Windows Azure challenges Amazon cloud with Windows, Linux, kitchen sink

Microsoft is willing to open up support and match Amazon on price, but can Windows Azure make inroads in IaaS market?

Competition in the cloud infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) market ratcheted up a few degrees this week as Microsoft launched Windows Azure, its reply to the marketing-leading Amazon Web Service (AWS).

AWS dominates the IaaS landscape, with its cloud services netting an estimated $1.8 billion in revenues last year and projected by at least one analyst firm to hit $20 billion by 2020. Still, competition abounds from providers such as Rackspace, IBM, Google, HP, Savvis, VMware, and Terremark.

Microsoft showed it was serious about throwing its hat into that crowded ring when it bid adieu last June to Windows Azure's humble beginnings as a PaaS and injected IaaS capabilities into the platform, adding virtual machines and crucial support for Linux. If Microsoft is to stand a chance in taking on AWS, it will need to capture a good share of the Linux market.

To lure enterprises and developers to its cloud, Microsoft has also moved step-by-step to widen Azure's mobile platform support outside of its own operating systems, starting with iOS and Android. Last month the company made it easier to deploy and manage Hadoop clusters and integrate more mobile apps with the cloud platform, and it added the ability for pure HTML5 and Cordova/PhoneGap apps to use Windows Azure for data storage and authentication.

Amazon has made a religion of cutting prices, most recently earlier this month when it moved in lockstep with Google, which reduced prices on its rival Compute Engine. Azure's new pricing model offers a 21 percent price cut on Windows Azure Virtual Machines and a 33 percent reduction for solutions deployed using Windows Azure Cloud Services, showing Microsoft's willingness to match Amazon on pricing.

But customers' cloud decisions are not solely about price so much as about features and functionality. And the Windows Azure released this week offers customers a comprehensive hybrid cloud solution. It expands the built-in gallery of VMIs (virtual machine images) with new templates for Windows Server images -- including Windows Server 2012, Windows Server 2008 R2, SQL Server, BizTalk Server, and SharePoint Server -- as well as Linux images, among them Ubuntu, CentOS, and Suse Linux distributions. The update can accommodate larger VMs, and a key new feature is the Windows Azure Management Portal, a browser-based console that an administrator uses as the primary point of control for creating an enterprise's virtual infrastructure.

Microsoft is banking on the fact that "customers don't want to rip and replace their current infrastructure to benefit from the cloud; they want the strengths of their on-premises investments and the flexibility of the cloud," wrote Bill Hilf, general manager of Windows Azure Product Management, on the Azure blog. "The cloud should be an enabler for innovation, and an extension of your organization's IT fabric, not just a fancier way to describe cheap infrastructure and application hosting."

InfoWorld's Eric Knorr discovered one such instance of innovation this week when interviewing Van Beach, product manager at Milliman, one of the largest independent actuarial and consulting firms. Milliman adopted Windows Azure back when it launched in 2010, and Beach says moving to the public cloud transformed the business and deepened relationships with customers: "We've gone from providing a single solution through a product to really a broader solution set, and tackled the problems that our clients faced at a much broader level rather than just specific calculations. Now we're talking about infrastructure and really a more complete package."

According to Microsoft's Hilf, Windows Azure boasts a growing list of more than 200,000 customers. But are Azure's advances enough to help it catch Amazon Web Services? Network World's Tim Greene writes that while Azure "is a step forward for Microsoft, the new offerings and pricing won't unseat the dominance of AWS, says Ed Anderson, an analyst with Gartner. 'This isn't going to change the momentum for AWS,' he says. 'There's no reason for enterprises to disrupt their cloud services. ... Amazon has all the momentum right now,'" even after Microsoft's latest announcements.

Still, success in the enterprise has remained elusive for AWS. The difference for Azure could depend on how well it can attract those enterprise customers.

This article, "Windows Azure challenges Amazon cloud with Windows, Linux, kitchen sink," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.