Microsoft's new cloud-based platform, Azure, could offer the enterprise a way to overcome its reservations about porting IT infrastructure online, even if companies ultimately choose to utilize another cloud platform.
Azure, which Microsoft originally announced on Oct. 27, 2008, at the Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles, will go head-to-head against offerings from Amazon.com and Google. Yet despite the massive promise of cloud computing, periods of unexpected downtime for Azure's early test release, as well as Google and other online platforms, have hinted at the structural obstacles still facing the cloud model.
Although some IT professionals may have reservations about running their operations via a public cloud, Microsoft has no plans to make Azure available to run on a private cloud set up by a company. However, Microsoft has integrated certain functionality developed for Azure into Windows Server 2008, such as the ability to boot from a VHD (Virtual Hard Disk), which could allow businesses to bring an Azure-like experience to certain aspects of the cloud.
Doug Hauger, general manager of Windows Azure, said in an interview with eWEEK that Microsoft's customers had come to him asking for that sort of functionality as they considered building their own private cloud platforms.
"They said, 'Look, we'll have some of our workloads in a public multitenant offering, but we want to build our own cloud platform,' by which they mean automated provisioning, internal provisioning and then essentially a scale-out," Hauger said. Microsoft's answer to that request was to "take the innovation we're planning for Azure and integrate it into Windows Server, so we have the functionality."
A simpler-than-ever Web-based platform for developing and hosting applications could prove a sizable lure for the enterprise.
"One challenge Microsoft currently has as a high-performance, scalable Web platform [is] the cost and complexity of supporting the .NET/SQL Server stack," Ed Laczynski, CTO of LTech Consulting, a cloud-technology integrator, said in an e-mail to eWEEK. "If Azure is successful, it will change that. It's a scalable, one-stop-shop platform."
However, Laczynski noted, the cloud-platform arena has become increasingly crowded with contenders.
"Our clients are interested in Azure, but they aren't waiting for it," Laczynski said. "We've done deployments on Amazon EC2 for Windows 2003/SQL. [However,] we see Azure being very popular in existing Microsoft shops. E-commerce, Web 2.0 and open-source-based shops that don't rely on .NET or SQL Server technologies will probably not have much interest in the platform."
But Hauger argued that the cost savings that come from utilizing the cloud could appeal to small and midsize businesses and enterprises currently using non-Microsoft, open-source platforms.
"I started talking to non-Microsoft customers," Hauger said, "expecting them to push back, and they said, 'You don't understand, we just want a valuable but cost-effective platform.'"
Microsoft plans on making Azure, which is available now, a free offering until the Professional Developers Conference in November. In a July 14 presentation during the Worldwide Partner Conference, Hauger cited a Gartner study that showed cloud services as a potential "$150 billion business opportunity for the marketplace," making it imperative for Microsoft to begin its market-share penetration in an early and aggressive manner.
Microsoft will attempt to "build the market momentum" for Azure, according to Hauger, by offering discounts for partners above and beyond the five-month free period.
In keeping with its new initiative to offer different delivery modes for its upcoming products, Microsoft is proposing three ways for customers to interact with the platform. The first will be a pay-as-you-go "consumption" model, the second will have a subscription-based format and the third will be based on volume licensing.
In terms of pricing, the consumption model will cost 12 cents per hour for infrastructure usage and another 15 cents per gigabyte for storage. The business edition of the SQL Azure database, with 10GB of storage, will cost $99.99. All three types of Azure services will cost users 10 cents per gigabyte for incoming data and 15 cents for outgoing.
A soft benefit to the platform, of course, could be the business community's increased acceptance of cloud computing as a concept.
"By investing in Azure, Microsoft is giving credibility to the cloud space in general, which is good for the entire ecosystem," Laczynski said. "If it's secure and it conforms to open Web standards, they will be able to make an impact in the enterprise with it."