What does Azure, Microsoft's ambitious Platform-as-a-Service play, mean for the thousands of VARs, systems integrators and others in Microsoft's partner ecosystem?
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Some VARs still rely at least partly on outright product sales and many of them view Azure as a disintermediation threat because it delivers software/services directly from Microsoft to their customers. Other partners -- those that write custom code or customize applications for customers -- see it as an additional deployment option for applications that typically run on customer or partner premises. Integrators maintain that as long as disparate applications remain live, they will need to be tied together, regardless of where they run.
The Azure delivery problem
Microsoft is making an Azure play for developers, but at this point it's unclear whether Azure will pay off for traditional VARs.
Microsoft bit off more than it could chew with Azure, said one Boston-area, Microsoft Gold partner who does a lot of e-commerce work atop the Microsoft stack but deploys it on Amazon Web Services (AWS). And, in his eyes, Microsoft reneged on its pledge to offer parity between on-premises, partner-hosted and Microsoft-hosted deployment models.
Microsoft claims 10,000 customers for Azure, which went live last February, but this VAR and some others said they see little traction for a variety of reasons, especially because Azure runs only on Microsoft-hosted servers.
"The big picture reason -- something it can't fix overnight -- is that a few years ago, [Microsoft COO] Kevin Turner got up and talked software plus services … and Microsoft's ability to offer on- and off-premises capabilities. It was a pretty good pitch and one Google couldn't make. The [implied] message was Azure will do that," the VAR said.
But that's not what happened. It became clear that Azure would be a Microsoft-hosted play only. Azure would run customer and partner applications but only in Microsoft's own data centers -- basically the same as the Google Apps model.
"You have to program stuff just for Azure and if you want to take your stuff to run elsewhere, you can't," he said. The Boston VAR called this a non-starter for many customers that fear vendor or host lock-in.
Another problem, in this VAR's view, is that Azure fell victim to Microsoft's tendency to pack everything-but-the-kitchen-sink into one big "massively complicated project," he said.
That sort of all-in monolithic approach is what sunk Microsoft's Longhorn-aka-Vista effort, he said. And while Microsoft was getting all its Azure ducks in a row, Amazon continued to hone, enhance and add to its AWS stable, gaining more customers and credibility along the way.
In AWS's more incrementally rolled out Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) world, VARs and developers can use development tools of their choice and deploy the resulting applications on an AWS-hosted Windows or Linux stack. Then, as needs change, they can move that work on premises or to another partner's hosting service. There is no lock-in.
The Azure strategy can be looked at two ways. Some VARs see Azure as a means to get more customer applications dependent on a Microsoft infrastructure, thus tightening the vendor's customer account control. These VARs prefer to see themselves as the customer's trusted adviser and gatekeeper. Others said Microsoft had no choice but to counter cloud and Software-as-a-Service efforts from competitors ranging from Google to Salesforce.com.
Microsoft: Azure as the true cloud
For its part, Microsoft said that Azure, unlike AWS, offers true cloud deployment capabilities. And for that reason, the company said a more revolutionary approach is needed.
"We built Azure for what the cloud really is," said Tim O'Brien, director of Microsoft's platform strategy group. "It's for net new cloud-native applications that take full advantage of this scale-out infrastructure. AWS is fine for those taking existing applications and putting them out there."
Microsoft did acknowledge the on-premises deployment concern with its Azure Appliance announcement in July. At that time, the company said it would make Azure available to run in prescribed and very large data centers built by Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Fujitsu. Those deployments were slated to come online this year -- news is likely to come from the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference, the company said then. In theory, Azure will be made available for smaller data centers that smaller partners could host for customers, but there is no timeline on that.
Azure targets .NET world, ease-of-use fans
Many VARs love that AWS accepts and runs existing applications and prices usage very aggressively. But AWS, with its arcane interfaces and data center terminology, is truly for techies whereas Microsoft Azure aims for the more point-and-click-minded .NET cognoscenti. And there are thousands of those people, although Azure does require them to embrace the latest .NET 4 technology. It will not run old DLLs or other applications. What it will do is make it relatively easy for .NET developers to get aboard without a huge learning curve.
"I love Amazon as a cloud vendor, but that stuff is for real geeks and not for the faint of heart," said John Landry, former CTO of Lotus Development Corp., who has since launched smaller ISV companies in the Microsoft world. "Microsoft makes Azure more accessible to mere mortals."
Landry has used Azure and said he is particularly enthusiastic about SQL Azure, which gives partners a huge opportunity to use pay-as-you-go database services.
"As a given SQL Server application needs to scale up based on a demand spike, with SQL Azure, you can just change the connection string and point it to the cloud vs. at your on-premises SQL Server. They've made that really easy," Landry said.
And Azure signed on some major ISVs including some that competed with Microsoft in other arenas. In January, Intuit Inc. said it will support Azure as a platform (AWS is another) for its AppCenter application store for small business applications. Currently two out of 64 total applications are on Azure, with more to come, said Alex Chriss, director of the Intuit Partner Platform.
Microsoft Azure partner call to action
Of course, Microsoft sees Azure as a great big sandbox for thousands of .NET developers. But its call to action is for traditional VARs to get acclimated to Azure and use it to augment their existing businesses.
"If you look at what VARs do, they will have to wire up whatever they're already selling to what's in Azure," said Microsoft's O'Brien. "If you're selling software in a box or in the cloud, integration still has to happen and there are tremendous opportunities to be had both on the reseller and integrator side."
There is definitely interest in the field. Laurus Technologies, an Itasca, Ill.-based VAR, recently added a Microsoft practice around Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), SharePoint and Lync Server. But it also plans to embrace Azure, said Stephen Christiansen, Microsoft practice leader. Partners will be needed for assessment services to help customers decide what makes sense to migrate to Microsoft-hosted Azure or (eventually) internally-hosted Azure, Christiansen said.
In order to attract and retain VARs, Microsoft needs to make Azure pricing affordable, transparent and predictable. One Microsoft VAR that once blasted the Azure pricing model as opaque has since been reassured.
"The complexity of [Microsoft's] billing models is getting clearer, and they've alleviated my real terror, which was getting a project or a customer running and not really being able to estimate the cost. They've done a bunch of things, including BizSpark, that give you a free or low-cost runway for a year," said Tim Huckaby, CEO of InterKnowlogy, in Carlsbad, Calif.
BizSpark provides Azure access for a year and in that time VARs can learn by the traffic pattern and will be able to estimate exact costs, he said.
Indeed, BizSpark, which launched a few years ago to simplify Windows platform adoption, was later expanded to include Azure. "With BizSpark, you can see how much compute power you use, how much storage, the I/O, etc. -- and it will tell you the cost," O'Brien said.
For many, it'll be both Azure and AWS
Still, while a lot of companies paint it as an either-or proposition, the reality is that the way forward for many ISVs and VARs will be both Azure PaaS and AWS IaaS.
Propelware, for example, is an Intuit partner writing applications for the Azure-hosted Intuit AppCenter. But it also uses AWS for its public-facing websites, according to CEO Joe Dwyer.
"I like AWS, but we're a heavy-duty .NET shop and I don't want to be an 'IT guy,'" Dwyer said.
SearchITChannel.com assistant editor Pat Ouellette contributed to this story.