Blog Post

Microsoft Azure: B for effort, less for execution

Microsoft (s msft) has poured money and resources into Windows Azure, its grand attempt to transport the company’s software dominance into the cloud computing era. How’s it doing? So-so.

Nearly everyone agrees that Azure has huge promise. It’s a soup-to-nuts Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) for developing, deploying and hosting applications. And yet, much of that promise remains unfulfilled. Despite its support for a full complement of computer languages, Azure remains Windows .NET-centric.

In July 2010, seven months after Azure went live, Microsoft claimed 10,000 users. Since then, it has only said that Azure has added thousands of more users monthly. That total number may be big, but it’s unclear how many of these customers are viable commercial users as opposed to tire kickers.

For better or worse, Azure is viewed as an attempt to lock customers into Microsoft’s Windows-centric worldview, this time in the cloud. That may be fine for the admittedly huge population of .NET developers, but new-age web shops don’t take to that idea. Nor do they necessarily like the idea of having Microsoft infrastructure as their only deployment option which is currently the case.

It’s hard to compete with Amazon

A long-time Microsoft development partner who builds e-commerce websites exemplifies Microsoft’s problem. His tool set includes SQL Server and other parts of the Microsoft stack, but he deploys the sites on Amazon Web Services. (s amzn) He tried Azure, but gave up in frustration.

Why? He gives Azure an F-grade mostly because Azure is all about Azure. “It’s a programming platform that can only be used in Azure. Legacy apps are out in the cold — it’s only new development. And the coup de grace is that five years after [Microsoft leadership] finally figured out that they need to be able to run what amounts to an elastic cloud instance, they’re still only in beta with that,” he said. “Meanwhile, Amazon adds features and flourishes every month.”

He was referring to Microsoft’s decision last year to make more bite-sized bits of infrastructure available to developers — to make Azure more AWS-like. Part of this was the availability of Azure VM Roles. This technology was a step in the right direction for companies more interested in using parts of Microsoft Windows Azure infrastructure rather than the whole shebang. As Derrick Harris wrote last October:

[The Azure VM role]…is very close to what traditional IaaS offerings provide for users. In fact, AWS actually has been allowing users to run existing Windows Server licenses in its cloud for several months. By adding the VM role capability, Microsoft is making Azure a direct competitor to IaaS clouds that offer Windows instances, most so AWS.

(Update: Microsoft said the pilot for the above-mentioned AWS program has expired. The company now offers a new Service Agreement benefit for license mobility that applies to all qualified hosters –including Azure).

Microsoft also launched Extra Small Instances, at 5 cents per hour (now 4 cents per hour). AWS subsequently offered Windows Micro Instances on its cloud for 3 cents per hour.

Lack of deployment choices

Another roadblock is that, thus far, there is no option for companies wanting to run Azure-based private clouds in-house. That’s a big one for many financial institutions and others with compliance issues, said the chief architect of a company that builds internal clouds for customers. “All of my customers want and need private clouds. Azure is not there yet,” he said. He is evaluating OpenStack, the open-source IaaS backed by Rackspace (s rax), NASA, HP (s hpq), Dell (s dell) and others, for many of these clients.

Microsoft’s Windows Azure Appliance, plans for which were announced in July 2010, would make that possible for some large customers, but the product isn’t yet available. Aiming to propagate Azure beyond its own data centers, Microsoft said that Fujitsu, Dell and HP were building out their own Azure clouds to host customers. Of those three, only Fujitsu’s implementation is online. Rackspace is also talking about offering an Azure option.

Naysayers maintain that Microsoft’s Windows-Office power isn’t carrying over into the cloud realm. “Customers just do not care what’s running in the cloud — the Microsoft brand means nothing there … and Microsoft seems to think it can take 10 years to get this right, just as it took 10 years to get SharePoint right, but this is a whole new era,” said the e-commerce developer.

The CIO of a large hotel chain concurred. He’s willing to go to Azure, provided it gives him the price and service-level agreements (SLAs) he requires. But there’s nothing magic about Microsoft’s name in this space. And the lack of deployment choice means he is less likely to go there.

New age venue, new age competitors

Microsoft, which wielded its Windows-Office power to pummel dozens of rivals from Borland to WordPerfect in the client-server era may not find those weapons helpful in the cloud where companies like VMware (s VMw) and (s CRM) have more credibility. VMware, the server virtualization powerhouse, launched its Cloud Foundry earlier this year as the “open” cloud PaaS that allows developers to use their integrated development environment (IDE) of choice and deploy on their cloud of choice.

