Redmond Review

As Azure Summits Competitive Mountain, Will .NET Devs Take a Longer Look?

Microsoft Azure has caught up with AWS in many areas. In a couple of others, it's actually pulled ahead.

At the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in 2008, Microsoft revealed the preview of its new cloud platform, Windows Azure (now called Microsoft Azure). The platform was crude to be certain, with a primitive Web portal and a Platform as a Service-only orientation. Although it was designed around ASP.NET -- and thus welcoming to most Microsoft ecosystem developers -- there were enough things that you couldn't do in Azure back then, and so many other things that you had to do differently, that the whole initiative seemed Quixotic to some.

In 2011, Scott Guthrie, the now-executive vice president leading up the entire Enterprise and Cloud division of Microsoft, took his Web Platform team with him to the Azure organization and cleaned up shop. Tooling got better, an Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) offering, including support for Linux, was added and affiliated projects like Hadoop for Azure (now Azure HDInsight) were more tightly integrated.

Over the past few years, Azure has become more full-featured, reliable and accessible to Microsoft developers. Pre-built virtual machine images help you get moving quickly, and MSDN subscriptions include a relatively generous monthly allowance of Azure resources at no extra charge. Azure Web Sites, Mobile Services and Visual Studio Online have rounded out the offering. As Azure has improved, I've written about it again and again and again in this very column.

Seat at the Table
But regardless of the Azure improvements on the merits, it still has had a lot of trouble becoming part of the conversation. I've worked as a journalist, analyst and research director for several years now and most of the companies I've worked with are startups. For many of these organizations, Azure has come up for discussion once in a while but, for the most part, the terms "cloud" and "Amazon Web Services" have been nearly synonymous to them.

That's finally starting to change. An increasing number of the companies I speak with have near-term plans to extend their offerings to include Azure. Those that don't have immediate plans nonetheless now include Azure (not just Rackspace or Google) in the list of cloud platforms they hope to support one day soon.

That's an important vector of change for Azure. Even if many of these companies are just paying lip service to the Microsoft cloud computing platform (and my guess is that several are doing just that) it's nonetheless a rhetorical victory. The platform that had trouble being part of the conversation has started to become a conversation piece.

Is the new momentum due to the quality of the platform and the multi-environment tooling?  Is it because Microsoft has matched most every one of Amazon's compute and storage price cuts, almost immediately?  Might it be due to the Azure team's charm offensive? For example, Scott Guthrie spoke recently at Gigaom Structure -- not the most Microsoft-oriented event out there -- and the tweets about Azure from conference-goers went positive very quickly. Working the crowd could be helping.

In reality, it's probably the combination of these efforts and the coordinated nature of them that are helping bring Azure momentum.

Following an Unexpected Leader
But beyond all of this progress, something decidedly different has happened recently. First, Microsoft has beaten Amazon to the punch, with one new cloud offering around machine learning. Second, Amazon has added an offering -- dubbed "Zocalo" -- that is, essentially, a poor man's SharePoint.

Azure Machine Learning (Azure ML), the preview for which launched on July 14, is a fully cloud-based offering for doing predictive analytics work. The service can be configured/programmed visually and the models built in Azure ML can be exposed as REST-based Web services, making them extremely accessible to developers on virtually every platform. Zocalo offers storage and collaboration for Word, Excel and PowerPoint files; PDFs; Web pages; images; and text files, supporting role-based security and a browser-based editing experience.

Sure, Zocalo is a service Amazon is offering as a competitive play against DropBox et al., but it also looks like a genuine defensive play against Microsoft. Even if AWS beats Azure with several of its services, Microsoft has Office 365 as its other cloud, and Amazon has nothing like it. Zocalo, along with its tie-ins to the Amazon WorkSpaces virtual desktop environment, and integration with Active Directory, makes it clear that Amazon is not underestimating Satya Nadella's "mobile-first, cloud-first" mantra. And when Amazon does tender a machine learning offering, that respect will be even more apparent.

Azure's still got a long way to go. But the competition and vendors are increasingly taking it quite seriously. That means that .NET developers -- who have been surprisingly slow to adopt the platform -- should, too.

About the Author

Andrew Brust is Research Director for Big Data and Analytics at Gigaom Research. Andrew is co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press); an advisor to NYTECH, the New York Technology Council; co-moderator of Big On Data - New York's Data Intelligence Meetup; serves as Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; and is conference co-chair of Visual Studio Live!

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