Thanks Microsoft!

Hey guys. Wow, one month has elapsed without any blog post here. Sorry for that… At the moment I’m really busy with some private, but also technical/conceptual topics. So here comes just a short sign of life :-) But stay tuned for more blog posts in some weeks…

Today I was really surprised when FedEx delivered a package from Microsoft (by air freight) to me. Inside was a Visual Studio 2010 surprise gift: A laser-engraved cube from the VS2010/.NET4-team with a nice statement from Soma. He and Microsoft say „Thank you“ (me), so it’s time for me to say: Thank you for that surprise as well!

Microsoft Thank You gift box Microsoft Thank You gift Somasegar's Thank You text

I don’t exactly know why I got this present but I think it’s because of my engagement and direct contact to the Code Contracts team in 2009. Thanks guys! I hope to see this technology improving further and becoming a first-level feature of Visual Studio (the tools!), .NET and perhaps C# as well. And I hope to give more support to evolving Microsoft technologies. There are some inspiring movements and a lot of innovation at the moment, which are really encouraging me.

MIX10: And where was Live Mesh?

Some weeks ago there was MIX10 in Vegas with several interesting topics. I was inspired by the Windows Phone 7 developer experience with Silverlight and OData as open protocol for delivering collections of data as feed in the browser. There were other great sessions as well, but I missed one big thing: Live Mesh and the former Live Framework (R.I.P.) as developer portion of it.

It has been very quiet around Live Mesh (a.k.a. Windows Live Devices) in the last months. Celebrated as rock star on PDC08 and honored with several awards Live Mesh is one beautiful example of how Microsoft is unable to place great products with huge potential on the market. News on it are missing for quite a while now and developers are confused by the sudden death of the Live Framework. At this time one fact remains: Live Mesh will be part of the Windows Live Wave 4 as Windows Live Devices, but that’s it. After getting no real news on the PDC09 regarding Live Mesh and the Live Framework many people thought the MIX10 would set the stage for the new Windows Live Wave 4. I know 3 sources of people at Microsoft who were pointing to MIX10 as well when speaking about Live Mesh and the Live Framework. But their signs were wrong and again developers get disappointed. MIX10 brought not one session or info about Live Wave 4 / Live Mesh / Live Framework and that’s a shame.

I don’t know what Microsoft is planning. I don’t know when news on the Live stuff will be published. I don’t know why there are no updates on this hot topic. I don’t know where this will end. But I know and believe that Microsoft wastes the huge potential of a great developer and end user platform which could have been used as central environment of data, apps and people surrounding all devices. The bits that have been published with the Live Framework CTP on PDC08 were great and fun to use, but they have been cut off. I just can repeat it: Microsoft is really good in wasting potential…

Will Windows Azure succeed?

On PDC 2008 Ray Ozzie went out on a limb by saying that Windows Azure will be „setting the stage for the next 50 years of systems“. Everyone (me too) was excited about this new technology and people got inspired by Microsoft’s vision and its new cloud computing platform.

16 months later, here we are: Windows Azure is live, the platform has been consolidated (R.I.P., Live Framework…) and data centers have been built up around the world.

But is Windows Azure this game changer that Microsoft promised and which they bet on? Will Windows Azure (as product) succeed? I’m not sure, but let’s see…

First things first

My thoughts on this topic have a certain background. In 2009 my company SDX invested significant research time into the innovative areas of cloud computing in general and Windows Azure in particular. And we’re still moving forward in this area. In scope of the NewCloudApp() contest we made up a little showcase named Rating Stress Simulator which you can see on the right and which you can try out now on Windows Azure.

On the architectural side we tried to use many of the possibilities offered by Windows Azure: WebRole, WorkerRole, message queue, table storage, WCF service hosted in the WebRole, …

We gathered some experiences with Windows Azure, both on the technical and on the business side. We find the platform very promising and we believe that it’s the best cloud platform on the market from a technical point of view. It gives great flexibility for developers while still utilizing their existing technical skills with .NET, Visual Studio, SQL Server and others.

Costs always matter!

While we see a great platform we’re also unsure if we should bet on Windows Azure. The main reason for this are the fixed costs for idle hosting. This means the costs for just holding our application online and running without any user on it. For this task our simple application with two roles, a message queue and table storage (no SQL DB included!) has monthly costs of about 130€ (~177$)! The main costs come from the two running roles and I’m gonna tell you: we aren’t happy with the current situation.

And we’re not alone with our criticism. Windows Azure costs are highly debated these days and to make hosting small applications on Azure less expensive is the no. 1 request of developers who voted on the My Great Windows Azure Idea website. Several blog posts and discussions run into the same direction. When people realized that Azure computation costs are based on wall clock time and not on real CPU time they equally realized that hosting on Windows Azure is ridiculously expensive compared to other options on the market.

