Microsoft Windows Azure Is Now Available in 21 Countries

Microsoft says its cloud-based Windows Azure platform is now generally available in 21 countries. Having previously offered Azure for free to attract developers, Microsoft will start charging for use of Azure starting on Feb. 2. The cloud computing arena is a potential $150 billion market in which Microsoft already faces strong competition from Google and, and Microsoft executives have suggested that promoting the Azure platform is a vital part of the company's strategy in 2010 and beyond.

The Windows Azure platform, Microsoft's competitor in the cloud computing arena, achieved general availability in 21 countries starting on Feb. 1. As part of that rollout, Microsoft will begin charging for Windows Azure and SQL Azure starting at 12:00 a.m. GMT on Feb. 2, in order to give all countries in all time zones the chance to complete their full January of free service.

"Starting today, customers and partners in countries across the globe will be able to launch their Windows Azure and SQL Azure production applications and services with the support of the full service-level agreements," read a post on the Windows Azure Team Blog. "The Windows Azure platform AppFabric Service Bus and Access Control will continue to be free until April 2010 for those that sign up for a commercial subscription. Additionally, 'Project Dallas' will continue to be in a free CTP."

Customers who do not upgrade their Windows Azure Community Technology Preview accounts will have their service disabled and Windows Azure storage rendered read-only; SQL Azure CTP customers will not be able to create new databases. Any SQL Azure CTP accounts and Windows Azure Storage CTP accounts that haven't been upgraded will be deleted by March 1 and April 1, respectively. "It is important to export your data if you do not plan to upgrade to a commercial subscription prior to these days," the Windows Azure Team Blog post warned.

During Microsoft's Jan. 28 earnings call, Chief Financial Officer Peter Klein told analysts and media that Azure would provide developers with a "smooth transition to the cloud with tools and processes" and that the platform was one of the key products for the company in 2010.

The Azure platform is composed of three parts designed to operate in symphony for the creation of Web applications and services: Windows Azure, an operating system as a service; SQL Azure, a cloud-based relational database; and .NET services, designed to provide secure connectivity and federated access control for applications.

Much of Azure's model was inspired by Bing, Microsoft's search engine, the infrastructure of which had been built on an Autopilot platform that allows automatic data center management.

"Autopilot is a great prototype, but it wasn't built as a platform that could be generalized," Bob Muglia, president of Microsoft's Server and Tools Business Division, said during a Nov. 17 keynote at the 2009 Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles. "That's where Azure has come in-to take those ideas and generalize them in the form of an application platform that can be broadly used."

Azure was offered as a Community Technology Preview until the end of 2009, after which it was fully switched on. In order to encourage developers to adopt the system, Microsoft chose to offer it for free until February 2010.

Customers have three payment options: a pay-as-you-go model, a subscription format and volume licensing. For any of those three types of service, users will pay 10 cents per gigabyte for incoming data and 15 cents per gigabyte for outgoing data. Under the "consumption" model, users will pay 12 cents per hour of infrastructure usage, while storage will cost 15 cents per gigabyte. The business edition of the SQL Azure database will cost a flat $99.99.

Microsoft is placing Azure in competition with cloud-based offerings from Google and, fighting for a chunk of what analysts estimate will grow to be a $150 billion market. Other Microsoft cloud-based initiatives include Windows Server 2008 R2 Hyper-V virtual machine support on Azure, and Microsoft Pinpoint Marketplace, which will let partners make use of the cloud to market and sell applications. The RTM of Windows Identity Foundation will allow developers to provide simplified user access to both cloud and on-premises applications.

In addition to these developer-focused initiatives, Microsoft is taking steps into the cloud in the arena of end-user experience, by offering stripped-down versions of its productivity applications to Windows Live subscribers. These applications include OneNote, Excel, Word and PowerPoint; however, users wanting the full range of options for each of these will need to purchase the full version of Office 2010, due for release in June. The move seems tailored on Microsoft's part to counter a growing threat from cloud-based productivity application platforms such as Google Apps.