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After several years of painstaking progress, Microsoft's Windows Azure has gained a degree of credibility among corporate IT shops, many of which use the cloud environment to develop and deliver cloud services.
While not every shop is ready to toss Amazon Web Services (AWS) out the door in favor of Windows Azure, many are more seriously comparing the two side by side in terms of function and price.
"While AWS certainly has the mindshare, the two platforms are more similar than different," said Bill Wilder, an Azure consultant, head of the Boston Azure User Group and author of Cloud Architecture Patterns: Using Microsoft Azure. In terms of price and its Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) platform, "Microsoft has taken the only major area where AWS had a differentiator away," Wilder added.
Another user agreed that there is now technical parity between Microsoft and Amazon's Platform as a Service (PaaS) and IaaS offerings, although Amazon is pushing hard to gain an advantage with its service offerings.
"On its recent earnings call, Amazon laid out plans for over 100 new services this year," said Mark Eisenberg, director at enterprise application and cloud integration firm Fino Consulting, based in New York City. "They are going to deliver a lot of tiny Lego blocks for users in terms of services, because there is not clear differentiation [between Microsoft and Amazon] around the big Lego blocks anymore."
Characteristically, Microsoft has played catch-up against AWS with a steady stream of technical improvements over the long term. For instance, Microsoft's recently announced Windows Azure Services on Windows Server, first previewed at last year's Microsoft Partner Conference, are an assortment of virtual machine (VM) hosting capabilities originally intended for Azure-based IT shops.
Now, however, they will be available for hosting providers to run on their own Windows Server 2012 and System Center 2012-based infrastructures, according to Mike Schutz, general manager of Microsoft's Server and Tools division.
New Azure tools, System Center 2012 integration turn heads
In addition to hosting VMs, the new services also include support for high-density websites, a service management portal and a service management programming interface, codenamed "Katal."
Microsoft said it "may offer at some point" Azure Services For Windows Server to its larger user accounts, but declined to say when.
Microsoft added support for the new services by building into System Center 2012 Service Pack 1 (SP1) the ability to back up servers to Windows Azure in a hybrid cloud environment to protect against data loss and corruption.
Also built into SP1 is support for Global Service Monitor, a companion service to System Center 2012 SP1, which monitors and boosts performance of Web-based applications. This new feature is a "pretty big deal" for companies that move their applications to the cloud, according to Wilder.
"In the old days we had servers that had names and we could remote in to," Wilder said. "It is harder to diagnose performance issues or to figure out what went wrong in the cloud, so there is a need for more sophisticated diagnostic tools in [the] cloud."
Azure vs. AWS: Microsoft plays hardball in cloud price war
Not only has Microsoft consistently added features to remain competitive with AWS, it has shown a willingness to compete aggressively on price as well.
Amazon responded in kind with support for PowerShell and Windows Server 2012 in December in a play for Azure customers.
While aggressive price cutting may appeal over the short term to users, Eisenberg said it could prove destructive to both Microsoft and Amazon, if not the users as well.
"This race to the bottom in terms of pricing is something I don't understand," Eisenberg said. "[Microsoft and Amazon] will end up building these massive data centers and not make the money to properly support users' needs."
One undeniable benefit of Microsoft's cloud is the guaranteed uptime the Azure platform can give customers compared to what they might be able to achieve for themselves.
"No one likes downtime, but if you compare what it would cost you to outdo Azure, it is a phenomenal deal," Wilder said. "A lot of small companies don't know their downtime or don't realize that their uptime would be better with a service like Azure."
Eisenberg agreed that going it alone or with a less-reputable provider may save you money in the short term, but will cost you more in downtime over the long run.
"Small companies do everything on price and will go with a cheap hosting provider. But Azure offers a world-class data center and can give you more assurance that your cloud app will always be available," he said.
However, Azure has hardly achieved a perfect track record for uptime given the number of Azure outages, but the downtime hasn't been significant enough for Wilder's clients to consider it a deal killer.
Windows Azure demand on the rise
One IT firm has built an Azure business due to growing interest in the platform, particularly among retailers that need capacity on demand for their websites, said Peter Renner, Microsoft professional services director at Gardena, Calif.-based En Pointe Technologies.
The firm has deployed Azure to large enterprise customers, one a major manufacturer that moved some of its infrastructure -- networking, VMs and other cloud services -- out to Azure, Renner said.
"They need extra capability, and see Azure as a way to avoid building continuity sites themselves," Renner said.
One New York City-based midsize clothing retailer backed up Renner's observation about retailers' needs, although noted that most small retailers are slow to make the transition.
"Retail has this seasonality problem and that is -- where we, at least -- find the cloud fits in nicely. Retailers in general are becoming aware of [the cloud], but small retailers are slow to adopt it because they are always living on thin margins," said the retailer, who requested anonymity.
Part of the draw is that Microsoft offers a 99.95% service-level agreement -- a level of uptime that would be costly for a company to match, he said.
While the obvious Azure customer is someone who already uses Windows, Renner said the platform has caught on even with companies that do not.
Bridget Botelho, news director, contributed to this report.