MWC14_Logo-blackBGThe annual Mobile World Congress (#mwc14) event is underway in Barcelona. Those lucky enough to travel there will have already been treated to some surprising announcements, none more so than Nokia launching new android-based phones without the normal Google tie-ins associated with Samsung, Sony and other manufacturers.

The move was surprising to me and “perplexing” to other market analysts as I had assumed until fairly recently that Nokia were riding the two horses of Microsoft Windows for high-end Lumia range handsets and the cheap Asha operating system which replaced Symbian in Nokia’s arsenal for the lower end of the market.

It seems to me that the new X, X+ and XL phones will be a bit of a “dog’s breakfast” in that they will come with Android O/S but run Microsoft Outlook as standard and also incorporate BlackBerry Messenger. But at a cost of under a hundred quid they might be worth a look.

For more details see the story on BBC News – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-26320552

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Vegas baby!

Vegas baby!

I’ve survived my first full day in Vegas at AWS re:Invent, the annual Amazon Web Services shindig, although I must admit to being jet-lagged to hell. Handily nothing ever shuts down here so waking up at 2am is not a problem :)

The first day was dedicated to the AWS Partner Network (APN) Summit, and the #1 highlight had to be the announcement that Smart421 have been awarded Premier Consulting Partner status – one of only 3 partners in the EMEA region to be recognised in this way. This is the highest level that there is globally, and it makes me really proud of what our internal AWS Practice have achieved over our four year journey with AWS – this is not something that AWS give to any old partner! It’s recognition of the great customer case studies and deployments that we’ve jointly undertaken with AWS, and the investment in deep skills that we’ve made.

APNThe sheer scale of re:invent is pretty staggering. The venue (The Venetian) is enormous, the rooms are massive, and there’s a huge number of attendees with a very wide variety of interests – enterprise-level, gaming, HPC, start-ups etc. As I was at the APN Summit all day which was on its own floor, this didn’t really hit me until I went to the Expo part of the event at the end of day – where 180+ different vendors are touting their wares. It was a struggle even to walk through the room as it was so busy – although copious amounts of food and alcohol probably helped drive attendance :).

Here’s a couple of other takeaways from the APN Summit yesterday:

  • AWS have just updated the quote that they use to demonstrate the rate at which they are scaling their infrastructure. Anyone familiar with AWS will probably have heard before that one way of quantifying their rate of infrastructure growth is in terms of comparing with the number of servers etc needed to run the Amazon.com retail business at some point back in the past. Well – AWS has carried on growing, and so this comparison metric has had to be updated. They are now adding enough server capacity every day to power Amazon.com when it was a $7bn business – which is quite an incredible statement really. Cloud computing is indeed a scale game…
  • One of the big push areas from AWS is in driving use of AWS to host specific packages such as Microsoft Exchange, various Oracle business products (i.e. not just the technology components such as database, middleware etc), SAP, Microsoft SharePoint etc. Hence yesterday they announced some new partner competencies for some of these products. Personally I don’t quite get this – in my view, the cloud model is not so compelling for these kinds of IT workloads, as they tend to be very “steady state” in nature, not particular peaky workloads and if they are somewhat peaky, then you’ve usually got to have a resilient pair running all the time anyway and so they options for scaling down are limited. There’s a myriad of companies out there offering very price-competitive hosted Exchange and SharePoint models (like our sister company in fact) and they can exploit multi-tenancy across customers to drive a really low price point. Office365 (which wraps in Exchange and SharePoint with other stuff) is also the direction of travel for many enterprise customers. Having said all that, AWS are obviously seeing traction for these more enterprise-level software deployments otherwise they wouldn’t be aligning their partner model to it – as they are clearly not dummies given that they are giving the rest of the IaaS/PaaS market a bit of a hiding.

Today we have the opening keynote from Andy Jassy, and then we get into the more nitty-gritty technical sessions…

It caught my eye the other day that Microsoft announced an equivalent to Amazon Web Services’ Direct Connect offering, i.e. the ability to connect from your premises to your cloud deployment without going over the Internet. The press release says this capability is “expected to be available in first half of 2014” – and I assume that this initial launch will be US only with Europe to follow later, although it doesn’t say.

