Channeling the Cloud

Windows Azure vs. Amazon: Microsoft Preps for Cloud Battle

Windows Azure currently lags in the cloud wars, but new features expected to be rolled out this year might boost its odds against market leader Amazon.

Azure
Two years have passed since the release of the Microsoft Windows Azure platform, yet it appears the cloud service has achieved only marginal commercial success so far. But when Microsoft delivers some anticipated new features this year, Windows Azure should appeal to a broader base of customers and partners.

While Microsoft hasn't revealed how much revenue it's taking in from Windows Azure and SQL Azure, it's believed that cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services and Rackspace Hosting are taking in much more.

Amazon in particular is the undisputed cloud leader and while it also doesn't break out revenues for its services, analysts are predicting the online retailer will draw $1 billion this year from cloud hosting.

Microsoft has its share of Windows Azure case studies including Boeing, General Mills, Lockheed Martin, Travelocity and Xerox and insists customers are embracing the cloud service. But the Windows Azure platform, as it exists today, appeals to different customers than Amazon's EC2 Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).

Maintaining instances on Amazon versus Windows Azure is more challenging and time-consuming, explains Microsoft Windows Azure partner Ira Bell, COO of Nimbo, a cloud computing services provider based in New York.

But for Microsoft to gain more share, it seems to know that Windows Azure must offer more than it does today or risk being marginalized by Amazon, which is aggressively building out its public cloud portfolio and expanding its global datacenters.

A key step toward that end for Microsoft will be the release of the Windows Azure Virtual Machine Role, or VM Role. It has been in beta for some time and while it is believed it will be available shortly, Microsoft isn't saying. The VM Role will let users run Windows Server 2008 R2 in Windows Azure, simplifying the task of moving on-premises apps to the cloud. While the VM Role will let users control the OS image, developers will be responsible for making sure the image is up-to-date, according to Microsoft.

The VM Role doesn't support stateful apps such as SharePoint, SQL Server and others, Microsoft warns. Likewise, domain controllers -- notably Active Directory -- won't work in a VM Role.

In a step to address that, blogger Mary Jo Foley, in her Redmond magazine column this month, reports she's hearing that Microsoft plans to release for testing a persistent VM that will allow customers to run not only Windows Servers but SharePoint and SQL Server on the Windows Azure platform (see "Can Microsoft Save Windows Azure?"). It will also let customers run Linux instances.

Microsoft officials wouldn't confirm these reports but partners I've spoken with have heard about these plans and a boatload of other new features coming to the Windows Azure platform that promise to more seamlessly meld on-premises-based datacenters with the public cloud.

This suggests Microsoft is poised to take on Amazon and -- if it executes properly -- extend its share of the still-nascent public cloud market.

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.