It doesn’t help Microsoft’s cause that some of its biggest hardware allies have mixed loyalties. Dell is both in the Azure and the OpenStack camp as is HP. An HP executive privately expressed concern over Microsoft’s cloud direction after the departure of Bob Muglia, the Microsoft Server & Tools president who led Azure. Muglia left last summer after a strategic disagreement with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Muglia’s departure, was “a huge red flag for us,” the executive said. Muglia’s exit was doubly unsettling coming just months after the departure of Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s chief software architect. Many thought Ozzie brought Microsoft some needed perspective on the cloud, whereas most other Microsoft execs had vested interests in preserving their on-premises software business and had no incentive to see cloud services cannibalize their sales.

All of this isn’t to say Azure has no fans. A large integrator in the Washington, D.C. area has done some Azure deals for small and mid-market companies. “We see SaaS services as the real traction [for Azure], followed by IaaS for test, dev, disaster recovery/business continuity and storage,” he said. “Law firms have found that for some case types, [Azure] storage can be a great deal versus buying massive amounts of storage for a case that will only require the large storage need for a short time and small (usually supported on site after the initial scrub) storage amount for longer term.”

David MacLaren, CEO and founder of VRX Studios, looked at Amazon, Google (s GOOG) and Microsoft options when he needed to build a cloud-based Digital Asset Management (DAM) system. He opted for Microsoft Azure partly because all of his customers — including 10,000 hotels around the world — are businesses that already have Windows expertise. With Azure, he was also able to tap into Microsoft’s Content Delivery Network — the one used by Xbox — as needed.

When the resulting Mediavalet service needs a content delivery push, “it takes two minutes to turn on CDN to light up 25 additional data centers around the world — all without calling Akamai (s akam) and telling them how we want it done.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr user TechFlash Todd.

14 Responses to “Microsoft Azure: B for effort, less for execution”

  1. It seems to me that Shannon missed the point about the Azure VM role. I just checked now and as far as I can be the VM role is still in beta. If it is now production, please, someone post the link.

    Absent that, Shannon either got a waiver from MSFT to run his “production application” in the beta period or he is running at his own peril. MSFT is really responsible about production limitations during the beta period, so it’s something that ought to be taken seriously.

  2. Shawn Harvick

    The problem with this article is the sheer largess of misinformation. Let’s explore:

    First and foremost.. who is this anonymous e-commerce developer and why is he anonymous?
    What is his stack and programming language tendency?
    And this CIO of a large hotel chain?
    I’ve never seen an article that was so conscious of keeping all it’s quotes anonymous

    but let’s get into the meat and potatoes:

    1) ” [The Azure VM role]…is very close to what traditional IaaS offerings provide for users. …Microsoft is making Azure a direct competitor to IaaS clouds that offer Windows instances, most so AWS. ”

    What? Anybody who has ever looked at the VMRole will see that this isn’t true at all. It’s stateless and works similar to the Web/Worker that’s already in place. It has close to no resemblance of an AWS instance at all.

    A simple search would have yielded this answer:

    So the entire section about “It’s hard to compete with Amazon” really means nothing because Microsoft has done nothing TO compete with Amazon. Azure is a PaaS and Amazon is IaaS. That’s it.

    2) “Azure remains Windows .NET-centric.”

    Really? I had thought Microsoft had invested a ton of time and money in building toolkits so they can span out across a ton of languages? Let me look… – PHP – Eclipse IDE plugin – Java SDK – Java SDK – Toolkit for iOS Tookit for Android

    Azure is anything but .NET centric. In fact I was at a talk in Interop where the speaker said that 30% of the top grossing apps in Azure are running Java. Only reason this stuck with me is that I run 2 apps in Java.

    3) “Microsoft claimed 10,000 users. Since then, it has only said that Azure has added thousands of more users monthly. That total number may be big, but it’s unclear how many of these customers are viable commercial users as opposed to tire kickers.”

    C’mon.. you could have at least tried to search.

    And the same can be said about every cloud provider. We know some of the great AWS stories, and there will be a ton more..but of the hundreds of thousands, how many are still dev/ many are “tire kickers”. I know I’m a customer there, but I haven’t done anything in months. Do I count? How many are me?

    So let’s highlight some Azure goodness in an article so full of badness

    Windows Azure beats Amazon EC2, Google App Engine in cloud speed test
    Microsoft Adopts Apache Hadoop for Big Data Analytics –

    obviously there is a more but just go to the case studies to see:

    and I’ll leave you with and excerpt from a great article that was just written in Information Week:

    “Azure, Microsoft’s big foray into the cloud is also turning heads. Market share numbers are difficult to come by, but support for Java, Python, PHP and Ruby, in addition to .Net seemed the antithesis of the old Microsoft. ….on Monday InformationWeek’s Charlie Babcock reported that Compuware’s CloudSleuth named Azure the top cloud performer in its year-round performance testing. Take the data with a grain of salt, but don’t take Azure for granted, either.”

