The big news in the computer world last week was the announcement by Microsoft that there will be a version of Windows which will run over the Internet. [Added 2/11/08: There will still be desktop versions of Windows such as Windows 7, which is slated to replace Vista.]
The product is to be called Windows Azure and the announcement was made at the company’s Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles by the company’s chief software architect, Ray Ozzie.
I had a look at the Windows Azure website at microsoft.com/azure and found that it was described as “.. a cloud services operating system that serves as the development, run-time, and control environment for the Azure Services Platform”.
Being none the wiser after reading the definition, I found a list of frequently-asked questions but, while I understood most of those perfectly, the answers were couched in more impenetrable gobbledygook.
I then went out onto the web to see if I could get a better explanation of what Azure is, and it turns out to be mechanism by which your computer operating system, programmes and data will no longer be located in the computer on your desk.
Instead, all these items will reside on large computers housed in data centres owned by Microsoft, and you will access them through any computer with an Internet connection.
There is nothing new in this idea, which really dates back to the earliest days of computing, when processing power and storage were centralised in the mainframe computer, and users accessed it through terminals.
Here at Independent Newspapers, for example, we had such mainframe systems in the form of Atex and CSI, which we used for entering and storing stories and printing them out, so that they could be used to make up the pages of our papers. The terminals we used were just smart enough to be able to find and connect to the mainframe.
Gradually, however, the world moved away from this way of doing things and started to put a lot of the computing power and storage onto the desktop. Companies like Microsoft and Intel grew fat off selling ever more powerful desktop computers and programs, even though some data files were still stored centrally on servers, and there were still some mainframes around.
Having the computing power on the desktop was great because it meant that you could keep on working when the link to the mainframe failed. The downside was that it became very complex and time-consuming when, for example, you needed to keep hundreds of computers updated with the latest software versions.
Some organisations, like Independent Newspapers, began to move back to a server-based system and the tendency moved into high gear with the rise of the Internet. Various organisations began to offer web-based programs, like word processors, and storage space for files. Many users discovered the joys of using these services, which are mostly free, and don’t require a brute of a computer to run, or high-priced software packages.
Windows Azure is Microsoft’s reaction to this trend of putting the computing power back on the server, and it’ll be interesting to see how it pans out. They stand to lose big-time on desktop operating system and software sales, in the face of online offerings from the likes of Google, for example.
They had little choice but to move in this sort of direction and hope that they’d be able to maintain their income through renting out online access to their software, charging other software developers to host their programs on the Azure platform, and for storage space for data files.
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