Let’s do another calculation example for idle costs. Let’s imagine a little start-up application with 2 roles (small instance), 1 Web DB and 1 AppFabric Service Bus connection, up and running all the time and waiting there to be used. This scenario leads to monthly costs of about 137€ (~193$), which results in costs for 1 year of 1610€ (~2270$)! Those idle costs are fixed costs for this scenario which outline the entrance barrier for just holding the application online without any traffic. Isn’t one of the basic ideas of cloud computing to keep the fixed costs low and transform them into variable costs? At least Windows Azure doesn’t follow this idea or not on a reasonable scale… Hence it isn’t attractive for start-ups and little companies which could buy and run a server on their own for these costs and get full flexibility.

Competitors

But what about the offers of other companies and their attractivity? I’ll start with shared hosting as possibility to outsource infrastructure and application hosting. Shared hosting is many times cheaper in comparison to Windows Azure. For sure Windows Azure offers additional values: deployment, management, scalability. But the point is that for most people who are interested in Azure those values don’t matter much. For most people, companies and their applications those qualities are not nearly justifying the higher costs of Azure hosting  compared to shared hosting.

But let’s come to two ‚real‘ cloud providers: Google with its AppEngine offers a certain amount of free quotas and in measuring computation costs they got the right idea. Google charges only for the actual consumption of CPU time (in comparison to the wall-clock-time-based model of Windows Azure), thus you are not charged for idle time of your processes.

Amazon with its EC2 calculates on a wall clock time basis, but here you have the full flexibility of arming your VMs with everything you want.

And then there’s Microsoft with Windows Azure which doesn’t include the benefits of both models. On the one side Windows Azure charges you on a wall clock time basis and thus you’re paid for idle time of your applications as well. On the other side Windows Azure is VM-based where every „role“ depicts an application fragment that maps 1:1 to a VM. The serious drawback here is that you are not able to host more than 1 role in a single VM instance. Thus you don’t get any of the flexibility of Amazon’s EC2 VMs.

Microsoft should revise this role/VM-based scaling model and/or the wall clock time basis. With the current model it’s not attractive for hobby developers, start-ups and smaller companies. The entrance barrier is ways too high and the scalability is too limited. Why should any small company use Windows Azure over AppEngine or Ec2? I don’t know…

But what are the implications of not attracting hobby developers, start-ups and little companies? Perhaps we could learn from the past, so let’s take a look in history…

A brief look in history

Some days ago an older colleague of mine told me from the rise of Windows and the fail of OS/2 Warp (this was before my active computer time, so it was interesting to hear this story from ancient ages…). He told me that OS/2 had striking features on the technical side in comparison with Windows, but it couldn’t win the OS war. It was beaten by Windows and died a slow and painful death…

One reason he sees for this is the poor attraction of hobby developers and the inability to build up a big developer community around OS/2. Windows came with a cheap compiler which enabled everyone to write his own Windows software. Microsoft was able to attract hobbyists which resulted in a huge software pool of shareware, freeware etc. and yielded a large developer community and knowledge base to develop applications for Windows. OS/2 Warp failed in this case: the IBM compiler was expensive (> 1000 Deutschmark, that’s about 650$ in the year 1990) and even while the platform and technical features were great, nobody was attracted to develop against it due to the high entrance barrier of development costs. OS/2 couldn’t generate a critical mass of developers, development knowledge and subsequently software as output for the users.

Hobby developers matter!

I don’t get around to see parallels between OS/2 and Windows Azure on the costs side. Microsoft should learn from history and should prevent mistakes that have been done by others before. It’s crucial to attract a broad range of developers to use Windows Azure for expressing their ideas and building the next wave of killer applications. With the current costs just very few developers will be attracted to make experiences with the platform. But that’s a big mistake!

By bringing Windows Azure to hobby developers and smaller companies, Microsoft would open heavy doors to the real business. Developers and architects would take their experiences with the platform from their personal lifes to the business and would promote Windows Azure when asked for it or when to decide for the platform of a new application. Accordingly the entrance barrier even for bigger companies would be ways lower: developers who have gained experience with the platform would be able to spread their knowledge to colleagues. This builds up a chain reaction and an exponential growing amount of developers would use the platform. It would be the best promotion for Windows Azure that Microsoft could get.

For today because of the costs not many developers will suggest Windows Azure with good conscience and that’s a pitty. Please, Microsoft: Community matters! Realize the potential of your platform and the implications that come with the amount of hobby developers who are using Windows Azure.

