Azure Container Service Could Alter Your Business

6 minute read
Scott M. Fulton III avatar

Does your business’ day-to-day success depend upon the functionality of any single core component of software, especially one produced by any name-brand manufacturer? Remember when such a dependence was touted as a good thing?

Today, Microsoft took a major strategic step forward in building out its Azure platform — one which, given Microsoft’s history, is unusual. It unveiled its Azure Container Deployment service, in partnership with Mesosphere, an open source firm born in the Linux space that has quickly become an industry leader in container orchestration.

You may be wondering, what exactly does the second paragraph have to do with the first one?

The End of Monoliths

If the monolithic application industry has a metaphorical “coffin,” then just like a real one, it should have a finite number of nails. Mesosphere and Microsoft just drove the next one into it with a sledgehammer.

“We’ve been trying to educate the customers who aren’t aware or familiar with containers,” said Mark Russinovich, Microsoft’s Azure CTO, speaking with CMSWire.

“The fact is, in the last couple of years, our customers have become aware of containers. With Docker getting so much headlines, so much visibility, and the examples of major Web-scale companies using Docker,” he continued.

Mesosphere has recently been attracting headlines of its own, most notably for the customer most prominently running on its DCOS platform: Twitter.

If you’ve ever caught yourself trying to imagine what kind of content management system Twitter runs on... it doesn’t.

Twitter uses a microservices platform, meaning that it’s comprised of tens of thousands of concurrently running programs. Each one has a very small job to do in the facilitation of a tweet, or perhaps the account of a user wishing to make a tweet.

Once each job is done, its program ceases to exist. For the short durations of their existence, all of these programs together cohabit clusters, for which Apache Mesos (the open source component behind Mesosphere) acts as the “queen bee.”

Only as many of these programs run as need to run for any one moment in time. It’s a system that has dramatically reduced the number of appearances of the classic Twitter “fail whale,” and impressed Apple so greatly that it completely rebuilt its Siri voice command system on Mesos.

The biggest cloud-based content providers in the world run not from centralized content vaults, but from huge hives of tiny programs, using Mesos / Mesosphere and orchestrators like it.

Microsoft Azure CTO Mark Russinovich at AzureCon 2015

Had a previous Microsoft talk not run overtime nearly an hour, postponing Russinovich’s demo of the new Azure Container Service running Mesosphere and its Marathon scheduler, he might have had time to simulate an ordinary customer spinning up the seed for a whole ‘nother Twitter in about four minutes.

But wearing his open source T-shirt and hacking away on his MacBook, Russinovich stands tall as the very epitome of the new Microsoft.

What It Means to Scale Out

During a keynote talk for Microsoft’s new, all-virtual AzureCon conference on Tuesday, Executive Vice President for Cloud and Enterprise Scott Guthrie noted Mesos’ presence on Twitter, as well as AirBNB, Netflix, and OpenTable.

Guthrie touted the virtues of “being able to have a container service that you can spin up very, very quickly, and being able to host both Linux as well as Windows Server VMs [virtual machines] with your containers, in any language.”

For some, Guthrie’s words won’t have the appropriate thunder that a developer or admin would immediately hear. What he means is, microservices don’t need to be written for the same operating system, or with the same language, to run together in the same environment.

Learning Opportunities

Even that benefit won’t be immediately obvious, so I’ll go into further detail:

Microservices make feasible a type of work where the type of customer outreach you want to do with, say, a mobile app can be expressed by a small team of on-site developers, using whatever language and platform they happen to know, in a matter of a few days.

You want to create a retail promotion? How about something that alerts a customer whenever she drives within one mile of the shop? That’s the kind of app you can deploy on a platform like Salesforce1 in a very short time.

Yet suppose you’re in the business of tracking promotions for a nationwide retail chain. The leap in scale used to demand a change of topic, from a simple app to a centralized asset management database.

With containerization and the right orchestrator, the multiplier is handled by the platform, not by the developer. If it’s the same job, just scaled out, then Mesos can manage the scaling out... just like it does for Twitter.

Edge of the Cusp of the Precipice

“The next logical steps that everybody gets to, after they start playing with Docker,” Russinovich told us, “is, how do I go and orchestrate my apps?”

That said, the CTO acknowledged, the people who have already answered that question for themselves are only at the cutting edge of a completely new form of computing.

“With the general ecosystem of developers right now, it’s just the pointy edge who are using this stuff,” said Russinovich. “But everybody else is looking at what they’re doing. The fact is, it is the future of application development.”

“This is definitely the new Microsoft,” said Al Hilwa, program manager for software development research, in a note Tuesday to CMSWire, “trying hard to be as platform agnostic as it can in its cloud, in order not to be left behind.

“Mesos is a great open source solution that is getting a lot of traction,” Hilwa continued. “It is important today that the platform players are way ahead of real customers in terms of deployments, so I expect this space to remain in flux.”

Maybe it won’t be Azure that your business eventually chooses — Google Container Engine with Kubernetes, and Amazon EC2 Container Service, are both viable alternatives. HP may yet score points with its acquisition of Stackato.

Yet the fact that Microsoft has entered the game with a full house validates the power of microservices architecture in a very permanent way. The time of the centralized content resource is waning.

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