Microsoft Azure gaining ground on Amazon Web Services

With lots of new features, Microsoft Azure is attempting to turn the cloud market into a two-horse race

Amazon Web Services next week will host its second customer conference, which is sure to grab headlines and be the center of cloud industry discussion. But, as Amazon continues its run leading the IaaS market, Microsoft has slowly but surely been building up its Windows Azure cloud with the intention of giving AWS a run for its money.

Microsoft has been adding features to its cloud at an impressive pace in an effort to bring it up to par with AWS. It’s caught the attention of industry watchers, including ones who aren’t afraid to throw punches. James Urquhart, director of Dell’s cloud management product and an industry pundit, recently tweeted the following:

I have to say, however, that Microsoft continues to quietly build a compelling case for Azure for the enterprise.

— James Urquhart (@jamesurquhart) October 18, 2013

[MORE CLOUD NEWS: Amazon, Rackspace both revamp their cloud virtual machines]

Here’s some of the news out of Redmond in recent weeks:

- Virtual machine enhancements including the preview of a distributed cache system, which allows customers to use cached versions of applications or VMs to improve scalability and performance; and schedule-based auto-scaling.

- The rollout of Windows Azure multi-factor authentication for services such as VPNs, web applications, Azure, Office 365 and application features such as enhanced service bus for messaging across hosted applications, and push notification capabilities.

- GA of HDInsights: This is an Apache Hadoop-based big data analytics platform that gives Microsoft a BI tool to compete with Amazon Web Services' Elastic Map Reduce (EMR) and Google’s BigQuery. Read more.

- Automatic backup to Windows Azure: Backup and recovery is a natural use case for cloud computing, and Azure recently rolled out automatic backups from within Windows Sever and Systems Center, and have the files backed up directly into Azure.

- Plans to create a dedicated public cloud for federal government workloads.

- Preview of Import/Export storage: This allows customers to ship large amounts of data in encrypted hard disk drives via FedEx to avoid them traveling over public Internet connections. More here.

One of the strengths of Amazon Web Services' cloud is its massive marketplace of products and services that are optimized to run on top of AWS IaaS. Microsoft is starting to build that up too. KEMP Technologies, for example, recently came out with what it calls the first third-party load balancer in Azure. Cloud Cruiser rolled out monitoring and optimization tools for Azure workloads. Charito, an analytics and BI tool, added support for analyzing data stored in Azure. And EVault just ran a promotion to offer backup of data stored on premises that is linked to applications hosted in Azure.

Microsoft is also making in-roads in open source world. Dell and SUSE recently announced support for Microsoft’s Hyper-V virtualization platform in the latest edition of SUSE’s OpenStack distro. Ubuntu’s Juju management platform, which lets customers create customized workflow processes, had added support for Azure services. And Microsoft’s biggest pivot in the open source world for Azure occurred last year when it opened Azure up to offering Linux-based virtual machines in its IaaS.

Microsoft Azure

A diagram of the Windows Azure Hybrid cloud offering shows options for customers to use Azure as a primary or secondary backup option.

Microsoft launched Azure as a platform as a service (PaaS) in 2010, which was basically a hosted application development platform for .Net applications. Since then though, it has added IaaS capabilities to provide customers on-demand pay-as-you-go virtual machines, storage and what it calls blob storage, or large-scale storage. It’s teamed with partners like Oracle to offer databases from Azure, on top of its SQL services it already had.

Microsoft positions Azure as the best place to run Microsoft apps in the cloud. By having a common management platform between its Azure cloud and Windows Systems Center/Hyper-V on customer’s premises, Microsoft has a true hybrid cloud architecture it can offer customers. AWS doesn’t have an answer for customers who want a private cloud. Although, third-party companies like Eucalyptus and NetApp are happy to step in.

Even with all the advancements, Microsoft still faces challenges though. A cloud-like pay-as-you-go operating expense model, as opposed to the potentially more lucrative (for vendors) upfront capital expense model is a shift in the revenue model for legacy technology companies. As more applications are hosted the cloud, it can reduce the need for on-premises hardware. In that sense, the cloud represents both a challenge and an opportunity for Microsoft.  

Amazon Web Services also continues to drive the cloud market discussion. Amazon had the lead in the market because it was the first to offer a true IaaS offering and ever since 2006 it’s had the head start in terms of product features and functionality. When Amazon makes a price cut, other companies like Microsoft follow. That points to how Amazon is leading the cloud marketing discussion. Microsoft has also been hit with some service issues. Most recently, technical glitches prevented users from using management functions or accessing files in Azure’s cloud.

Azure is the platform of choice for .Net developers of hosted applications, some question if it has won the hearts and minds of younger, next-generation developers who may be turned off by Microsoft tools and services.

Azure is a platform that seems to be gaining steam though and Microsoft’s history of serving the business community shouldn’t be overlooked. “They know the enterprise market,” says Dave Roberts, co-founder of cloud forum website LeverHawk, and a marketer with BMC. The company’s decades of experiences developing relationships, a channel market provides Microsoft an opportunity to leverage those relationships to sell Azure and Systems Center.

“Azure 1.0 wasn’t going to fly,” Roberts said, noting that as a PaaS it was too focused on Microsoft application development. Then, last year Microsoft pivoted and began offering Linux-based virtual machines as an IaaS provider, and has since been adding features and functionality. “Microsoft, to its credit, listened to the market and made corrections.” Since then it’s been on an aggressive run to add features and functionality to its cloud, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Will it be enough to catch Amazon?

Senior Writer Brandon Butler covers cloud computing for Network World and NetworkWorld.com. He can be reached at BButler@nww.com and found on Twitter at @BButlerNWW. Read his Cloud Chronicles here.  

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