The need for a „Mini Azure“ offer

One suggestion follows: realize a „Mini Azure“ package as new offer on your Azure platform. Low costs (<10$ per month), few resources, no dedicated machines, weak SLAs, but online 24×7 – just being there to get people started. Remove this high entrance barrier or you will go the OS/2 way down the road. Your great platform leads you nowhere and will not succeed, if you don’t have people who use it…

Mini Azure has been suggested by Jouni Heikniemi before, so take a look at what he and others say.

Conclusion

To summarize things: if nothing changes I’m currently afraid that Microsoft fails with Windows Azure, at least I fear it will be a non-starter. And that’s a bad basis for future development. At the moment Microsoft scares people away and they will meet problems to get them back. I say it again: I think they have a very good development platform. But the best platform doesn’t lead them anywhere if it’s too expensive for people to use this platform.

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PDC09: Live Framework… news?

Live Mesh LogoAt the end of 2008 and at the beginning of 2009 I was really fascinated about the Live Services, Live Framework and Live Mesh. And I was so enthusiastic that I spread it around in some blog posts and one magazine article. I really liked the basic idea, the platform and (already in CTP state) the development tools. And I saw a huge potential in building social applications that can be synchronized, shared, run online or offline on many devices and last but not least are easily developed, by giving us as developers a platform that we can easily leverage and where we can concentrate on our business/application logic.

Then things became quiet at Microsoft and everybody was wondering about the future directions of the Live Framework…

On September 8th the Live Framework CTP was shutdown by Microsoft… rest in peace! This made me really angry. The developer pieces were great and fun to use. And now everything was over, nobody could write applications for the Live Framework any longer or even use their already existing code bases… I just thought: what happened to Microsoft to take this great platform offline and to carry this huge potential to grave?

When announcing the shutdown of the Live Framework CTP the guys at Microsoft said as well that they will make the Live Framework/Services part of Windows Live and that news on it will come on PDC09.

Now there was the PDC last week. But where was Live Mesh or the Live Framework? It was something so huge on the last PDC and there have been really impressive showcases, but this year’s PDC lacked information about it nearly completely. There was just one session (CL26) on the whole topic: Live Framework – Present and Future. But this session was disappointing as well. It seems that the Microsofties themselves don’t know what future direction the Live Framework will take. Two announcements were made, but only in a more-or-less inofficial fashion:

  1. Mesh technologies will be part of the next release of Windows Live.
  2. Mesh technologies will be fundamental for some Windows Live applications.

That’s it. The spirit to build a great platform has gone, at least I don’t feel anything left of it…
Just one demo has been shown, but this was disappointing as well: something like a Live Framework with synchronization capabilities, but everything is stored in folders and files on the filesystem and there seems to be no logical unit of data any more (besides those physical files/folders). What are you making there guys?

Mary-Jo Foley asked Ray Ozzie for Live Mesh at the PDC09. He said news on Live Mesh will be published at MIX 2010 respectively in spring 2010. Until then: I’m still very confused and sad about the current situation and developments on this topic at Microsoft. It seems that those guys haven’t understood the potential and once again they haven’t understood the community and the customer’s needs!

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new CloudApp(): Rating Stress Simulator

Recently, Microsoft came up with the new CloudApp() Contest. This competition encourages developers all over the world to create some applications on Microsoft’s Azure platform that make use of the cloud and emphasize the cloud computing benefits. While the U.S. winners are already chosen, the international contest will be open for community vote during 10th July and 20th July.

For this competition and as part of our overall technology partner strategy, my company SDX AG has built up a team to develop an Azure-based business application showcase. Our team developed a business scenario and has taken advantage of Windows Azure and Silverlight to realize this scenario in the cloud. I’ve had the chance to take part in the brainstorming process and joined the team for some development tasks during the last days…

The business story

Since my company has core competences in the financial sector, the business scenario targets this area as well. The application realizes a rating stress simulator for banks. What is this about? That’s the story: Financial institutes cannot provide credits freely. Each credit must be backed with a certain amount of money, depending on a calculated risk (rating for a credit user).

Functionality

Our Azure application is a simple showcase on base of this business scenario. It allows users to run a financial stress test which calculates capital buffers, that are needed to withstand selected situations (such as a recession) over some period of time. After the stress test is run, the user can view the results of the calculation visually. The included algorithms are very simple, but they verify the architectural model of our cloud application and bring it to reality.

Benefits

A bank in need for this functionality has real benefits of letting the application run in the cloud. Such a stress test is not computed continuously, but runs on a periodical cycle, e.g. weekly or monthly. Thus the processing power and storage capacity has a short peak where the server CPUs get busy, but the rest of the time they remain idle. By running the application in the cloud, a bank has no need for additional servers in its datacenter to buffer the computational peaks of the stress test. Thereby, the infrastructure and administrative costs can be clearly reduced.

Try out and vote!

