Sandbox Accelerates Grassroots Innovation in Windows Azure Development
Published: June 2011
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Microsoft IT created the Windows Azure Sandbox to give full-time Microsoft employees and interns a free subscription to Windows Azure and SQL Azure. The Sandbox accelerates grassroots innovation and enables experimentation in the cloud. The program also uses a predictable spending model that can scale to thousands of users.
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|Intended Audience||Products & Technologies|
Microsoft-focused software developers and managers of software development teams
As cloud computing continues to gain momentum, it's only natural that more and more software developers want to take their skills to the cloud, creating innovative new applications.
That's why companies like Microsoft are leading the way by providing cloud-based development platforms. In fact, for the past year, Microsoft has focused an increasing amount of time and resources on Windows Azure, the organization's Internet-based cloud services environment that enables developers to quickly and easily create applications running in the cloud.
But how are busy developers at Microsoft supposed to find the time to experiment with their own ideas? And how can they bring those personal creations to life in the cloud? They could probably purchase time on their own personal Windows Azure account or possibly find some room in their department's budget, but neither of those scenarios is ideal, especially when considering cloud computing has such variable costs.
Enter The Garage. The Garage was started several years ago as a grassroots community, internal to Microsoft. Using The Garage, Microsoft developers can interface with engineers and other developers, and collaborate using tools and libraries to create new applications and other projects. The Garage supports engineers, developers, and designers at Microsoft as they follow their creative instincts and build new things based on those instincts.
Open to any Microsoft employee, The Garage is now a leading vehicle of grassroots innovation at Microsoft. "We believe grassroots work is an important source of innovation, and we want to empower employees by encouraging them and supporting their ideas," says Quinn Hawkins, organizer and founder of The Garage. "We want to see a spirit and culture of empowerment at Microsoft and to show people they're not just here to perform a function but also to make the company a better place."
Creating a Low-Cost Sandbox for Azure Developers
After seeing The Garage achieve quick success—it now has more than 2,300 regular contributors and 40,000 total users—Microsoft knew it had to create a specific Garage community for Windows Azure developers. In early 2010, the Microsoft IT Product Group Strategic Initiatives team decided to launch the Windows Azure Sandbox, which gives full-time Microsoft employees and interns a free subscription to Windows Azure and SQL Azure.
Microsoft IT invested in the Windows Azure Sandbox, so the developers would not have to worry about paying out of their own pockets to create new applications in their spare time."We wanted to invest a small amount into this to see if it worked and if we could learn something from it," says Matt Hempey, a Microsoft IT Director who started the Windows Azure Sandbox.
Microsoft IT took its inspiration from the company's original grassroots culture. "In the early days of Microsoft, developers created many products and tools that helped build the company, and it was easy for them to do that," says Hempey. "But now, we live in a services world. Writing a program isn't enough—you have to maintain a service that needs an infrastructure and other resources, so the ability to do grassroots has been curtailed. We wanted to bring back the spirit of innovation and possibility through the use of the cloud."
Once they subscribe to the Windows Azure Sandbox, the developers get free access to on-demand cloud resources such as computing, storage, and services. Armed with these tools, any Microsoft developer can build a proof of concept or prototype on Windows Azure and get immediate feedback from thousands of other co-workers around the world.
The result is that developers now have a faster, easier way to create innovative new IT offerings.
Removing Barriers to Experimentation
With the Windows Azure Sandbox, many of the old barriers to technology experimentation for developers are gone. Cost is perhaps the biggest barrier that has been removed. For example, in the cloud, the cost of grassroots innovation is now much lower than it would be with traditional enterprise environments. It costs only a few dollars per month for a developer to create an idea for an application in the Windows Azure Sandbox and get serious feedback from colleagues. There is no need for a budget, a business plan, or an executive review.
"Most companies provide their employees with certain resources without the need for justification," says Hempey. "For example, everyone gets a laptop. In the case of the Windows Azure Sandbox, we believe that developers, engineers, and program managers should have free access to the cloud without needing to justify it. It should be a part of their job."
Hawkins concurs. "The Windows Azure Sandbox is all about giving Microsoft employees the opportunity to use Windows Azure for their own purposes without having to justify those purposes in advance," he says. "By allowing developers to manage their own use of company resources and providing them with the right tools, we're saving them money and giving them much more flexibility. And they don't have to worry about overcoming the centralized corporate obstacles to succeed in using this approach."
Microsoft IT provides two levels of Windows Azure subscriptions as part of the Windows Azure Sandbox. There is a Basic Account for general users and a Second-Tier Subscription for users who need more resources for special projects.
Microsoft IT approves Windows Azure Sandbox subscription requests in just 24 hours. It's a simple process that quickly gives employees the ability to create and share their projects on Windows Azure. "If someone wants to build a prototype web service, they can get almost instant access to the Windows Azure Sandbox and have free hosting," says Hempey. "Overall, it is a very fast process for employees to get an account, get it up and running, and start innovating on the platform. And once they're on Windows Azure, there are many great tools to make it easy to deploy and upgrade applications."
"Windows Azure Sandbox shows how IT organizations can help companies innovate quickly and cost-effectively on emerging technology trends. By starting with a small initial investment, the Sandbox team was able to refine their management model and scale up across the company quickly."
Raj Biyani, Managing Director, Microsoft IT India
A Management System That Works
So far, Microsoft IT has found that its system for managing the Windows Azure Sandbox—allowing employees to manage their own usage—is working. Each week, IT sends a usage email notifying users how many resources they've used. If they're using too much for their quota, which varies by account depending on need, IT alerts them by providing instructions on reducing consumption.