      • hi shawn. thanks for this link. I talked to MSFT the day before publishing and they provided the user #s cited — that they had announced 10K users last year and since then have added “thousands per month.”

        as for the anonymous quotes–well the developer is a msft gold partner so he does not want to endanger his relationship w msft, and as stated uses Msft SQL Server and other tools to build his apps–he just chooses to deploy on AWS for cost reasons and because he really does need IaaS. The story does say that Azure is PaaS vs. Iaas, but his point is that msft really needs the IaaS piece for people like him.

        anyway, thanks for your comments.

  3. Sadly, there are many factual errors on this article and inferences built on them. Citing two, Windows Azure is not .NET-centric; it can run any language or platform Windows Server is capable of, including PHP, Java and Node.js. Another issue is that the VM Role is not IaaS; it is still PaaS. It is very similar to the worker role and is subject to the same rules; basically it is a pre-configured worker role, useful when it would take too long to configure a new worker role at boot up.

    What the article fails to realize is that Windows Azure is a platform as a service, and its value is in the managed services it offers.

  4. Its interesting you mention Ray Ozzie. Ozzie is the main reason that Azure is in the position its in. He didn’t care in the slightest about existing infrastructure and systems at Microsoft. He wanted to build the most ideologically pure cloud operating system — which he did. An app built on Azure will scale better and more efficiently than an app built on legacy technologies like VMs.

    Problem was, nobody cared. People just didn’t want to throw away everything they had learned for a new untested system. Nobody wanted to build something that they couldn’t port to another platform if they needed to. And all of Microsoft’s much vaunted Windows Office or developer toolsets were of no use, because Ozzie ignored it all.

    This kind of blindness to both customer and technological realities is why Ozzie has always failed as businessman.

    Ironically, if “traditional” Microsoft had built Azure, it would have done VMs first and made its easy for people to move Window Server apps to the cloud and coexist with on-premise services. This is of course what the people cleaning up behind Ozzie are doing.

  5. Rick G. Garibay

    There seem to be a number of assumptions about Windows Azure in this commentary.

    First, as @Shannon points out, you can run other langauges like PHP, Ruby,etc. What’s more, Azure runs in Full Trust, which means that there are very little limits to what you can run on Azure, including JVM, MySQL, etc:

    That Azure was late to the game on VM Roles is fair, but this is really a response to a market that is not yet mature enough to adopt PaaS. IaaS, in my opinion is a stop gap, unless of course you are in the IaaS business.

    Azure is a PaaS platform. If you do a feature by feature comaprison with other vendors, the winner is clear.

    Another thing the author obviously isn’t aware of is that you can consume Azure Storage(Tables, Blobs, and Queues) by simply issuing HTTP requests: This means that the Storage Stack as well as support for federated security (Azure Access Control Services) and loosely coupled, durable inter-cloud and hybrid messaging (Azure Service Bus Brokered Messaging) are natively interoperable.

    All that said, there is no question that Azure is and should feel like a first class place for .NET development. There are half a billion Windows client OS’ deployed in the world today and millions of .NET developers with a decade of proven experience to take advantage of these offerings. Its all about the platform, and .NET is a platform that has continued to evolve at a breathtaking pace over the last decade.

    Is Azure perfect? No. But it is a new frontier in which Microsoft is truly innovating and what they have accomplished thus far places them as a legitimate contender in the new cloud market.

  6. Jeff Putz

    Disclaimer: I just left Microsoft last month, though not for any reason negative to the company.

    The distinction between IaaS and PaaS is an important distinction to understand Azure, but even with that understanding, it’s not particularly hard to put “legacy” applications into Azure, if they’re built right. The big adjustment is the idea that your app can live in multiple instances, and as such, has to be able to “think” like that. For example, you can’t use local memory to cache (HttpRuntime.Cache, for the .NET folks out there) because there’s no certainty about which instance a customer will hit next. Provided your app is already built to run in a “farm” or across multiple machines, you’re already pretty close to there.

  7. Azure does have promise, though as you mentioned – only for new apps.
    I have a .NET 3.5 application that I want to port to Azure. But there is lack of good documentation on how to go about this. Azure books are all focused on writing new applications.

    Besides, Azure SQL pricing is not competitive. $99 + transaction costs for 10GB db.
    We use several large databases to serve our customers. Azure SQL pricing is ridiculously expensive. I will stick to a dedicated Windows server for now.

    Why would I want to run non-Azure apps on Azure? Isn’t Amazon the clear choice there? I think Microsoft needs to focus on their core customers and deliver the best possible Windows experience.

  8. Shannon Whitley

    I’ve been running Azure with my production application for several months. It’s scaling very well and the performance is excellent.

    It’s unfortunate that the “long-time Microsoft development partner” wasn’t provided with the correct information. You can run non-Azure applications very easily on Azure. People may be surprised to learn that, at its core, Azure is just a collection of virtualized Windows servers. Anything that normally runs on Windows will run on Azure.

    I have developed several .NET console applications that run through Windows Task Scheduler on Azure. The link below explains how to run non-Azure apps.