Smart421 was a Direct Connect launch partner in the European region for AWS back in Jan 2012, although the initial US launch was way back in August 2011. So going on that basis, I can now put a crude estimate on how far behind AWS the Azure platform really is – at least two and a half years :)

Anyway, now is as good a time as any to share some brief stats from our real world experience of deploying Direct Connect for the European region. I’m not aware of much data in the public domain about Direct Connect latency measurements in the European region – so if you know of some, please comment on this post to let me know.

On a 1 gigabit connection, for an ICMP (i.e. ping) round trip we typically see a latency of circa 12-13ms for Direct Connect versus 33ms via a VPN over the Internet, i.e. about a 60% reduction in latency.

AWSDirectConnectLatency

This data needs to be considered carefully as there are a multitude of factors at play here depending on the specific customer environment and requirements – such as the Internet connectivity for the VPN, and crucially where the customer “on-premises” equipment is in network terms with respect to the AWS Direct Connect location in London Docklands. Also any comparison will vary depending on time of day etc. I’m deliberately not providing any stats on achieved bandwidth here as there are just too many factors involved – principally that the limiting factor is likely to be any MPLS connectivity involved in the architecture rather than Direct Connect itself.

Still – it’s interesting data nonetheless…thanks to ‘Smartie’ Wayne for compiling the data.

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So at Microsoft TechEd Europe this year the strapline from the keynote was; It’s Time . It’s time for us to utilise the Cloud on our terms. I also thought there’d be time at the airport last Friday to write this blog but no chance, no time, just waiting in queues…if only they’d used Azure Topics to route us effectively…

So what sticks in my head my regarding the The Cloud OS: It’s Time theme? Hybrid Solutions , it was a theme repeated throughout the week, with many of the breakout sessions highlighting the progression in Microsoft products whether it be SQL, BizTalk, Office or .NET and the new features to support on-premises and cloud solutions.

With integration at the heart of most things we do at Smart421, I was interested to see Microsoft’s vision for integration particularly given the recent announcement of Windows Azure BizTalk Services (WABS) and I thought I’d briefly describe how the new features may be utilised.

BizTalkCloud

Connect to the Cloud. BizTalk 2013, now includes Azure Service Bus adapters for simplified Azure connectivity. Why would you use this? The integration pattern discussed was Store and Forward, where an organisation may wish to insulate an on premises version of BizTalk from peaks and spikes or when destination systems are not online. By utilising Azure Service Bus queues to store messages, the on-prem BizTalk server is then free to process messages at it’s capacity or when destination systems are available.

Run in the Cloud. Due to large footprint of the BizTalk Server product, you may be able to save a considerable amount of time with Azure IaaS. Creating Dev and Test environments could be reduced to minutes with ready made BizTalk images ready to spin up at any time.

Build for the Cloud. WABS provide an easy way to expose service endpoints in the cloud, making B2B message exchange potentially simpler without having to expose on-prem services through a DMZ. EDI message exchange was given as an example, with ready made EDI adapters making EDI processing simple again potentially saving time.

With regard to the roadmap for WABS it will come as no surprise to hear that many of the BizTalk Server features will be finding there way into WABS but rest assured the investment in the on-prem version will continue for some time yet. If you’re an existing Microsoft customer and already bought into their stack, there is undoubted flexibility provided by the combination of on-premises, cloud infrastructure and platform services. As always, understanding how best to utilise what and when will be the challenge.

In my next blog I hope to talk in a bit more detail about some of the new features in SQL2014.

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After the polished video intro (screen shot below and catch the full key note here) Brad Anderson (Corporate VP at Microsoft) kicked off TechEd Europe here in Madrid by highlighting the opportunities that we have available to us as at the moment in IT. He talked about innovation, helping customers differentiate themselves and how Microsoft aim to make others great, so whilst I definitely agree that with him, it was the resonance with so much of what we do at Smart that I really liked.