"We can manage this very well at the macro level, making sure we are onboarding users at a feasible rate given our budget and monthly spending target," says Hempey. "And we can show IT Finance how we've been able to scale thousands of developers, and that we have a predictable model for spending. We are not seeing massive spikes in use one month with nothing the following month. It's been very steady and consistent. It's a great example of how asking employees to manage their own use of company resources can be more flexible and efficient than in a centralized model. It's a management system that works."
"Windows Azure Sandbox shows how IT organizations can help companies innovate quickly and cost-effectively on emerging technology trends," says Raj Biyani, Managing Director of Microsoft IT India and sponsor for Windows Azure Sandbox. "By starting with a small initial investment, the Sandbox team was able to refine their management model and scale up across the company quickly."
Expanding User Base, Building New Products
One of the goals of the Windows Azure Sandbox—enabling developers to innovate in their spare time—is already being realized. While Microsoft IT does not measure the program's success based on specific metrics such as number of actual new applications created, there is little doubt that the program has become widely accepted. Currently, there are more than 3,000 Microsoft employees using the Windows Azure Sandbox to work on prototypes and share ideas with their colleagues.
Figure 1 Windows Azure Sandbox User Accounts
With the Windows Azure Sandbox, enabling proof of concepts and other projects is also helping the development teams innovate in the cloud faster. "The Windows Azure Sandbox has helped our team to start investigating with Windows Azure before our organization was bought off on a full investment as our future service platform," says developer Daniel Keller. "It is a great way to get up and running and be able to do proof-of-concept work without having to go through the full account sign-up process."
Another developer, Petar Trbos of Serbia, notes how the Windows Azure Sandbox is the only free option for Microsoft developers in that country to test their own ideas using company resources. "I started using the Sandbox as preparation for next year's Scorecard commitment, which I was able to do one year earlier," he says. "I am going to use the Windows Azure Sandbox account as much as possible in the next few months to demonstrate the power of the Windows Azure platform to the ISV ecosystem in Serbia."
Other developers throughout the company are using the Windows Azure Sandbox to share their ideas, work with collaborators online, and get those ideas translated into full-fledged applications and services. "I absolutely love the Windows Azure Sandbox. It allowed me to complement my ThinkWeek paper with an example application demo for a particular idea in it, and move forward with a side project, working with several other employees, in hopes of eventually scaling it out to be company-wide once the initial project is complete," says developer Kenny Herrington. "I think this support offered by the Garage exemplifies the fact that we really are 'all in,' and I hope it continues to be offered as long as it has users."
Adds employee Adwait Vaidya, "Using the Windows Azure Sandbox has helped me have confidence in our development plan for the next version of Office services, which we will eventually build on top of Windows Azure."
Enabling a Culture of Grassroots Innovation
Perhaps most importantly, the creation of the Windows Azure Sandbox is helping Microsoft IT reach its ultimate goal: enabling a company culture of grassroots innovation that is driving energy and enthusiasm, as well as training in cloud technologies for Microsoft employees.
"This is a much different approach than the normal top-down situation in a company where a manager tells a developer what to create," says Hawkins. Rather, with the Windows Azure Sandbox, developers and engineers can present an idea or business problem and the global community can quickly respond. Such an approach helps drive education and speed of adoption for new applications and other ideas.
"The Windows Azure Sandbox enables individuals to have the grassroots impact they want to have," says Hempey. "If someone has an idea and takes it to their boss, it can be hard to justify funding it. But with the Windows Azure Sandbox, that individual can take their idea to the next level and build a prototype, which makes a huge difference in terms of credibility."
Adds Hawkins, "This lets the developers take the initiative, and they can use the Windows Azure Sandbox resources to get more clout when their pitch their ideas to management. It's providing a tangible way in which to make a grassroots impact in their jobs, and on the company as a whole. And even though it is happening in small ways, it's happening in larger and larger numbers."
Microsoft employees also have a chance to receive instant feedback and possibly accolades for their ideas through The Garage's regular Science Fairs, which are held regularly around the globe. Each Science Fair, which attracts hundreds of employees from all around the company, gives development teams from The Garage a place to showcase their ideas. Much like a traditional science fair, The Garage version features poster boards, judges, prizes, and even volcanoes.
"An example of a project at The Garage Science Fair would be an engineer who comes up with a better model for doing code review," says Hawkins. "He might convince a friend to work with him on it as a side project and after a few weekends, they can share the resulting application with lots of other engineers at the Science Fair and maybe win an award. It helps projects get noticed and the award gives them credibility."
The success of the Windows Azure Sandbox is not just measured in the number or quality of the projects created, says Hempey. Instead, it is all about how the process itself impacts employees and the way they work. "When an employee is able to innovate using these company resources, it gives them a lot of autonomy and confidence and even a broader sense of purpose about their work," he says. "That sort of impact has been demonstrated to make people happier with their work in general, and more excited about specific jobs. This goes a long way towards energizing the Microsoft culture through grassroots innovation, and encourages people to get the company to focus on the right things via their own internal actions."
Indeed, those creating and innovating in the Windows Azure Sandbox see it as much more than just another way to get their ideas across. "This just reiterates why Microsoft is a great place to work," says developer Narendra Babu Alagiriswamy. "I am taking an initiative in our group to move one part of our line of business application to the cloud, and the Windows Azure Sandbox account came in very handy as a place to test out prototypes. Kudos to the Garage team for making this happen."
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