On March 24th, 2015, Microsoft Executive VP Scott Guthrie and App Platform Corporate VP Bill Staples made an announcement about the launch of the Azure App Service. In a related blog post, Staples called this app service “a new, one-of-a kind cloud service that enables developers to build web and mobile apps for any platform and any device.” Scot Hillier did a quick write up here on IT Unity, sharing his thoughts on the announcement (with a link to the announcement video by Guthrie).
Microsoft has been working hard to improve their relationship with developers, hiring key community members to focus on the IT Pro and Developer communities, and retooling its entire strategy around app extensibility. Summarizing the many announcement at the BUILD conference in San Francisco this week, IT Unity founder and MVP Dan Holme, stated, “By opening its ecosystem to developers from all backgrounds, toolsets, and preferences, Microsoft has positioned itself as the one big tent where developers can reach not only the ecosystem of their origin, but also an ecosystem of what Microsoft promises to be 1 billion Windows devices in 2 years.”
One of the principal drivers of expanding the Microsoft relationship with the development community is CVP Staples, who I’ve known now for almost a decade. Bill leads the engineering team driving Azure App Service, one of Microsoft’s fastest growing cloud platforms for building web, mobile, logic apps and APIs. I recently caught up with Bill, and asked him to tell me a little more about his team and the initiatives that he is driving:
[Christian] Bill, I know some of your background, but how long have you been at Microsoft now? And what is the scope of your current team?
[Bill] I’ve been at Microsoft nearly 16 years! I can hardly believe it has been that long. Before Microsoft, I worked for several smaller software/internet companies, including a start-up internet access / hosting company right out of college. I’ve spent my entire career focused on building Internet/Web/Cloud technologies and services.
I’m currently the Corporate Vice President for Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise Application Platform, leading the Azure App Service, of course, but we are also responsible for the Azure portal experiences and Azure Resource Manager APIs thatdevelopers and IT use every day to provision, manage and operate resources in the cloud, and the Azure SDK for developers building apps using any Azure service. Last, but not least, we also develop key application platform technologies like Internet Information Services, ASP.NET, Entity Framework, NuGet, Windows Communication Framework and other of Windows Server, Visual Studio and .NET Framework technologies.
[Christian]This is kind of a loaded question, but how important is it for Microsoft to win the hearts of app developers? What has changed – if anything – in Microsoft’s strategy in this area?
[Bill] I think Microsoft has always understood developers are key to our success. The success of Windows and Office as platforms was deeply connected to developers ability to build applications and have them run on hundreds of millions of PCs.
As Satya Nadella, our CEO, likes to say, we live in a mobile-first, cloud-first world where the most popular computer is our smart phone and the primary place applications, data and services are rendered is the cloud. In just the last 5-7 years, we’ve seen an explosion of mobile devices, now out-selling PCs more than 7:1! For those of us who grew up in the PC generation, it is useful to think about mobile phones as the new 'computer' that fits in your pocket and runs your apps, in addition to making phone calls. I say that because on average we spend more time on our phone computers than we do at our laptops and desktops, and just the last year or so, studies show that we even spend more time in mobile apps than we do in the browser (either phone or PC). This shift in how we use computing has caused ripple effects across the industry. In order to target mass mobile devices, new compute paradigms were needed to offer the kind of mega scale services we love like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and more.
The same cloud patterns that were used to build consumer services are also now being used to build enterprise-grade software services. Businesses are also turning to the cloud for solutions as a way to gain greater agility and reduce costs. Business SaaS (software as a service) for common systems of record, like your CRM system, your HR, your travel planning, are gaining huge popularity with companies big and small through services like Salesforce, Workday and Concur. Microsoft has also shifted from providing just software for businesses, like the Office and SharePoint software you know (and love!) to providing software that runs on any device (with Office tools now on iOS and Android) plus services in the cloud, like Office 365 and Yammer, which provide constantly evolving and improving capabilities.
Microsoft’s strategy for developers, therefore, has grown beyond having a great platform for PCs, but now also to provide great platforms for mobile devices and in the cloud for developers to build software and services that can target consumer and commercial scenarios. Windows 10 is an OS that will target PCs, tablets, phones and even the XBOX, allowing developers to build Universal Apps that can run across device boundaries. Office 365 is our cloud productivity platform and enables information workers to get more done on any device. And Azure is our developer and infrastructure cloud platform, providing IT and developers access to a variety of application, platform and infrastructure services that make building apps and services easier than ever before.
[Christian] Tell me about the announcement last month, re: the Azure App Service. How is this announcement and strategy different from previous tools and services?
[Bill] App Service is a new, one-of-a kind cloud service that enables developers to build web and mobile apps for any platform and any device. App Service streamlines development of web and mobile apps and enables developers to easily integrate apps with data in the consumer and commercial SaaS systems I mentioned above, as well as data and applications running on-premises while providing the ability to quickly automate business processes. It has a TON of features and capabilities, basically bringing to market the best of all the investments we’ve made in Azure over the past three years into one single offering with a low price. You can read more about it here: http://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/services/app-service/.
