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Microsoft dives into cloud computing with Windows Azure

Microsoft will launch an operating system that will run on its new global network of data centres, it announced at a conference in Los Angeles.

The OS, known as Windows Azure, will give service providers and companies on-demand access to this infrastructure, where they can rent only the processing power they use. Importantly, to create these cloud applications, companies will use exactly the same tools that are available today. No re-skilling is needed.

The infrastructure itself is massive – Microsoft has $1bn worth of servers at the its disposal and is planning to purchase 10,000 new servers every month. The platform should go to market in 6-12 months' time.

In the current economic climate, on-demand, computing could become hugely popular as it avoids companies having to invest in their own servers, which sit idle for much of the time. This could save companies hundreds of thousands of pounds a year as it reduces capital expenditure and support costs.

There are two key markets for this operating system. It is particularly attractive for businesses that are looking to launch new products and services quickly and cheaply without having to invest in their own infrastructure or worry about scaling it up as demand for their service grows. It is also larger companies who have peak data processing requirements for short periods of time. They no longer need to buy enough servers to deal with this peak usage, which sits idle the rest of the time.

Dot Net Solutions, a UK-based software development company, has been working closely with Microsoft in Redmond to showcase some of the power of this new cloud. Together they have been writing an application to analyse Wikipedia. It is so enormous that any attempt to load up its entirety would immediately overload normal servers. However, with $1bn of servers at the company's disposal through Windows Azure, this doesn't even cause a blip.

Security is always the first question when anyone talks about the cloud, as Dan Scarfe, CEO of Dot Net Solutions explains: 'It's of course natural for companies to fear for the security of their data. However, when you compare the security of a server sitting in your office behind a couple of locks to the security of a data centre, the arguments become less compelling. Data centres truly are the modern-day castles and I for one would rather have my data there. By managing data on the cloud, companies can be rest assured that it is in the hands of the most skilled security consultants in the world. This simplicity and cost effectiveness means that we will probably see more and more data being managed by the cloud over the next five years.’

This new release could also benefit the scientific community, as Scarfe tells ' Azure absolutely has relevance to the scientific community. The beauty of the OS is you only pay for the processing power you use. That means if you have complex simulations you need to run which require 100,000 servers, you don't need to buy them (and spend your IT budget overnight!), you can just rent them for a few hours to run your model.'

Scarfe adds: 'Microsoft Research is currently working on software which is being used to detect mutations in the HIV virus and this would be the perfect example of scientific software which could run in the cloud.'

Unlike many cloud-based platforms and applications, Azure will also come with a software level agreement without perpetual betas.

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