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VARs eyeing cloud computing weigh Azure vs. Amazon Web Services

With the price models disclosed, partners willing to make the leap into cloud computing can now start looking at the Microsoft Azure vs. Amazon Web Services options.

Partners willing to make the leap into cloud computing can now start looking at the Microsoft Azure vs. Amazon Web Services options.

Last week, Microsoft disclosed its pricing model for Azure services, which the company has promised to bring online by year's end. And while a Microsoft exec backed off direct price comparisons with Amazon Web Services (AWS), he did say Azure will be very competitively priced.

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The price comparisons presented at last week's Worldwide Partner Conference weighed Azure Web services against Microsoft software running on-premises -- not against any third-party services.

For example, a small, high-transaction line-of-business application running around the clock would cost $17,000 running Microsoft's stack in-house vs. $14,000 in Azure -- a 20% cost reduction, said Doug Hauger, general manager of Windows Azure. A large e-commerce app running on 100 physical servers, which has to adjust for seasonal peaks in demand, would cost $12 million running on-premises vs. $4 million in Azure. Hauger attributed the 68% savings there to Azure's dynamic scaling.

Pitting Microsoft Azure against Amazon Web Services
Going into the show, Microsoft had told some enterprise accounts that Azure would come in 10% cheaper than comparable AWS offerings. Prashant Ketcar, director of product marketing for Windows Azure, said comparing Azure with AWS is difficult. "We're still working on the comparisons," he said. "We want to make sure our numbers are kosher."

"We will cost less not on a per-unit basis, but if you take a scenario on our platform, we think on a per-month basis, we will be less expensive," Ketcar said. He waved off the 10% figure as too simplistic. "Who knows? Maybe we'll be 55% cheaper."

Azure will perform automated load balancing, high-availability work and provisioning that is handled manually on AWS, he said.

"We're not in the infrastructure as a service business. When you write an app or a service, things like scale-up or scale-down [are] part of the whole, and we don't charge you for configuring your load balancers or replicating your data," Ketcar said. "On AWS, you have to configure that, and they don't reincarnate you automatically the way we do."

VARs say that this argument holds some water, although Microsoft has to prove its case with a beta service vs. AWS, which is already running applications and e-commerce sites in the real world.

"What he says is kind of true, but the thing is, that's because it's so hard to load balance the Microsoft platform," said one Microsoft Gold partner who is playing with early Azure services but also works with AWS.

"Setting up a server farm to cooperate is a big, complicated deal and requires a lot of experts," he said. "Amazon has this huge virtual computer you can use with Linux or anything you want. But when you use it with Windows, it's the same problem as with Azure. With Windows, it's like The Matrix -- it doesn't know it's not a real computer. Moving things around is a lot more complicated there."

Fearing Azure lock-in
In this partner's view, Azure's weakness is that despite promises to support non-Microsoft languages like PHP, Ruby, etc., once the application is written, it will be locked into Microsoft's Azure stack. "The beauty of Amazon EC2 is that if you program for it, and you then want to bring your stuff in-house, you can."

He also maintained that Microsoft's claim to run everything both on-premises and in the cloud is more marketing than reality.

Ketcar said the innovation that emerges in Microsoft-hosted Windows Azure will be made available to customers and partners over time, but packaging and delivery of that technology will "evolve through constant feedback from customers and partners."

Cross-pollination between Windows Server, System Center and Windows Azure already happens, he said. The "Boot from VHD" function in Windows is one example of Azure technology that flowed into on-premises software.

Some partners say it's still too early to make a call as to whether they'll cast their lot with Azure.

"First of all, [Microsoft has] to deliver. They made a very strong statement about being available this calendar year," said the Microsoft Gold partner. Given past delivery issues and delays, that timing is not a given, he said.

VARs with hosting practices are watching all this carefully. Carl Mazzanti, co-founder of eMazzanti Technologies, a Hoboken, N.J., Microsoft Gold partner, already offers his own hosted CRM, storage and other services, so he's been through this drill before, with AWS coming online with its own hosted storage. "We price our online storage at two cents less than Amazon," Mazzanti said. "Once you start hitting cloud computing, things get very competitive."

The advantage companies like eMazzanti have lies in customer service and relationships, he said. "It's one throat to choke. Our customers know we'll pay attention to them. Google and Amazon are too large."

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