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Azure's battle plan: Be all things to all people

By supporting non-Microsoft programming languages, new application programming interfaces and pricing changes, Microsoft wants to corner the market on Platform as a Service software with Azure.

As it tries to lure developers into the world of cloud computing, Microsoft will cast a wide net with its online application Azure.

Azure is Microsoft's answer to the rise of cloud computing. Unlike cloud providers Amazon or Rackspace, which let customers run their own servers and software remotely, Azure is a platform, like an operating system, where IT pros and developers can develop and run programs.

Azure is currently in community technology preview (CTP) and is expected to become generally available this fall. Microsoft recently disclosed pricing, which appears to be aimed at undercutting Amazon Web Services (AWS). But Azure is far more similar to Google's Platform as a Service (PaaS) offering, App Engine, than AWS, and Microsoft is gearing up to challenge Google by offering broad new interoperability with programming languages like Ruby, Java and Python. It also plans to add alternative price options.

"The real competitor for Azure is [Google App Engine], and they better set themselves to be competitive" or risk irrelevancy in the new PaaS market, said Roger Jennings, a Microsoft Web services and .NET developer. "App Engine has a lot of developers and a pricing advantage," he said.

Jennings said Microsoft has added support for development tools and languages to broaden its appeal. If developers have a selection of tools they already use in traditional Windows environments available in Azure, they'll be less hesitant to try it, he said.

Google App Engine has made moves in the same direction. Initially supporting only Google's version of Java, it now supports Java and Python as well. Force.com, Salesforce.com's PaaS and the other major player in this area, restricts developers to a proprietary programming language and shows no sign of opening up.

Jennings also cited Google's free threshold, where developers can use App Engine for free until they consume a set amount of computing power, and then set a maximum amount they can be charged for in a given period. He said the curious can try it for free and judge the pitfalls before making a commitment, no matter how small. "People seem loath to give Microsoft their credit card," he said.

Free-to-try or free developer's licenses are a distinct possibility, according to Brent Stineman, a senior consultant at Sogeti USA. Stineman said, in addition to test-driving Azure, he's worked with other online services from Microsoft and said it was known to give away access if looked like it might be a barrier to adoption. "[Microsoft is] very flexible in this online world," he said.

Azure's consumption model pricing
Microsoft's current pricing is patterned after Amazon's per-hour-per server pricing, but that was just to get users familiar with the idea. "We we came out with our price model, we needed something both our customers and our partners – our channel – could easily grok, right?" said Prashat Ketkar, the director of product marketing for Azure at Microsoft.

"We will absolutely have a subscription model…right now we have a consumption model" akin to Google's, he said. Ketkar said new pricing would be much closer to Google's or to traditional hosting, where capacity, bandwidth and computing power are spelled out in monthly or yearly fees. He said the new fees and the wide interoperability were designed to make it easier for Microsoft resellers to get busy with Azure.

"One of the advantages we have over our competitors is the channel," he said. He foresees an Azure that can be cut down or built up to any size or shape by Microsoft partners and resold any way they like.

Carl Brooks is the Technology Writer for SearchCloudComputing.com. For more information, check out our Troposphere blog.

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