OpeningSeq

Four areas of innovation were discussed around; People Centric IT, Building better Apps for people, Data, and the Cloud Platform. Aligning to these were new product release announcements including SQL 2014 CTP, VS2013 and TFS2013 CTP, Windows Server 2012 R2 and System Center 2012 R2. Better still, a partnership with Oracle was announced which means Oracle is fully supported on Azure and Hyper-V (and from what I gathered Oracle images ready to spin up in Azure).

One of the best parts (and I tweeted at the time – @wanty1975 btw) was a video of one of our customers (Aviva) referenced as an example of mobile and Azure development combining to provide an innovative solution for their customers. Why was this so good? Well partly because my old boss was in the video…but more so because seeing real world examples, and close to home too help inspire and make me realise the opportunities we have available to us.

TechEd Pres

So a brief list of new features mentioned in the key note that you should be aware of:

  • BYOD – two-factor authentication making it easy to add devices (a MS Surface in the demo) to AD domains using Windows 8.1 (not sure what the experience would be like for other devices though??). The simple process means files are sync’d, permissios granted to corporate data and Line of Business (LoB) applications downloaded onto the device accessible via a company portal-like homepage.
  • VS and TFS 2013 – ALM benefits throughout the develoment lifecycle but I really liked InRelease (following a recent acquisition by Microsoft) which provides workflow and approval mechanisms for moving builds through environments. I could see this really helping to take the pain away from tracking builds through environments and ensuring everyone knows what versions are where. From a dev perspective I also thought the new Code Lens and Code Map features looked really helpful. These come under the banner of Situational Awareness and are designed to reduce the time and effort needed by developers when context switching. Code Lens integrates with TFS 2013 to provide details within the code base, such as tests passing/failed, who it was last checked in by and any recent check-ins. It helps developers understand who has done what, where and why, much more simply than the previous version/compare routine that we’ve all experienced. Code Map provides a diagramatic view of code (similar to architecture modelling tools) but this can be viewed at runtime in debug mode, like a call stack, helping developers familiarise themselves with code much quicker and easier.
  • SQL 2014 – some huge performance gains achieved through in-memory OLTP and row based access rather than page, therefore reducing locking issues and increasing performance. SQL will suggest what tables are ‘hot’ and recommend moving them into memory (I’m assuming they’re persisted to disk to fairly frequently!!). I also picked up on the ability to replicate an existing on-prem DB to Azure, to provide HA and DR via a right-click menu option…didn’t see or hear any more evidence of this but sounds like a great feature. Also HDInsight and Hadoop linkage to Excel to provide visualisations and insight to Big Data.
  • Windows Server and System Center 2012 R2 – providing the tools to make Hybrid cloud simple and easy, with tooling to help sync data, create replicas for DR purposes and significant performance benefits for virtualised machines.

So there are obviously things that I’ve missed and lots more to talk about but hopefully this represents a fair summary. I’ll also be tweeting any further nuggets throughout the week.

signHow long does it take for the disrupters to become the establishment ? An interesting topic raised during a talk at the Gartner AADI event that Smart421 were sponsoring a couple of weeks ago.

I was thinking specifically about Microsoft when I started this train of thought. Once the new kid on the block with DOS, the PC and Windows – they are now the prime target of the new disruptive vendors (Google etc.).  I remember Microsoft holding sway for a generation.

Now Apple is the establishment, I give it five more years. Facebook three – as it’s now being colonised by the 50+ generation – gen X and Y don’t think it is cool any more.

The internet and YouTube allowed everyone to showcase their ‘talent’ to the world. Mobile and ubiquitous connectivity disrupted monopoly distribution channels for film and music – allowing micro-trends to surface.

Amazon Web Services through Cloud, democratised the technology landscape environment where ideas are the currency and access to compute power does not stand in the way of creativity or a business ideas.

What we are seeing now is a multitude of Vendors, Mobile Devices, Platforms and Social Media fads rising and falling in cycles. When these cycles converge it creates a paradigm shift in the system.  We’re seeing it now with the fall of the PC and the rise of Tablets (or portable surfaces) etc.

