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Microsoft opens new competitive fronts with cloud-based Windows Server

Amazon, VMware and even Microsoft partners threatened by Windows Azure move

By , Network World
November 12, 2010 05:09 AM ET

Network World - Microsoft doesn't want to admit it, but a Gartner analyst says the vendor's decision to offer Windows Server instances in the Azure cloud is opening a new competitive front against partner hosting companies.

Before 2010 is over, Microsoft will update Windows Azure with the ability to run Windows Server 2008 R2 instances in the Microsoft cloud service. The move could blur the lines between platform-as-a-service (PaaS) clouds like Azure, which provide abstracted tools to application developers, and infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) clouds such as Amazon's EC2, which provide raw access to compute and storage capacity.

Microsoft Windows Azure and Amazon EC2 on collision course

This move also improves Microsoft's competitive stance against VMware, which is teaming with hosting companies to offer PaaS developer tools and VMware-based infrastructure clouds.

But the cloud-based Windows Server instances open up a new competitive front against Rackspace and other Web hosters who are Microsoft partners, according to Gartner analyst Neil MacDonald.

Microsoft has, to some extent, downplayed the new capabilities, saying the cloud-based Windows Server – which goes under the name Windows Azure Virtual Machine Role – is primarily an on-ramp to port some applications to the Azure cloud.

"What they really want is people using Azure," MacDonald says. At the same time, VM Role "is a form of infrastructure-as-a-service," he continues. "The reason Microsoft is being so vague is they really don't want to upset their ecosystem partners, all the hosters out there in the world making good money hosting Windows workloads. Microsoft doesn't really want to emphasize that it is competing against them."

Whereas IaaS clouds provide access to raw compute power, in the form of virtual machines, and storage that is consumed by those VMs, PaaS clouds provide what could be described as a layer of middleware on top of the infrastructure layer. Developers using PaaS are given abstracted tools to build applications without having to manage the underlying infrastructure, but have less control over the basic computing and storage resources. With Azure, developers can use programming languages .Net, PHP, Ruby, Python or Java, and the development tools Visual Studio and Eclipse.

Microsoft officials have previously predicted that the lines between PaaS and IaaS clouds will blur over time, but stress that Windows Azure will remain a developer platform.

In response to MacDonald's comment, Windows Azure general manager Doug Hauger says "our partners provide a vast range of services to customers for hosting an infrastructure-as-a-service [cloud]. The VM Role does not compete with them in this space."

For what it's worth, Rackspace does view Microsoft as a cloud competitor. "The cloud market is going to be huge and there are many ways to win in it," Rackspace President Lew Moorman says. "Microsoft is serious about the market and we view them as an emerging competitor as well as partner. We are confident that our service difference will resonate to a large part of the market regardless of the technical offers that emerge from players such as Microsoft."

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