw approximately 30 different applications (all in English). There are two different types of apps in the store – App Services and Data. Although I did not write a test application I am fairly confident that both types of applications are accessed via web services. App Services provide functionality where Data provide information. In both cases Azure Marketplace apps can be thought of as buy vs. build.
- App Services: You can think about a service as a feature you would want integrated into your application. For example, one of the App Services (Staq Analytics) provides real-time analytics for service-based games. In this case a game developer would code Staq Analytics into their games which in turn would provide insight on customer usage. Another applications MongoLab provides a No-SQL database. The beauty of integrating an app from the Azure marketplace is that you as the customer do not ever need to worry about scalability. Microsoft takes care of that for you.
- Data: Data application provide on-demand information. For example, Dun and Bradstreet’s offering provides credit report information, Bing provides web search results, and StrikeIron validates phone numbers. As with app services Azure takes care of the scalability under load. Additionally, using a marketplace offering the data is theoretically as fresh as possible.
Further detail on the Store can be found here.
All and all the interface is very clean and straightforward to use. There is a store and a portal. Everything in the store appears to be in English though based on the URL it looks like it might be set up for localization. The portal is localized into 11 languages. The apps do not appear to be localized – though the Azure framework is localized. As a .Net developer I feel very comfortable using this environment and am impressed with how rich the interface has become – increasingly competitive with EC2 on a usability basis.
Applications are built using the Windows Azure Store SDK. There is a generic mailto address for developers to get into contact with Microsoft. There is also an Accelerator Program which will give applications further visibility in the Azure Store.
It probably not a bad point to highlight, in that Microsoft actually does have a third “store” of a sort called VM Depot (presently in preview mode) which focuses more on the IaaS approach, and the bridging of both “on premise” with “off premise” clouds with Hyper-V and Azure portability.
Finally, Identification technologies are also gaining a lot of focus, striving to unified the experience for hybrid deployments of on premise or hosted IaaS, when combined with Azure PaaS. The ALM model is also starting to be unified so that both Azure and Windows Hyper-V will be delivered by Development teams as defined packages – Databases as DAC’s; Applications as CAB’s / MSDeploy, Sites as WebDeploy / GIT, etc. with many of the features of Azure such as the Service Bus being ported back to Windows Server. Additionally, monitoring services are starting to unify to this model to define a transparent unified distributed service.