Of course, you are able to run the application for yourself and try out its functionality. By this URL, you can start the Silverlight application: http://ratingsimulator.cloudapp.net.  I encourage you to read the introductory information on the first page to prepare yourself for the application and to get more background information. Then play around, create some scenarios with a certain number of credits and let the calculation run in the cloud. Afterwards you can view the stress test results in a summarizing diagram.

If you like our little application, we would be very glad if you vote for us. You can do that with the following link: [voting closed]. Thanks a lot for your support!

new Cloudapp() - Rating Stress Simulator

My colleague AJ has published a blog post about this as well: new CloudApp()

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Live Framework updated

The Live Framework got an update to April 2009 CTP. Within this release are new versions of the tools and SDK and the Live Framework Client software.

That’s new (quote):

  • Support for side-by-side installation of the www.mesh.com local client and the developer.mesh-ctp.com local client. This means that you can use the production Mesh.com to sync data across all your devices, and develop applications for the Mesh Developer Sandbox that uses the local client—all on the same machine. For instructions on setting up side-by-side, please see this forum post.
  • Support for Windows 7 and Internet Explorer 8
  • Single installer for the Live Framework SDK and the Live Framework Tools for Microsoft Visual Studio.
  • Resource Scripts are now supported in Silverlight applications and with the local Live Operating Environment
  • Public availability of the SDK and Tools on the Microsoft.com Download Center.
  • Improved stability in the client and the cloud Live Operating Environment.
  • Design and performance improvements to the API toolkits
  • Simplified workflow for setting up an account and a Live Framework project on the Azure Developer Portal.

More information on: http://blogs.msdn.com/liveframework/archive/2009/03/11/live-framework-updated.aspx

Live Framework CTP #8: MeshPhotoShare demo app

During the last few weeks I wrote a little meshified photo sharing application, which I want to share with you now.

It’s named MeshPhotoShare (download Version 0.1 beta 1 from here), it’s written under the use of C# 3.0, .NET 3.5 SP1, Silverlight 2 and the Live Framework CTP January SDK.

MeshPhotoShare allows you to:

  • administrate simple unsorted lists of photos: add new photos, delete old ones and modify title and description of a photo as metadata,
  • run the application from the Live Desktop or locally and offline (if you have the Live Framework Client installed),
  • share the application instance with other users over the app sidebar: those users can see and manipulate the same data as you can,
  • edit your photo collection simultaneously with other users: open the application with them in parallel and see changes that they make immediately on your application instance of MeshPhotoShare.

MeshPhotoSahre makes use of the following Mesh features: a) Media Resource for storing photo files, b) UserData for saving the photo’s metadata, c) hooks ChangeNotificationReceived on the DataEntries collection for simultaneous editing experience.

And that’s what MeshPhotoShare currently looks like:

MeshPhotoShare application

There are some issues in the current version, that mainly come from the current Live Framework release. Thus, the application freezes in Internet Explorer, because of the use of ChangeNotificationReceived. Furthermore when run locally, there may be some strange behavior and sometimes you’ll get some exception messages coming from the Live Framework. I hope that this will be fixed in the future, I will do my best to improve the app as well.

I’m happy about your comments and further discussion, thanks!

Download MeshPhotoShare v0.1 beta 1: http://www.leading-edge-dev.de/stuff/Mesh/MeshPhotoShare_v0.1b1.zip

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Live Framework CTP #7: data handling possibilities

Just a link to a great forum’s post for today. Rajan Dwivedi answered in very detail on my question about data handling possibilities in the Live Framework. Here’s the link.

In short, you can (mainly) handle your data by using:

  • UserData
  • Attribute Extensions
  • Element Extensions
  • MediaResource
  • SyndicationLink

Read Rajan’s great answer and you will learn more about that. I hope that I’ll find some time to blog about this in the near future, but I can’t promise.

Update of the Live Framework Tools: January CTP

Already on the last Friday (January 31th), the January CTP of the Live Framework Tools for Visual Studio have been released and can be downloaded from here. There are a number of major bug fixes and improvements in this release, including (taken from here):

  • Debugging or running a Mesh-enabled Web Application which contains no changes from previous versions immediately launches the application instead of re-uploading the files.
  • Mesh-enabled Web Applications created by the Live Framework Tools now have identical offers to those created through the Azure Services Developer Portal, which are generally less restrictive.  This change removes the need for the workaround mentioned in this thread.
  • Projects created by the Live Framework Tools may now contain periods fixing the issue reported in this bug.
  • Changes to the application’s logo.png file will now be reflected in the icon that appears on the Live Desktop fixing the issue reported in this thread.
  • Error messages and diagnostics have been improved.  In certain error situations additional information can now be located in the application event log.