Microsoft seems to be in the news lately, not for anything new and groundbreaking, but for something it needed to do to stay competitive with other cloud services. First, as I wrote in a post last week, Microsoft has taken the Windows Azure HDInsight Hadoop service to general availability, and now Microsoft is offering its Azure customers the ability to import to and export from Azure using hard disks offline. This solution seems like a real no-brainer now that it is announced, but to be honest, I would not really have thought about it as I uploaded and migrated data to and from the cloud. I think this is going to be a solid selling point for Microsoft, attracting customers with what appears to be a very efficient solution for importing and exporting large amounts of data to and from the Azure Blob storage service. The Windows Azure Blob service is designed to store large amounts of unstructured data that customers can access with a web browser via HTTP or HTTPS.
How is this service going to work? When a customer needs to upload a large amount of data to the Windows Azure Blob server, the customer first copies all the data they want to transfer to local hard disks directly from the company data center or wherever the data resides. Once the all the data has been transferred to a disk or a number of disks, the customer will then deliver the disks via their choice of shipping companies, like FedEx or UPS.
If you are like me, then the first thought that might come to mind is “hey, that does not sound like a very secure way of doing things,” and you would be right. Microsoft has thought about that also, and in an effort to address security, it is providing built-in support for BitLocker disk encryption so that customers can encrypt their data on the drives before shipping the data to Microsoft. Microsoft is shipping a drive preparation tool to help make it as easy as possible for customers to encrypt the data. No need to worry if the drives are lost or stolen in transit, since all the data will be completely encrypted, and the customer will be the only one with the key to decrypt the data.
Once the disks reach the Microsoft Azure data centers, they will upload to the customer’s storage account. The process to export data out of the Windows Azure Cloud is similar, but in reverse: the customer ships blank disks to Microsoft to hold the data, and the encrypted disks are sent back to the customer.
There are some limitations that must be noted. This service is being previewed in the U.S., and the shipment of drives must originate from within the U.S. The import will only support 3.5 inch SATA II hard drives. The drives must be smaller than 4TB during the preview, and no more than ten drives can be processed per job.
As I mentioned earlier, these announcements are not new or groundbreaking considering that both Google and Amazon provide similar services. This is just something Microsoft needed to do to be able to stay competitive. Although on a slow and steady pace compared to its competitors, Microsoft continues to gain ground and shows that it is working hard not just to compete with the likes or Google and Amazon, but rather to demonstrate that when it puts its mind and resources to a technology, Microsoft can compete with or surpass anyone.