The effort is an early salvo in Microsoft's campaign to lessen its dependence on desktop software.
Microsoft on Monday unveiled Azure, a software and services platform that's a key part of a strategy that sees the company lessening its emphasis on desktop software and shifting more resources to Web-based offerings that can match Google's growing portfolio of online products.
At its heart, Azure is designed to allow developers to create so-called cloud-based computing architectures that run off of centralized servers that are operated and maintained by Microsoft.
"We have introduced a game-changing set of technologies that will bring new opportunities to Web developers and business developers alike," said Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software architect. Ozzie spoke Monday at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles.
Azure encompasses a range of new and existing Microsoft technologies, including SQL Services, .Net Services, and Live Services. At its core is a version of the Windows operating system specifically designed for hosted, or cloud, environments.
Windows Azure, according to Microsoft, is "a cloud services operating system" that's the foundation for Azure's development and hosting environment. The OS is fully integrated with the Visual Studio development toolset.
An increasing number of organizations are eyeing hosted software in order to reduce complexity and cut administrative costs. Washington, D.C., for instance, recently moved its business applications to Google's online Google Apps platform. Microsoft needs to get in on the action. Sales of its earthbound Windows Vista OS increased just 2% in the most recent quarter.
The concern with cloud environments, however, is that access to key systems can be lost if the service goes down. Earlier this month, some users of Google's hosted Gmail service were unable to access e-mail for more than 24 hours.
To guarantee Azure's uptime, Microsoft is employing what it calls the Windows Azure Fabric Controller technology. Azure Fabric is designed to balance workloads across servers, manage resources, and reroute work instantaneously if a server goes down, according to Microsoft.
Azure also is designed to integrate with in-house systems, giving businesses the option of moving some applications to the cloud while keeping others -- those containing sensitive personal data, for instance -- within their four walls. Azure "gives our customers the power of choice to deploy applications in cloud-based Internet services or through on-premises servers, or to combine them in any way that makes the most sense," said Ozzie.
Azure is built to support a range of software standards, including SOAP, REST, and XML, that work with both Microsoft and non-Microsoft technologies. It's also compatible with third-party development languages, including Eclipse, Ruby, PHP, and Python.
Microsoft is set to launch what it calls a Community Technology Preview of Azure, during which members of its professional developers' organization will receive access to various components, including Windows Azure, SQL Data Services, Live Services, and .Net Services, to preview and test.
Microsoft did not release pricing details for the Azure services.