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Windows Azure IaaS Hits GA, Pitting Microsoft Against Amazon

In a move that effectively positions itself against Amazon Web Services, Microsoft on Tuesday announced the general availability of new Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) offerings on Windows Azure.

The IaaS addition completes Microsoft's public cloud service offerings with Windows Azure, which debuted three years ago as Microsoft's Platform as a Service (PaaS) cloud offering. The new service, including the "Windows Azure Virtual Machines" and "Windows Azure Virtual Networks" components, arrives roughly one year after Microsoft first promised to let its customers provision virtual machines (VMs) on Windows Azure.

"Microsoft was ahead of the curve with its original release of Azure three years ago," explained Rob Sanfilippo, an analyst at the Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft, an independent consultancy. "The pitch was a set of Platform as a Service cloud-based services, which were well conceived and were implemented on an advanced foundation (the Azure Fabric Controller), but the market wasn't ready to make the leap from on-premises deployments to a PaaS offering."

Instead, Microsoft's potential customers gravitated to Amazon's IaaS offerings because of its simplicity, according to Sanfilippo.

"Competitors, in particular Amazon, had IaaS offerings which allowed simpler migration for existing applications," Sanfilippo said in an e-mail. "Microsoft's play to leapfrog the IaaS step and go straight to PaaS wasn't embraced by customers, but Amazon has had great success with its services (which now include PaaS components as well). Even when Azure was originally launched, Microsoft talked about future features that would offer IaaS, but these were de-emphasized to keep the focus on its PaaS innovations. Azure may have had greater success had it offered IaaS out-of-the-gate, but it will have it now, making Azure much more attractive, especially considering the additions and improvements that have been made to its PaaS components."

Portable VMs
By adding infrastructure services to Windows Azure, IT shops comfortable with running their own on-premises servers are just a few clicks away from running those servers in a virtual machine (VM) on Microsoft's cloud offerings. It's now possible to run any application on VMs using Windows Server 2008 R2 and later. Microsoft is trying to make it even easier for IT pros by offering a gallery of prebuilt VM images to deploy. In addition to Windows VM templates, users can access VM templates for other Microsoft server products, including new templates for SharePoint 2013, SQL Server 2012, and BizTalk 2013.

Moreover, it's not just Windows Server VMs that can run from Windows Azure, but also various Linux server distros, such as OpenLogic CentOS 6.3, openSuSE 12.3, SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 11 SP2 and Ubuntu 12.10, among others. Prebuilt images for those Linux operating systems are housed in Microsoft Open Technologies' VM Depot portal, which is an online repository of operating system images maintained by third-party software vendors. Microsoft provides a set of Node.js scripts, which can be used for configuration of multiple Linux OSes.

With these improvements, it's possible to use both Windows and Linux from Microsoft's cloud.

"These solutions can now integrate IaaS and PaaS together, use both Windows and Linux based software together, and deliver value faster than ever before," Microsoft's announcement claims.

IT pros can use the Windows Azure dashboard to create new VMs in Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) format, which is the same format that's used for Windows Server. That circumstance enables IT organizations to import their Windows Server VMs into other clouds, and Microsoft is claiming that this capability reduces the possibility of vendor lock-in, according to a blog post. Currently, the dashboard doesn't yet support the Dynamic VHD format. With the new IaaS launch, Microsoft also enabled remote PowerShell capability by default for handing those images.

Windows Azure Improvements
Along with the new IaaS offering, Microsoft announced a few technical improvements to Window Azure services. Network load balancing support has been added at no extra cost. The sizing options for VMs have been expanded. The service now has new "4 core x 28 GB RAM" and "8 core x 56 GB RAM" VM configuration options, according to Microsoft's announcement. Microsoft also expanded the default operating system disk size from 30 GB to 127 GB.

There were some virtual network enhancements associated with the new service launch. Users can now create virtual private networks with "persistent private IPs." A virtual network gateway from Cisco or Juniper Networks can be used to "treat virtual machines in Windows Azure as part of your organization's existing network," according to the announcement. VMs now can be pointed to Domain Name Servers, both on premises or in the cloud, using the same virtual network. Microsoft added a "private address space" communication capability, which lets VMs in a single virtual network talk with one another. Even VMs running in different cloud services can use this private address space to communicate, according to the announcement.

Price Reductions
Microsoft also announced some "price reductions" on Tuesday for both of its Windows Azure services. The announcement claims a 21 percent price cut on the cost of running VMs on IaaS, although this general availability announcement represents the first commercial offering of the service. In addition, there's a 33 percent price cut for running "solutions deployed using our Windows Azure Cloud Service (PaaS) model." The announcement claims that "our new VM pricing also matches Amazon's on-demand VM pricing for both Windows and Linux VMs."

There are two discount programs based on six-month and 12-month commitments. These plans give IT organizations some flexibility in not having to indicate how many VMs they want to spin up, allowing deployments to scale. Hourly rental of Microsoft's servers is also possible.

Microsoft's Windows Azure pricing is listed here. However, it's fairly obscure to calculate the costs since the service is based on the use of a number of components.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is online news editor for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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