App Service supports four basic types of cloud applications:
Web Apps: http://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/services/app-service/web/
Azure App Service lets developers rapidly build, deploy and manage powerful websites and web apps. Build standards-based web apps and APIs using .NET, NodeJS, PHP, Python, and Java. Deliver both web and mobile apps for employees or customers using a single back-end. Securely deliver APIs enabling additional apps and devices.
Mobile Apps: http://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/services/app-service/mobile/
With Mobile Apps, it’s easy to rapidly build engaging cross-platform and native apps for iOS, Android, Windows or Mac, store app data in the cloud or on-premises, authenticate users, send push notifications, as well as add your custom backend logic in C# or Node.js.
Logic Apps: http://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/services/app-service/logic/
Logic apps enable you to develop and deliver powerful integration solutions with ease. Keep your marketing and analytics SaaS apps in sync. Extend businesses processes in minutes. Boost sales productivity by reducing data entry. Model all of these processes and more with an intuitive visual design language and deploy reliable, enterprise-ready workflows in no time.
API Apps: http://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/services/app-service/api/
Your existing APIs can take advantage of the features of API Apps with no code changes. Use ASP.NET, Java, PHP, Node.js or Python to build new API Apps. API Apps share the same SDK as Mobile Apps so your code can easily be used on both devices and web.
[Christian] As I’m sure you’re aware, the messaging (and solutions) around SharePoint, and to some extent Office, app development has not been viewed as successful, and many customers have held off on making investments there. You could say that part of the pushback from customers on moving entirely to the cloud is this perceived weakness in the app model. How does this strategy impact developers focusing on business and productivity solutions for Office 365?
[Bill] Office 365 is a key software service for business and contains a wealth of business data and communications. Developers building Web and mobile apps often need to access Office 365 as part of their application. For example, if you are building a web or mobile app for your company, would you like to show an individual’s profile, their contact information, or their manager? How about providing users access to documents shared within your Office 365 document library? Or send email and schedule appointments on your users calendar? The answer with App Service is easy: build your web and mobile apps and use our built-in connectors to Office 365 to incorporate all of these and more.
[Christian] One of the strongest themes at the upcoming Ignite event in Chicago is support for hybrid environments. Within the customers using the Azure app service today, do you see enabling hybrid scenarios being one of the primary drivers? Is hybrid a major theme within how the app service is being positioned, or is it just more of a reflection of where the industry is today?
[Bill] Absolutely! Azure App service provides two built-in ways of accessing applications and data on prem, and built-in connectors for accessing software and servers through hybrid connections directly. As fast as companies are moving to the cloud, tons and tons of data from past years remains on premises, and is likely to forever remain there. We’ve prioritized making access to that data easy through both our 'hybrid connection' feature, which allows IT to open up just a single 'tunnel' on one port to just one (or more) servers for a specific application, or add their App Service instances to their virtual network, making it easy to share a secure virtual gateway with the cloud that their applications use to access on premises data. In addition, we’ve built connectors for popular software systems like SQL Server, SAP and we’ve got a SharePoint server connector to make it easy for apps to access document libraries and list items. A variety of authentication methods such as default credentials, OAuth 2.0, Windows authentication, and Form-Based authentication are supported.
[Christian] One of the reasons hybrid is such a hot topic in the SharePoint space is because of all of the customizations built with server-side code, and the time/cost/concerns of re-architecting those solutions for the cloud. Do you expect to see these hybrid environments persist, or do you see a more rapid shift?
[Bill] Those investments aren’t going away any time soon, which is why hybrid connectivity to existing applications and data is so key. We’re also focused on enabling new experiences to connect to those systems so that new devices, like mobile phones or tablets can access the apps and data in new form factors, optimized for the device.
[Christian] As you talk with customers, what are some of the biggest adjustments you see them needing to make in their development approaches? Any recommendations on how customers can better prepare for the future of app development?
[Bill] Shifting to the cloud can be daunting at first; it feels a bit like the wild west where there is a constant stream of new innovation and approaches coming forward all the time. It demands a curious mindset and willingness to experiment. But it is also very exciting and I find those who make the shift revel in the level of productivity and power they have access to. For the developer it can feel like the infinite computer, the ultimate hackers dream with access to millions of cores, exabytes of data and enormous bandwidth to exploit – for the good of your business and the welfare of mankind. Things that used to take months or years, can now be done in minutes. It is a crazy, wonderful time to be a developer.
And at risk of overstating it...Microsoft’s cloud platform is the best place to learn because we, more than anyone in this space, care about your apps and your data in the cloud and on premises. Microsoft was built on delivering great software to companies on premises over the last 40 years. You can bet we are motivated to make sure we deliver a consistent experience across private and public cloud, and provide as smooth an experience as possible as you cross firewall boundaries. Unlike our competitors, who built their business solely in the cloud, and have no motivation to support you there, our business needs align with yours, to enable our business and your business to grow, we must continue to give our customers the best software in the industry delivered in the private and public cloud so you can take advantage of the latest innovations when, where and how you need.
In addition to BUILD in San Francisco this week, the Microsoft Ignite conference in Chicago next week should provide more news and details around the new Azure App Service, including case studies around some of the early adopters. Personally, I’m looking forward to learning more about the platform and how my company can leverage it for our customers.
Thanks again to Bill, for taking the time to discuss Microsoft’s app strategy!