Users give their verdict on Azure

By Dave Bailey
10 Mar 2010 View Comments
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RNLI boat. Pic: Nigel Millard
Azure’s scalability means the RNLI’s MOB Guardian rescue system will soon be available to every commercial and leisure craft in UK waters. Pic: Nigel Millard

The competition within the cloud computing market is hotting up, and as it is between some of the biggest names in software, all eyes are on this space.

Google, Amazon and Microsoft are in on the game, with the latter’s Azure being the newest entrant in the market.

Further reading

The service went live in early January, becoming available to firms on a commercial basis in February. The platform comprises three elements: Windows Azure itself, an online operating system; SQL Azure, a cloud database solution; and the Azure platform AppFabric, which connects cloud services to on-premise applications.

So what do the early adopters think of the platform? Computing attended a recent roundtable event, where several customers discussed some of the problems they were facing with the platform.

Rich internet application firm – iPrinciples

One customer at the event was Richard Godfrey from Bath-based rich internet application (RIA) firm iPrinciples. The company is developing a self-publishing application called Koodibook using Windows Azure and SQL Azure since January.

“Although we have been happy with Azure, elements of the platform are still missing,” he said.

One of these is a free text search function in Azure’s database language SQL, which has caused the company some problems.

“A free text search function [normally standard in SQL and many other database applications] would make it more simple to pull out keywords from books,” said Godfrey. Currently, a user must enter a line of code to do such a search.

Another problem for the company is that there is no way for it to back up its databases to Azure’s storage system.

The company also complained of the lack of top level diagnostics and problems with getting access to log files.

On a more positive note, Godfrey said that being an Azure early adopter had been challenging but worth it. “The advantages have included low initial cost, high scalability on demand, and ability to handle peak loads, such as those retailers experience at Christmas,” he said.

Financial services software company – RiskMetrics Group
And High Principles wasn’t the only company to highlight the log file issue. Rob Fraser, co-founder and software architect of financial services software company RiskMetrics, complained that the lack of a suitable log file mechanism in Azure made transaction audit control very difficult.

A log file solution is also necessary for customer-facing retail firms that have to audit credit card transactions in accordance with the PCI-DSS payment security standard.

Risk Metrics’ Fraser said: “There’s no genuine log integration in Azure, so we’ve had to engineer a system that deals with those log files ourselves.”

In response to these criticisms, Microsoft’s Simon Davies said that the audit control issues were being looked at, and there were some announcements around this area “coming up soon”.

Web services company ­– Active Web Solutions
Active Web Solutions (AWS) is currently migrating the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s MOB Guardian rescue system to Microsoft’s cloud platform. In its first 18 months of operation the AWS-developed MOB Guardian (MOB stands for “man overboard”) system ran on 15 servers across two UK datacentres, and could handle about 10,000 boats. By moving the system to Azure, the RNLI will be able to extend the service to every commercial and leisure craft in UK waters.

But while Azure’s scalability has impressed AWS, the platform’s lack of a proper test and development environment is a bugbear for the firm’s technical director, Richard Prodger.

“Microsoft started charging for Azure in February, which means every time we start an application in a test and development environment we incur costs,” said Prodger.

Microsoft said it would be addressing the test and development environment problems in its next version of its integrated development environment (IDE) Visual Studio 2010. This will see the release of an enhanced set of tools for software development on the platform.

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