Microsoft Azure Walks a Thin Blue Line

With Azure, Microsoft is trying to strike a balance between giving customers the ease of a platform as a service and the customization that power users need to build tailored applications — both in-house and in the public Azure cloud. In the wake of the Redmond giant’s developer conference, where it detailed more of its plans, it became clear that Azure is striving to be a general purpose cloud offering for enterprises that doesn’t make developers sweat the small stuff or compromise on bigger things.

If we compare it to infrastructure-as-a-service providers such as Amazon’s Ec2 or Rackspace’s CloudServers products, Azure attempts to handle more of the actual management and provisioning of virtual machines for a user. The biggest issue the target customer faces isn’t the hardware cost but the expense of managing an application on the hardware, Amitabh Srivastava, senior vice president at Microsoft with responsibility for Windows Azure, told me. So the goal was to allow Azure to run so developers don’t think about the underlying hardware as they might on a pure IaaS product.

This is where the idea of Azure as Microsoft’s OS for the cloud comes in. Azure is a platform-as-a-services play that seeks to leverage what Microsoft has learned through its OS dominance. First, it’s playing nice. Microsoft ensures that developers can use a wide variety of  programming languages to build on Azure such as PHP, Eclipse and Java, which is pretty unique among platforms. Earlier this year, I spoke with Microsoft about its plans for Azure and came away with the clear sense that the company’s programs and .Net would really shine on Azure, even though other programming languages would also work. Now I get the sense that Microsoft is working hard to emphasize how suitable Azure is for programs built using a variety of languages, even those that have no ties to Redmond.

Second, Microsoft is hoping Azure can play on many machines. If we view the data center as akin to a machine, Microsoft wants folks to be able to create applications that can run on a Microsoft Azure cloud or internally on an in-house cloud. Newly launched AppFabric is the solution for that. AppFabric is software that folks can run in their own data center to create an internal cloud that can talk to and share information with the public Azure cloud if the client wants. Rackspace and IBM are both attempting to build these types of bridges between internal and their external clouds.

Finally, Microsoft is trying to keep its own offerings separate. Instead of bundling Microsoft products with Azure, Srivastava outlined a software-as-a-services strategy that will offer customers Microsoft Exchange on Azure or SharePoint on Azure as a service. This may explain why some offerings such as SharePoint Services and Dynamics CRM Services, announced last year, are now divorced and missing from the Azure announcement this year.  However, competing software can be offered on Azure as well.

Larry Augustin, CEO of Sugar CRM, has chosen to offer customers the ability to host Sugar CRM on Azure, and says the platform was easy to build on, even though SugarCRM is built using PHP. He also mentioned that Microsoft’s database offerings were more complete than the newly launched Amazon Relational Database Service, and offered me a possible model for future clouds. In his vision, customers will be able to choose which clouds their software as a service are hosted on. This is the polar opposite of the vision espoused by SugarCRM’s biggest rival, Salesforce.com, which hosts its software on its own cloud. But the power of the modular and open approach is hard to deny, and Microsoft is smart to embrace that.

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