There are quite a few cloud providers, but there are two big competitors in today's cloud computing market: Microsoft and Amazon. Amazon has been in the cloud business longer and has offerings that surpass what Microsoft has on the slate, but the Redmond software giant has some compelling capabilities as well. Let's take a look at a general comparison between the two services.
Simply put, Amazon is a more capable service than Windows Azure. It offers better firewall options and data encryption, plus integration with Amazon's other services like Simple Storage Service (S3), Payments and more. Plus, it supports more operating system platforms than Azure. It also is quicker at scaling and load balancing and it offers better documentation online for getting started with the service.
That's not to say Azure isn't appropriate for some use cases. For building and developing services, the integration between Visual Studio and Azure is second to none. And in Windows Server 2012, it appears Microsoft will allow migrating Hyper-V machines to and from the Azure cloud with a minimum of fuss. At that point, Azure will have an edge for Windows administrators. But that point isn't here yet, and if you're not a developer, Amazon's EC2 has a better suite of features.
Winner: Amazon EC2
If you haven't played with the Windows Azure administrative interface lately, you're in for a treat: It's one of the best designed portals and control panels I've seen in a while. Redesigned recently in the Metro design language, it's a clear, responsive, well-thought-out control panel that leads naturally and intuitively to the various tasks you'd want to perform on your subscription: creating new services, assigning new endpoints (essentially opening ports in the firewall), transferring services, starting and suspending virtual machines, and so on.
Contrast this with the Amazon interface that, while functional, looks as if the people who create jetliner cockpits designed it. It's a complicated mess with many tabs for every service, terminology that's confusing, and context menus that are hidden in various places in a complex table. Once you've found your way around, it's not necessarily a slow process to get things done, but Windows Azure certainly sets the bar for a logical, clean, efficient control panel for configuring your service subscriptions. Amazon has some learning to do here.
Winner: Windows Azure
The argument for Windows Server-oriented folks may come down to price. Amazon has been steadily reducing their price, expanding the terms, duration, and scope of their Free Tier offering, and generally has always been -- and continues to be -- less expensive than Windows Azure, on the whole, for the same services. While Windows Azure permits free trials over 2-3 months, depending on the service, it's possible to operate a variety of services on the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud for under $1 per month for light loads. (I speak from personal experience on that point.) Windows Azure, however, has a more expensive base price, charges for inbound bandwidth (Amazon includes this at no charge) and quotes a higher outbound bandwidth charge than does Amazon. While the Amazon base plan comes with slightly less memory and less storage than Azure, adding additional storage to the Amazon plan is cheaper than it would be to add the same amount of storage to Azure.
Winner: Amazon EC2
I am a customer of both Windows Azure and Amazon EC2, and on balance, I find that Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud continues to have an edge over Azure. More platforms are supported on Amazon, it costs less and there is integration with other Amazon services that is more convenient from an administrative standpoint. If you are solely a Windows shop and plan to move to a hybrid on-premises and cloud approach, then looking at Windows Azure may pay off over Amazon in your particular circumstance.
I'm sure Microsoft will continue to evolve Azure as a worthy competitor, but for now, most of the smart money is with Amazon.
Overall winner: Amazon EC2
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Hassell is an author, consultant and speaker residing in Charlotte, N.C. Jonathan's books include RADIUS, Hardening Windowsand Windows Vista: Beyond the Manual.