Any Futurologists out there that want to bet on the next ?

Organised by the UK Windows Azure User Group, this free all day conference provided a great opportunity to catch up on the latest developments, particularly given the Microsoft announcement a couple of weeks back.

Core to this announcement was Microsoft’s move into Infrastructure-As-A-Service (IaaS), and the key note by Scott Guthrie positioned IaaS (described as Virtual Machines) alongside Microsoft’s current Cloud offerings which to date has focused on Platform-As-A-Service (PaaS – now labelled Cloud Services by Microsoft) and Software-As-A-Service (SaaS – Office 365 for example).

MS Cloud Day

Despite the lack of internet connectivity for a large part of the presentation (what is it with Cloud demos and loss of connectivity?!?) Scott did a great job talking through the slides, clearly describing the alignment of each of the deployment options: On-premise vs Virtual Machines vs Cloud Services vs SaaS.

In addition to Virtual Machines, the new Web Sites service was also discussed which gives Azure customers up to 10 web-sites and 1GB of storage for free (whilst in preview period, see here for further details). The demonstration showed how easy it is if you simply want to re-host an existing web-site on Azure whether it be ASP.NET, Node.js, PHP or even classic-ASP. So the new Web Site and Virtual Machine services provide a simple route to hosting applications on the Azure platform, but there is the added benefit of the Azure management aids, real time statistics and in the case of Web Sites incremental deployments and continuous integration (through TFS or GIT) too.

So where does this fit with Paas? Well Steve Plank from Microsoft provided some answers with another demonstration. With Cloud Services you get host of services to call upon including Storage, Database, Identity, Caching and Service Bus and the demo showed that if you design your application from the ground-up utilising these services, you benefit from an end-to-end application architecture that can be deployed and running in minutes at the click of a button. It is this architecture that really gives you the elasticity and flexibility in the places you need it.

A good day and exciting times with the options and landscape constantly changing. Nicely summed up by another Smartie (Andy Carter), ‘I guess there’s a load more stuff I need to learn about’, when a couple of days after passing the Azure certification MS announced the new services…(Well done btw!)

Planky getting an error!On Tuesday night last week I attended my first London Windows Azure user group meeting – it’s the second time this new group have met, but the first one I’m managed to make it to. My colleague Simon Hart blogged about the inaugural event here.

There were about 35 attendees or so and it felt like a good crowd, asking intelligent questions and I had some interesting chats during the breaks with some other user group members and I also caught up with Yossi Dahan (a Microsoft technical architect I’ve met before) – it really feels like this young user group has some momentum – so hats off to the organisers for getting this off the ground! The good pizza, chips, and beer also always helps :) – this must be one of the best catered user group meetings I’ve ever been to – there was even someone opening my beer bottle for me…

Planky (aka Steve Plank from Microsoft) presented on two topics relating to different strategies for identity federation and application access control – Azure’s Access Control Service (ACS) and Azure Connect.

Most of the the presentation time was allocated to ACS – which is pretty intricate to use. Well – it’s probably fairer to say that there are plenty of moving parts and technologies to get to grips with if you want to federate identities from Active Directory on-premise using ADFS2, via ACS in Azure to a set of applications hosted in Azure (which will typically using Windows Identity Foundation – WIF – to process the security token issued by ACS). None of it is particularly tricky in itself, but the great man himself hit some issues along the way (which always makes for a better presentation anyway :)) and I was left thinking that it was a bit of nightmare to troubleshoot exactly why user access to the end application (the “relying party”) was being denied (see the image above) – it’s just the joys of debugging a distributed architecture I guess.

Azure Connect is essentially a VPN and IPSEC tunnel offering that I guess is very roughly equivalent to the Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) offering from AWS, but with some significant differences – but it’s trying to address the same key requirement – seamless but secure network connectivity between on-premise and cloud-based networks. It’s still in beta (at least until Summer 2012) and has some inherent limitations such as the fact that it requires a separate installation of agent software on every on-premise server that will talk to/from Azure, but it looks like an interesting technology. My main concern was just whether our customer’s security team’s could live with this model though – as in addition to the installation requirement, it essentially avoids any corporate firewall by creating an out bound SSL (port 443) connection to the Relay Service on Azure, effectively creating a client-to-site VPN from each individual on-premise server to the Relay Service.

