Microsoft to battle Amazon with Azure improvements and services

Microsoft will reintroduce Windows Azure next month with a new Web hosting framework and a detailed roadmap for its long-awaited IaaS, sources say.

In a move to better compete with Amazon Web Services, Microsoft will roll out new Windows Azure cloud services early next month. Some features will make it easier to move legacy workloads to the cloud and make it cheaper to publish websites on Azure.

The announcement will come at an event on June 7 in San Francisco headlined “Meet Windows Azure." Microsoft plans to announce at least two new capabilities for Azure at the event.

The first capability, a Web hosting framework previously codenamed “Antares,” will provide “a fine granularity Web apps-hosting service," according to sources who have been briefed. The framework should make it less expensive to host websites on Azure.

Some of the older partners here say they’ll host sensitive data in the clouds only over their dead bodies, but the younger ones say they don’t care.

Susan Bradley, a partner with Tamiyasu, Smith, Horn & Braun

Microsoft will also reveal the roadmap for its much anticipated Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) features referred to as "persistent VM roles."

"The persistent VM roles solve the problem of being able to move or migrate existing, as is, apps into Windows Azure,” said one source. “The Windows Azure website [hosting framework] will address the challenge of cost-effectively hosting websites in Windows Azure."

Delivering VM roles critical for Windows Azure

VM roles provide a virtualization layer that will allow customers to run their own applications, but those capabilities are already more than a year late to market. Sources confirmed rumors that persistent VM roles will include support for Linux.

Delivering on the promise of VM roles will be an important development, according to two long-time Microsoft watchers.

“Anything [Microsoft] can do to bring legacy apps to Azure without rewriting them will help,” said Al Hilwa, program director for applications development software at IDC, a market research firm based in Framingham, Mass.

 VM roles are something customers want, and they’ll put Azure in a better competitive position against Amazon, said Rob Sanfilippo, research vice president at Kirkland, Wash.-based research group Directions on Microsoft.

“There’s a big part of the market that wants to run applications and they don’t want to port them,” Sanfilippo said.

One source, however, expressed doubts that Azure's VM roles will provide all promised capabilities and features in the first iterations. One of the ultimate goals is to enable enterprise applications to run both on Azure and on-premises with few, if any, modifications.

Microsoft’s strategic commitment to persistent VM roles indicates Microsoft is shifting its focus to IaaS and away from Platform as a Service (PaaS) -- at least for the short-term.

"At this point, Scott Guthrie has a PaaS vision that is going to take longer to develop than the company is comfortable with, so they are coming up with a strategy to address that," the source said. Guthrie is Microsoft's vice president in charge of the Azure Application Platform team.


Will Microsoft shops buy into PaaS?

The main questions are: Can Microsoft invest in IaaS now but move to PaaS long-term? And will the company be able to continually alter people’s thinking in that direction? This may take some convincing. Many customers are too busy to contemplate new ways to do things, so it won’t happen organically.

Microsoft and Amazon would like me to migrate everything, I’m sure.

Eugene Lee, a senior systems administrator with a large bank in Charlotte, N.C.

While Microsoft shops appreciate the company’s plans for Azure, most are hardly ready to jump on board.

“The only two reasons I would go to the cloud [would be] if my key vendors told me the only way they intend to offer my apps is as a Web-hosted solution, and if it made more sense to store something on a server located someplace other than here,” said Susan Bradley, a partner with Tamiyasu, Smith, Horn & Braun, an accounting firm in Fresno, Calif.

The more experienced and conservative managers at Bradley’s firm, which internally store a wealth of clients’ sensitive information, still have deep concerns over cloud security.

”Some of the older partners here say they’ll host sensitive data in the clouds only over their dead bodies, but the younger ones say they don’t care,” she said.

IT pros see the value of moving some data to the cloud, though.

“Microsoft and Amazon would like me to migrate everything, I’m sure,” said Eugene Lee, a senior systems administrator with a large bank in Charlotte, N.C. “But if I’m paying them monthly fees for what could be a handful of products and services, it has to make sense and be offered at a fair price.”

Another drawback to migrating to the cloud for small and midsized companies, Bradley said, is the difficulty in determining the nature and cause of technical problems when they occur.

“If something goes wrong now I can log in and see what is going on,” Bradley said. “But if I have a problem with something in the cloud, I have to look at Twitter to see if an outage, for instance, is affecting just me or everyone. The alerting systems are not as robust as they should be.”

Microsoft officials declined to comment.

Stuart J. Johnston is Senior News Writer for SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at sjohnston@techtarget.com.

Ed Scannell is Senior Executive Editor for SearchCloudComputing.com and SearchWindowsServer.com. He can be contacted at escannell@techtarget.com.

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