Welcome to the 42nd interview in my series of talks with thought leaders in the “connected systems” space. This month, we have Shan McArthur who is the Vice President of Technology for software company Adxstudio, a Microsoft MVP for Dynamics CRM, blogger and Windows Azure enthusiast. You can find him on Twitter as @Shan_McArthur.
Q: Microsoft recently injected themselves into the Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) market with the new Windows Azure Virtual Machines. Do you think that this is Microsoft’s way of admitting that a PaaS-only approach is difficult at this time or was there another major incentive to offer this service?
A: The Azure PaaS offering was only suitable for a small subset of workloads. It really delivered on the ability to dynamically scale web and worker roles in your solution, but it did this at the cost of requiring developers to rewrite their applications or design them specifically for the Azure PaaS model. The PaaS-only model did nothing for infrastructure migration, nor did it help the non-web/worker role workloads. Most business systems today are made from a number of different application tiers and not all of those tiers are suited to a PaaS model. I have been advocating for many years that Microsoft must also give us a strong virtual machine environment. I just wish they gave it to us three years ago.
As for incentives, I believe it is simple economics – there are significantly more people interested in moving many different workloads to Windows Azure Virtual Machines than developers that are building the next Facebook/twitter/yammer/foursquare website. Enterprises want more agility in their infrastructure. Medium sized businesses want to have a disaster recovery (DR) environment hosted in the cloud. Developers want to innovate in the cloud (and outside of IT interference) before deploying apps to on-prem or making capital commitments. There are many other workloads like SharePoint, CRM, build environments, and more that demand a strong virtual machine environment in Azure. In the process of delivering a great virtual machine environment, Microsoft will have increased their overall Azure revenue as well as gaining relevant mindshare with customers. If they had not given us virtual machines, they would not survive in the long run in the cloud market as all of their primary competitors have had virtual machines for quite some time and have been eating into Microsoft’s revenue opportunities.
Q: Do you think that customers will take application originally targeted at the Windows Azure Cloud Services (PaaS) environment and deploy them to the Windows Azure Virtual Machines instead? What do you think are the core scenarios for customers who are evaluating this IaaS offering?
A: I have done some of that myself, but only for some workloads that make sense. An Azure virtual machine will give you higher density for websites and a mix of workloads. For things like web roles that are already working fine on Azure and have a 2-plus instance requirement, I think those roles will stay right where they are – in PaaS. For roles like back-end processes, databases, CRM, document management, email/SMS, and other workloads, these will be easier to add in a virtual machine than in the PaaS model and will naturally gravitate to that. Most on-premise software today has a heavy dependency on Active Directory, and again, an Azure Virtual Machine is the easiest way to achieve that. I think that in the long run, most ‘applications’ that are running in Windows Azure will have a mix of PaaS and virtual machines. As the market matures and ISV software starts supporting claims with less dependency on Active Directory, and builds their applications for direct deployment into Windows Azure, then this may change a bit, but for the foreseeable future, infrastructure as a service is here to stay.
That said, I see a lot of the traditional PaaS websites migrating to Windows Azure Web Sites. Web sites have the higher density (and a better pricing model) that will enable customers to use Azure more efficiently (from a cost standpoint). It will also increase the number of sites that are hosted in Azure as most small websites were financially infeasible to move to Windows Azure previously to the WaWs feature. For me, I compare the 30-45 minutes it takes me to deploy an update to an existing Azure PaaS site to the 1-2 minutes it takes to deploy to WaWs. When you are building a lot of sites, this time really makes a significant impact on developer productivity! I can even now deploy to Windows Azure without even having the Azure SDK installed on my developer machine.
As for myself, this spring wave of Azure features has really changed how I engage customers in pre-sales. I now have a number of virtual disk images of my standard demo/engagement environments, and I can now stand up a complete presales demo environment in less than 10 minutes. This compares to the day of effort I used to stand up similar environments using CRM Online and Azure cloud services. And now I can turn them off after a meeting, dispose of them at will, or resurrect them as I need them again. I never had this agility before and have become completely addicted to it.
Q: Your company has significant expertise in the CRM space and specifically, the on-premises and cloud versions of Dynamics CRM. How do you help customers decided where to put their line-of-business applications, and what are your most effective ways for integrating applications that may be hosted by different providers?
A: Microsoft did a great job of ensuring that CRM Online and on-premise had the same application functionality. This allows me to advise my customers that they can choose the hosting environment that best meets their requirements or their values. Some things that are considered are the effort of maintenance, bandwidth and performance, control of service maintenance windows, SLAs, data residency, and licensing models. It basically boils down to CRM Online being a shared service – this is great for customers that would prefer low cost to guaranteed performance levels, that prefer someone else maintain and operate the service versus them picking their own maintenance windows and doing it themselves, ones that don’t have concerns about their data being outside of their network versus ones that need to audit their systems from top to bottom, and ones that would prefer to rent their software versus purchasing it. The new Windows Azure Virtual Machines features now gives us the ability to install CRM in Windows Azure – running it in the cloud but on dedicated hardware. This introduces some new options for customers to consider as this is a hybrid cloud/on-premise solution.
As for integration, all integration with CRM is done through the web services and those services are consistent in all environments (online and on-premise). This really has enabled us to integrate with any CRM environment, regardless of where it is hosted. Integrating applications that are hosted between different application providers is still fairly difficult. The most difficult part is to get those independent providers to agree on a single authentication model. Claims and federation are making great strides, and REST and oAuth are growing quickly. That said, it is still rather rare to see two ISVs building to the same model. Where it is more prevalent is in the larger vendors like Facebook that publish an SDK that everyone builds towards. This is going to be a temporary problem, as more vendors start to embrace REST and oAuth. Once two applications have a common security model (at least an identity model), it is easy for them to build deep integrations between the two systems. Take a good long hard look at where Office 2013 is going with their integration story…
Q [stupid question]: I used to work with a fellow who hated peanut butter. I had trouble understanding this. I figured that everyone loved peanut butter. What foods do you think have the most even, and uneven, splits of people who love and hate it? I’d suspect that the most even love/hate splits are specific vegetables (sweet potatoes, yuck) and the most uneven splits are universally loved foods like strawberries. Thoughts?
A: Chunky or smooth? I have always wondered if our personal tastes are influenced by the unique varieties of how each of our brains and sensors (eyes, hearing, smell, taste) are wired up. Although I could never prove it, I would bet that I would sense the taste of peanut butter differently than someone else, and perhaps those differences in how they are perceived by the brain has a very significant impact on whether or not we like something. But that said, I would assume that the people that have a deadly allergy to peanut butter would prefer to stay away from it no matter how they perceived the taste! That said, for myself I have found that the way food is prepared has a significant impact on whether or not I like it. I grew up eating a lot of tough meat that I really did not enjoy eating, but now I smoke my meat and prefer it more than my traditional favorites.
Good stuff, Shan, thanks for the insight!