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Windows Azure (Finally) Takes Infrastructure into Cloud

Microsoft wants to stop giving Amazon headway in the cloud race. The Redmond company announced live production of Windows Azure Infrastructure Services, first previewed starting in June 2012. The cloud-based services that make up today's announcement cover a lot of airspace, starting with support for Linux and Windows Server virtual machines, introduction of virtual networks, expanded support for validated instances of Microsoft applications, and a promise to keep pricing competitive with Amazon's.

Windows Azure is a set of services that allow organizations to use Microsoft-managed data centers. Like other cloud businesses, this one offers the promise of helping IT to get away from having to purchase, deploy, provision, and manage servers on site every time new computing capacity is required. Customers pay for the computing services they use, and the services can be fairly quickly expanded or shrunk as needs evolve.

Until now Amazon Web Services (AWS) has been the major winner in the infrastructure segment, attracting annual revenue, according to one source, of $3.8 billion. Microsoft opened Windows Azure in 2010 to woo developers that had begun congregating on AWS. That same year Microsoft announced several deals giving institutional researchers free access to cloud computing resources through grant programs. Participating schools have included George Mason University; the University of California, Davis; the University of Michigan; and the University of Washington, among others.

Since then Microsoft's offerings have expanded to include its own cloud applications — Office 365 (including SharePoint and Exchange) and Dynamics CRM Online — and those hosted by cloud service provider partners.

What has been lacking, however, is that infrastructure component, which would allow Microsoft customers to avoid data center usage or build-out altogether. Today's announcements address that gap.

"Enterprise is in our DNA," declared Windows Azure General Manager Bill Hilf. "We'll never tell you that a Microsoft app inside your virtual machine is 'up the stack' and we don't support it — we'll support it and make sure you're successful. And we'll back it with monthly [service level agreements] that are among the industry's highest."

The Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) support for Windows Azure allows for set-up of virtual machines, both Windows and Linux based. Those can come from an image gallery of pre-populated templates built into a Windows Azure management portal or the network administrator can upload a custom-built image. Templates cover Ubuntu, CentOS, and SUSE Linux distributions. Because Windows Azure uses the same Hyper-V service included in Windows Server 2012, organizations that are on that server operating system can use the same virtual hard disks they're running on premises on the cloud and vice versa. Administrators working with Azure can tap a built-in network load balancer function to manage virtual machines, enabling the shuttling of data traffic to multiple VM instances for scaling or removing a specific VM from use for maintenance.

Windows Azure Virtual Networks enables multiple operations. Customers can create a virtual private network with persistent IPs (that can continue functioning even in the event of a hardware failure). VMs set up in Windows Azure can be treated as part of the organization's existing network, using a virtual network gateway to handle the connection. Those VMs can be pointed to domain controllers (including Active Directory) that are either in house or cloud-based. The virtual network can also be used to add an extra layer of security in two ways. First, VMs and cloud services within a virtual network can do simple communication without having to go through a public IP address. Second, VMs outside of the virtual network can't connect to or even identify services hosted within the network.

The new image templates for Windows Azure VMs also include Windows Server 2012, Windows Server 2008 R2, SQL Server, BizTalk Server, and SharePoint Server. (A complete list is on Microsoft's site.) For customers that already have licensing for those applications through volume agreements, they can simply be deployed inside the VM through a "license mobility" structure with no extra fees.

However, Microsoft also has announced hourly and monthly pricing for customers without licenses who prefer not to pay anything upfront; those pricing programs encompass the charge for Windows Server licensing as well. Pricing is based on the number of virtual cores required. For example, a single core/1.75 GBinstance of Windows is priced at $0.09 per hour (about $67 per month); the Linux rendition would be $0.06. Also, the company has structured VM configurations specifically for high-throughput applications: a four-core 28 GB instance and a 56 GB eight-core instance.

To maintain its competitive posture, the company said it would go lockstep with Amazon pricing. "Customers have ... told me that they don't want to have to choose either a low price or good performance; they want a low price and good performance," said Hilf. "That's why today we are also announcing a commitment to match Amazon Web Services prices for commodity services such as compute, storage, and bandwidth." The commitment calls for pricing on virtual machines and cloud services to drop by 21 to 33 percent. For example, the previous price for that single core instance was priced at $0.115 per hour.

To gain traction with the new services, the company is offering discounted pricing until June 1 as well as three-month trials. The latter have some limitations. For instance, virtual machines and cloud servers are limited to 750 compute hours per month; relational database services are limited to one SQL database, and SQL reporting is limited to 100 hours per month.

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