Microsoft’s Cloud Platform, Azure, Looks to Combine Best of Google, Amazon Web Services

The idea of computing “in the cloud” is certainly, well, in the air—to the point where I think people are starting to become allergic to it. It seems that “cloud computing” has become the new “nano.” Putting the term in front of whatever your business is doing doesn’t necessarily make it a good (or even viable) strategy. And the concept—making data storage, computing power, and software applications available over the Internet via remote servers—certainly isn’t new.

But if Microsoft is betting heavily on it, you know it has gone totally mainstream. Last October, Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s chief software architect, announced Windows Azure, the company’s upcoming cloud-based operating system, and Azure Services, which is meant to allow software developers to build and run software applications hosted on Microsoft servers. The platform is still in the “community technology preview” stage, with a more general release planned for later this year. There has been a lot of speculation about what Microsoft’s cloud-based products can and can’t do—and so far the top brass, including Ozzie (who just spoke at Friday’s Technology Alliance luncheon in Seattle), have kept mum on the details.

Enter Doug Hauger, general manager of cloud infrastructure services and former chief operating officer of Microsoft India. Hauger gave a talk last Thursday evening, organized by the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA), in which he spelled out Microsoft’s world view of cloud computing. Hauger said his goal was to convey, “What are we thinking about cloud, and what should people be thinking about?”

It was the final event in a four-part WTIA cloud computing series, which included talks by Amazon, Google, and Terremark. Thursday’s event also had a demo from Ian Knox of Seattle-based Skytap, showing how companies can run Microsoft’s development software in the cloud, and use Skytap’s cloud-computing platform to set up virtual environments for doing testing and debugging; Microsoft is one of Skytap’s partners. But what most people were wondering was how Microsoft is positioning itself versus Amazon and Google in the competition for cloud services.

Hauger, a Boston University alum, didn’t say anything particularly earth-shattering, and he didn’t give very many specifics about Windows Azure—which is fair enough, since the product isn’t out there yet. He did clarify that it’s pronounced “AZH-ure,” with the emphasis on the first syllable (sort of rhymes with “badger”)—at least that’s how Hauger says it. Here are my top five takeaways from his talk:

5. “CIOs are incredibly confused” about the cloud, Hauger said. “IT vendors are saying, ‘This is an evolution,'” from the mainframe computers of the 1970s, to client-server systems in the 80s, to Web development in the 90s, to cloud services in 2009 and beyond. “But all this stuff still exists. Mainframes are still here today. There are shared pieces of all this together, and you have to take all this into account as you think about cloud services.”

4. For chief information officers and chief technology officers, all of this boils down to four top-of-mind issues that Microsoft is trying to address: portability (hosting data and applications on-site or off), interoperability (putting data storage on Amazon Web Services, say, and computing power on Windows Azure), manageability (everything has to be consistent and coherent), and security (corporate customers have compliance and audit requirements).

3. Cloud customers will trust Microsoft—once the company delivers its product. “What is interesting and a huge opportunity is, [companies] are advancing very quickly into this space,” Hauger said. “We’re very, very early, but people are starting to get educated.” Cost is the key driver, and trust is no longer an issue. “Customers are telling me, ‘There are only one or two companies we’d trust.’ They just want us to get our technology act together and deliver something,” he said. Hauger cited Microsoft’s medical-records platform, HealthVault, as an example of Web privacy and security done right. “We’ve been through that hoop.”

2. Microsoft thinks about its cloud-based products in terms of finished services (like Windows Live or Exchange Online) and a developer platform—and Azure will do both. Hauger described the “four pillars” of Azure as scalable hosting, automated service management, durable storage, and a rich developer experience. The latter will enable engineers to “build applications in a seamless way and publish them in the cloud.” Which all sounds a lot like what Amazon is already doing, which brings me to…

1. What’s special about Azure? In his talk, as I understood it, Hauger hinted that Microsoft’s advantage over Amazon Web Services was the former’s extensive partner ecosystem and its service management. Its differentiator versus Google App Engine is that Azure will be more geared towards big corporate customers and will work with many different programming languages.

“The business model is disruptive,” Hauger said. “The technology is not as disruptive.” When I spoke with him after his talk, he stressed that Azure will provide “complete integration across all platforms.” He also stressed that customers should spend time learning about Amazon’s offerings, and see how Azure measures up. Asked to sum up specifically how Azure will compare with Amazon Web Services and Google App Engine, Hauger said it will combine the best features of both—the infrastructure of Amazon and the scalability of Google—and will work across many different operating systems and programming languages.

The proof, of course, will be in the pudding. Hauger reiterated that Azure is still in its preview stage, where it is gathering feedback from free trials with customers around the world. “We’ll start charging later this year,” he said.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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