Microsoft Ramps up Fight to Be Cloud Leader

In a bid to raise the profile of Hyper-V and Azure, Micorosft has launched new partnerships, features and packages. But is it enough to make them a credible leader in the cloud computing market?

Microsoft has launched a series of partnerships, functional enhancements and product packages in an effort to make its cloud offerings more attractive to enterprise customers and raise the profile of its Hyper-V hypervisor as a potential ingredient for cloud-based systems.

It has also enhanced its Azure cloud service by giving customers the ability to launch and control Hyper-V based virtual machines and SQL Server instances, neither of which were available in earlier editions.

That additional support gives IT better control and makes it more possible to migrate applications from an internal data center to a cloud environment, though not to the point that it's easy to just lift internal applications to Azure and press 'run,' according to Chris Wolf, a research VP at Gartner.

The core part of Microsoft's new offering isn't a product, but a set of deployment guides, partnerships with hardware manufacturers who can supply preconfigured servers ready for Hyper-V based clouds, and service providers able to provide everything from hosting to development help.

Microsoft is accrediting hosting providers, offering training and reference architectures for Hyper-V based clouds to both internal IT and external integration providers, and offering direct consulting from both its own Consulting Services or outside partners. It also built an online catalog listing partners and services by function in a listing called the Cloud Hypermarket.

The hardware and reference architectures for software stacks that work well in Microsoft-based cloud environments come from Dell, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and NEC, and include both private and public cloud deployments.

Microsoft offers its Azure platform-as-a-service offering as one of the service-provider options, but not the only one, allowing customers to choose whether they need platform-, infrastructure- software-as-a-service or other hosting services for their particular cloud.

Getting Beyond Azure Lock-In Worries?

Much of Microsoft's effort is an attempt to bring attention to its cloud offerings and the potential to use Hyper-V as the basis for either external or internal clouds, Wolf says.

"They're getting a little beyond the point that had people worried about lock-in to Azure and focusing more on a wider type of deployment," Wolf says. Rival VMware, which owns the bulk of the virtual server market and has made cloud computing the basis of its strategy for almost two years, is far better established, has a wider variety of technical options and a far wider installed base in companies with cloud projects, according to Jonathan Reeve, vice president of product strategy at Hyper9, which develops capacity planning software for cloud and virtual environments.

"We do see some Xen and Hyper-V [in customer cloud environments], mostly in dev/test or small project environments," Reeve says. "When you get to companies that are 60 or 70 percent virtualized, they tend to be focused on VMware in building their private cloud initiatives, but they also look for components outside of VMWare for self-service, automation, workflow and other things."

Most large companies Wolf consults with actually run more than one virtualization platform, though extending that into cloud environments is still difficult, he says.

So is porting existing software — even virtual servers — to new cloud environments without losing the policy based security enforcement, auditing, workflow, data exchange and all the other base-level functions for which applications simply call on an infrastructure.

"Right now you can move some .NET applications to Azure or develop in the cloud, which is fine for new applications, but even providers who offer to convert virtual images to run in their environment are mostly doing just that -- converting a .VHD, which is barely a start," Wolf says. "Microsoft is trying to address vendor lock-in by making SQL Server and Hyper-V more available in Azure, but there's still a long way to go, and not just for them."

Market Gets More Crowded

Most of the big cloud projects Reeve sees focus on internal clouds, partly for security and access reasons, partly due to cost and the unfamiliarity of the external cloud platforms.

"There are a lot of conversations going on right now after the CFO sees an ad for Amazon EC2 or something and comes to IT and says 'I can run servers there for $3 a day, how much does it cost to run it from IT?'" Reeve says. "That starts an apples to apples comparison that's actually fairly difficult, to try to find out, for example, how much it would cost to run a VMware infrastructure on a public cloud."

Three dollars per server is a good price, Reeve says, unless the implementation uses 1,000 servers, which would cost, in that example, $3,000 per day, or $1,095,000 per year.

"Those are recurring costs, not just one-times, so the cost adds up quite quickly," Reeve says.

Microsoft has pitched its products and services as lower-cost alternatives to VMware, but the competition among cloud providers is expanding rapidly beyond the two of them, Wolf says.

Rackspace, Navisite, Amazon, Cari.net, AT&T, Verizon and a host of other companies offer a variety of services, from managed hosting that only requires porting virtual machines, to access to large networked resources IT can control directly and pay only for what it uses, Wolf says. "Microsoft is making a lot of progress, but the market is beyond just it and Amazon for service providers," Wolf says.

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