After sending confusing signals for some time, Microsoft firmly jumps into Private Cloud game with their “Azure Appliance” announcement today at their Worldwide Partner Conference at Washington DC today. In June this year, I quoted an interview given by Bob Muglia to CNET and ranted that Microsoft’s use of the term cloud for a combination of Windows Server + Hyper-V + Systems Center is #notacloud. Quoting this rant, Derrick Harris questioned the confusing signals sent by Microsoft in this GigaOm Pro article (Subscription Required)
In terms of internal clouds, Microsoft doesn’t appear to have a clear vision, and pundits are taking note. Whether it’s fair to call the current Hyper-V-plus-Systems-Center package #NotACloud is debatable, but what’s not up for debate is whether that solution will cut it a few years down the road — it won’t. Microsoft appears to get this, but statements like the one highlighted in the link above don’t exactly inspire confidence. The goal has to be enabling internal clouds that look, feel and scale like their public counterparts, so why Microsoft seems to be setting the internal-cloud bar at simplistic IaaS-type functionality instead of Azure-type functionality is a bit confusing. Azure isn’t even built on Hyper-V.
In fact, immediately after my rant, a debate ensured on the Twitter among the Clouderati where some of us were wondering why Microsoft is not offering Windows Azure as a private cloud to take care of the needs of the enterprises. It only makes sense to do that instead of trying to push their Windows server line along with Systems center to the enterprises. Why would enterprises even consider such a move when all they are getting is some kind of management layer sprinkled on top of the existing set of Microsoft offerings. Though I don’t have numbers, it is my guess that it won’t even make any economic sense. I suppose they got the same questions from their potential customers and the result is their announcement about the availability of Azure appliances sometime in the future.
From the press release Microsoft gave out after the announcement,
The new Windows Azure platform appliance combines Windows Azure and Microsoft SQL Azure with Microsoft-specified hardware, enabling on-demand IT capacity and faster delivery of new applications. Large enterprises and service provider partners deploying the appliance in their datacenters will have the benefits of the cloud services that Microsoft offers today, while maintaining physical control of location, regulatory compliance and data.
Though this is a welcome step from Microsoft, there are too many loose ends that are not addressed by them yet. From a preliminary evaluation of today’s soundbites, I understand that they have partnered with some of the hardware vendors to sell Azure appliances. This itself is a big put off for me. What I expected from Microsoft was the availability of Azure stack to be used with the existing infrastructure, something like what one can do with Eucalyptus, for example. Expecting the enterprises to buy physical compute infrastructure along with the platform stack is a big downer for me. I guess they are taking the approach to protect their existing cash cow (the sales of Windows Server OSes and other tools). Forcing the potential customers to buy hardware appliance defeats the very idea of drastically cutting down the capital costs with the move to cloud. Even though private clouds are capital intensive compared to public clouds, I feel that letting the enterprises use their existing infrastructure while embracing cloud like features is a more sensible approach than forcing them to buy new hardware along with the platform stack. Their decision to not offer the stack to install on the existing compute infrastructure is the biggest disappointment from this announcement.
As it is usual with any Microsoft announcement, it is not available for customers as yet. it looks like eBay is currently using Azure appliances internally. According to Microsoft, the appliances are in a limited production release which implies that we just have to wait to see it in flesh and blood. There is absolutely no indication on when it will be publicly available. I just hope that they don’t lose out the game much like how they “lost” the Azure public cloud (after they failed to whip up any interest big time, the way many observers expected initially). Well, they do have 10,000 companies signing up for their public cloud but this number also includes companies hosting their websites on Azure. I would attribute the “lack of enthusiasm” to their delay in embracing the idea of the cloud and I just hope that they don’t lose out on the private cloud game to the likes of VMWare and IBM due to a similar delay.
The reason I was excited by the Windows Azure version of private cloud is because of my strong belief that PaaS is the future of Cloud Services. With the Windows Server-Hyper-V-System Center Approach, they could only offer the private cloud equivalent of IaaS and not PaaS. Windows Azure is very well suited for the PaaS future. By not playing this game properly, they are in danger of losing out to other players. Especially, VMware is playing their cards right on this one. Their acquisition of Springsource and beyond, their partnership with Salesforce and Google and their leaked plans for the cloudy future are all indicative of VMware making the right moves to capture the future marketshare. Microsoft faces a really tough fight and they have to actually get it right to stay really competitive.