So overall – a very useful and interesting evening, I’m glad I attended and I recommend my Smart421 colleagues to make the effort to attend future events (which are planned to be monthly) – the next event (register here) is on the 7th Feb and relates to “Parallel Processing with Azure and HPC Server“, so I’m personally very interested to hear how this compares to AWS’s offerings in this area.

DavidTuppenSQLServerArticleOne of the Smarties in the our Microsoft practice, David Tuppen, has published an article on the SQLServerPro web site (what was called SQL Mag) about how to work around the limitations of the Business Intelligence Wizard in SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS).

It’s very clear and detailed. Have a read!

Last week 4 Smarties including myself were lucky enough to attend Microsoft Tech.Days Windows Azure Bootcamp in London. Usually for days like this Microsoft estimate (and allow for) around a 50% attendance rate, however 90% of the registered attendees for this event showed up which showed how much interest in cloud computing is taking off and required some quick provisioning of additional space from the organisers (akin to provisioning additional storage space in the cloud).

The camp was presented by Steve Plank (http://plankytronixx.com/default.aspx), with the content being a mixture of lecture / demo and try for yourself. This provided the audience with an overview of the current Azure platform and enough knowledge to walk away and start creating cloud based apps capable of exercising a number of basic Azure features.

There was also a quick 10 minute presentation during break time from the recently formed London Windows Azure User Group (http://www.lwaug.net) who’s first meeting is on the 6th December and sounds like it will be well worth regularly attending to both hear from their guest speakers and touch base with a number of other Azure developers to talk through experiences using the platform. Plus mention was given to the upcoming ‘6 Weeks of Azure’ programme (http://www.sixweeksofazure.co.uk/) beginning at the end of Jan 2012 where 6 weeks of free help will be given to UK companies wanting to have a look at the platform.

Based on the content presented on the day it is clear that a lot of thought has been put into the features within Azure and making sure that these will be easy to integrate into both existing and new developments where appropriate (and not just using Microsoft development tools or languages).

The main area that I am looking forward to diving deeper into is the Azure App Fabric, particularly the Azure Service Bus (http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windowsazure/ee732537.aspx) as this looks like it will be incredibly useful in stitching together dispersed applications and also hooking existing on-premise solutions into new cloud based offerings and also the Caching Service (http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windowsazure/gg278356.aspx) which will be really great  for both distributed and high bandwidth apps.

On the day the only part of the App Fabric that was demoed was the Access Control Service which under the covers used SAML.  Before the event I had dismissed as being just another way to validate users. However after seeing how easy this is to implement and use plus the ability to integrate with Active Directory via the use of ADFS2 (http://www.microsoft.com/download/en/details.aspx?displaylang=en&id=10909)  and a number of other authentication providers such as Google, Yahoo or LiveID I can see it becoming part of most Azure developments.

One question we had been kicking around prior to the event was ‘how production ready is Azure?’ as with other cloud service providers (such as AWS) we have tended to see our customers start by using these services for test / development or disaster recovery environments rather than production.

Although not fully answered it was clear that Microsoft are looking for customers to place production as well as development systems in Azure and have also been doing their homework on the problems previously experienced by other providers architecting the underlying infrastructure accordingly to cope with this.

Microsoft are offering a 99.95% SLA for external connectivity for compute hosted services that meet their criteria (at least 2 host instances configured for a service) which is the same as AWS for EC2 instances however the  Azure terms are measured monthly rather than yearly for AWS.

Azure also contains additional features such as the recently released SQL Azure Data Sync which allows data to be synchronised between SQL Azure instances in different locations and it was hinted that resilience features like this along with a huge number of other enhancements are currently under development across the platform.

Based on what was shown and discussed during the event it looks like there are exciting times ahead in the Windows Azure space and I am looking forward to architecting, developing and supporting applications that make use of its features.

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