Microsoft hinted at a cloud platform a few weeks ago -- now they have revealed all of the details. Strangely, while the new Website provides plenty of details about Azure, the downloadable tech preview sign-up just says "coming soon" for now. I suppose they figure all the elite developers are at PDC watching the first demo of Azure.
Update: The Azure trial sign-in is now available.
So it's a cloud OS, but what does that mean? Essentially, Microsoft is taking on Amazon and Google with a developer environment that runs on the Web. It means apps scale according to your customer needs, and you can tap into Microsoft data centers instead of expanding your own.
There are five main components: Live Services (data and user resources), SQL Services (for a distributed and relational Web database), .NET for security and communication between apps, plus SharePoint and CRM services (for tracking customers -- a module that will not be available right away with the tech preview download).
The key advantage to Azure, is, of course, that it integrates with current developer workflows. You can use Visual Studio 2008 to write apps, deploy them, test them, and maintain them. Azure is also a good platform for experimentation because it means companies can create test apps and see how they perform in the real-world without having to build the infrastructure to actually support them.
The one missing ingredient to all of this is the pricing. There are scant details about how much it will cost to scale apps. Without that info, it's impossible to know how Microsoft has positioned Azure -- is it primarily an enterprise product, for Web 2.0 start-ups, or for two guys in a garage? At least with Google Apps, it's pretty clear Google has the SMB market in mind, say a small insurance company that is growing quickly and needs to constantly add corporate services to remote offices.
Another unknown: while Google Apps supported Python out of the box (so to speak -- can we even talk about "boxes" anymore?), Azure will only support Visual Studio. They are promising Python support, along with PHP and Eclipse support, down the road.
If I worked at a medium-sized company or a Web 2.0 start-up with a brilliant idea, I'd be leery of using a tech preview to do anything even remotely like running your mission critical Web apps. It's a good way to test the cloud, to experiment, and to find out if Azure is a good long-term strategy. Amazon has a big lead, but the first rule of tech is" never overlook Microsoft.
John Brandon is a regular contributor at Computerworld, a print journalist, music reviewer, and book author.