Microsoft sets Azure free; Appliance flutters to Fujitsu

Azure has spread beyond Redmond; Fujitsu will offer its own batch of Microsoft's cloud environment later this summer.

Almost a full year after a giddy, typically early Microsoft announcement, Redmond's Platform as a Service technology has left Microsoft's data centers and is running at giant IT supplier Fujitsu.

Microsoft Azure is available on Fujitsu hardware in the company's Tokyo data center, and customers can interact with it just like Microsoft's U.S.-based Azure services. The Fujitsu Global Cloud Platform/A5 (FGCP/A5 or Fujitsu Azure) will be live in August; users will have to sign up with Fujitsu to access the service, and pricing is expected to be the same as current Microsoft Azure pricing.

Microsoft service-level agreements stop at the edge of the data center. Fujitsu's don't have to.

Jeff Stucker, director of the Azure program for Fujitsu America

Users are by and large enthused, since this announcement cuts the Gordian Knot of enterprise IT security and public cloud services. Fujitsu says that, as a longstanding colocation and hosting provider, users can be assured their data is somewhere familiar, although it does not address concerns about multi-tenancy. Fujitsu Azure users will share data space on the platform within Fujitsu's environment, just like Microsoft Azure users do in Microsoft's data centers.

"This latest development is a significant milestone in making Windows Azure a ubiquitous enterprise solution," said Brian Fino, an IT consultant specializing in Microsoft development.

He said there was an intense dichotomy in the enterprise at the moment, between the almost-absurd ease with which Azure could be used and the need for IT shops to maintain control over infrastructure and data, still by far the biggest roadblock to cloud.

Fino said he spends the majority of his time developing demonstration apps and mobile apps on Azure, but he believes that Microsoft enterprise users will come over to Azure in bigger ways as they get the security guarantees they need. He added that the consumption model and programming model were also quite novel to most IT shops, in part because it is so streamlined and standardized on Microsoft's best practices ideas.

"When I look at that commonality and the standardization, it's relatively antithetical to the way most enterprise organizations work," he said.

Fujitsu's Azure to start cloud trend?
Some think cloud services like Azure are actually reshaping the way IT shops are going to work. Azure MVP and consultant Brent Stineman says he's watched firsthand as exposure to Azure and other public cloud services have made the earth move in an IT department. Stineman works for Minnesota based IT consulting firm Sogeti.

"Eventually the programming models we're pioneering in the cloud will come back on premises," he said, like readily consuming bits and pieces of an app from wherever it is most efficiently run; a little bit of SQL from here, storage from there, a runtime from somewhere else, and so on.

He said the Fujitsu announcement is a part of that trend, since it's going to give users more flexibility in consuming Azure. But the real movement for Microsoft shops will come later, as their private cloud products mature.

Stineman feels Azure is at its best when somebody else runs it for simple economies of scale. He added that it's still early days for the service.

"The key points that people running into are they can't quite understand the pricing model and they jump in assuming they're doing things the way they're used to," he said.

There's still confusion at Microsoft and with partners and customers, Stineman said, over exactly where Azure fits and how it's going to get integrated with other enterprise IT. That may be because it is such a novelty for Microsoft; Azure was developed as an almost-independent, skunkworks project that suddenly got a lot of exposure and users when it launched last year.

That is certainly reflected in the arduous tale of getting Azure out of Microsoft's environment and into Fujitsu's. Dell hardware ran the original Azure environment, although Microsoft takes pains to say that it is hardware-agnostic, software-only technology. Jeff Stucker, director of the Azure program for Fujitsu America, said that software was not the problem. Instead, it was sorting out exactly how data center operations were going to run. An x86 CPU is a CPU and Windows is Windows (Azure is, in part, a customized Windows Server 2008), but the monitoring, management and administration tools Fujitsu uses all had to be integrated and tuned, a non-trivial undertaking.

"What we've done is basically replicate the architecture that Microsoft used…the other piece was the management; the cloud stuff, monitoring, patches, upgrades," Stucker said. He wouldn't say exactly which parts of Azure Microsoft is still responsible for, but Fujitsu does operate all the hardware and data storage.

Fujitsu's infrastructure provides cloud confidence
One major thing Fujitsu has going for it is its size: It's the third largest IT vendor in the world, behind HP and IBM. The company owns extensive infrastructure that goes beyond compute and storage.

This latest development is a significant milestone in making Windows Azure a ubiquitous enterprise solution.

Brian Fino, IT consultant

"Microsoft service-level agreements stop at the edge of the data center. Fujitsu's don't have to," Stucker said. SLAs are a key concern of enterprise IT that cloud computing hasn't sorted out yet. Fujitsu can also do inter-data center connections and backhaul links between colo users and Fujitsu Azure, something Microsoft cannot do.

Stucker said this was a very attractive quid pro quo for both firms. He noted that Microsoft has no data center presence where Fujitsu operates; notably, Japan, Australia and Europe. Microsoft runs data centers in Singapore and Ireland but has nowhere near the footprint Fujitsu does in the Asia Pacific region. Stucker also said that Fujitsu was the single largest consumer of Azure compute time amongst Microsoft partners, largely through its channel, so there was a real demand.

He noted that cloud consumption was ramping up more slowly than anticipated -- there's a certain level of math on ROI that needs to be met in the enterprise -- but the size of the market is exactly what was expected.

"There are some very basic problems to solve around data protection and security, and as we solve them, we're seeing more demand," he said.

Microsoft has not announced any progress for Azure Appliances for non-service providers, as other vendors have done with Cisco's UCS platform and Oracle Exalogic, but Stucker said that, as far as he knows, that is still the goal. HP, Dell and eBay are the other announced Azure Appliance resellers, but there is no word on when those firms will open up Azure shops, presumably because they are battling the same operation gremlins Fujitsu and Microsoft had to iron out. As always, it seems the devil is in the details.

Carl Brooks is the Senior Technology Writer for SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at cbrooks@techtarget.com.

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