Review: Microsoft Azure reaches beyond Windows

Microsoft's cloud built for Windows and .Net has exploded with open source options and big data services

A long time ago in a century getting further and further away, Bill Gates compared MSN with the exploding World Wide Web, saw the future, and pivoted nicely to embrace the Internet. A few decades later, someone at Microsoft looked at the cloud and recognized that the old days of selling Windows Server OS licenses were fading. Today we have Microsoft Azure, Microsoft's pivot to cloud computing.

Azure is a cloud filled with racks and racks of machines like other clouds, but it also offers a wider collection of the building blocks that enterprise managers need to assemble modern, flexible websites.

There are common offerings, such as virtual machines, databases, and storage blocks. Then there are some not-so-common additions such as machine learning tools, parallel processing engines, service buses, networks, and connections to data farms. There are also some tools for debugging your code, sending emails, and installing databases like MongoDB or Cassandra or ClearDB's version of MySQL. You can draw on many tools made by companies that aren't Microsoft and many that are open source.

The wealth of options shows that Microsoft is actively trying to build a system that makes it easy for developers to produce a working website using the tools of their choice. Azure is not just delivering commodity hardware running Microsoft and leaving the rest up to you. It's starting to make it easier to bolt together all of the parts. In many cases, Microsoft bolted together many of the parts -- or at least threaded the nuts -- and your only job is to pour in some of your data. The process is rarely as simple as, say, sending an email, but it's dramatically easier than the old paradigm.

Microsoft's melting pot

The Azure service is a godsend for those who are heavily invested in Microsoft's operating systems. Many of the other clouds offer only Linux or BSD machines, or charge more to build out a Microsoft Windows server. Azure rents some basic Windows machines at the same bargain rate as Linux. The fatter machines with more power, though, will cost more if you want Windows running on them instead of Linux.

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