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Microsoft's preexisting relationships with enterprises have become a serious threat to Amazon's lead in the cloud.
The AWS vs. Azure competition reminds some IT pros of Microsoft's Hyper-V and VMware's ESXi battle in server virtualization. VMware had a daunting technical lead over Microsoft, but Microsoft bundled in Hyper-V licenses with its widely used Windows operating system, and established itself in the server virtualization world as a result.
Microsoft is taking a similar path in cloud computing by bundling Azure entitlements into its enterprise licensing agreements.
Los Angeles-based law firm Paul Hastings converted all of its core data center assets to run on Hyper-V over the last two years, though remote and branch offices still run VMware. And while the shop uses Amazon Web Services (AWS) for backup, it's exploring the Microsoft Azure entitlements it already has when considering moving production workloads to the cloud, according to Searl Tate, director of network engineering for the firm.
"I'm not running [Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2)] because our workloads are Microsoft," Tate said. "EC2 and cloud computing outside of Microsoft isn't something that's a near-term goal for me."
Amazon has tacitly hinted it's aware of this phenomenon with a few new recent accommodations for Microsoft customers, from Active Directory integration to EC2 management through Microsoft's System Center Virtual Machine Manager.
But these moves won't sway Tate's outlook.
"There are only a few legitimate cloud players in the enterprise space," Tate said. "There's Amazon and Microsoft at the top … and then there's everybody else. Microsoft has spent a ton of money wanting to be a serious player and has in many ways caught up to Amazon."
Tate is not alone among Amazon's customers. Another Microsoft cloud service, Office365, has caught the eye of David Neumann, director of IT at Graef-USA, an engineering design firm based in Milwaukee. Neumann's company uses Amazon for storage, but is also completing a proof of concept on the cloud-based version of Office.
"Our main data store will be on the Amazon cloud, and our collaborative information will be on Office 365," Neumann said. As with Tate's firm, Graef already has entitlements of Office365, so there are cost benefits.
IT pros who haven't chosen Azure are taking a serious look at the service.
"It's really about portability and options," said Wade Billings, director of DevOps for Instructure, a Salt Lake City-based education technology firm hosted exclusively on Amazon. "Azure is interesting because it has more global locations and may offer services in regions where Amazon hasn't yet opened data centers," Billings said.
Still, Instructure decided against Azure for now.
"We've kind of bent our technology in favor of Amazon and it would be difficult for us to unbend it to fit with Azure," Billings said.
Some tests of Azure have found it lacking in terms of management options for raw infrastructure resources. Azure began as a platform as a service offering and has more recently opened up infrastructure as a service, and it still has some catching up to do, according to Sean Perry, CIO at Robert Half International, a staffing firm based in Menlo Park, Calif.
While trying to set Azure up, a gotcha usually comes up, such as an inability to support multiple interfaces on SQL server -- and then Perry's team goes back to the drawing board. "However, that picture may soon change," Perry said.
"I think a year from now Azure will be much closer, and will have probably a better argument for enterprises that are just starting to do cloud," he said. "Once all the early adopters are out of the way, and they're going after the late adopters, Azure will probably have a pretty good play there."
Azure and AWS are also competitive in price, though Amazon has a wider variety of instance types at a wider variety of price points. Azure also has billing by the minute, while Amazon still charges by the hour.
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