Microsoft Lures Giant Partners With Windows Azure Appliance

On Monday at the opening of its Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington, D.C., Microsoft unveiled what it's calling a "limited production release" of the Windows Azure platform appliance, an offering slated for launch later this year that combines the security and control advantages of private clouds with the scalability benefits of the public cloud.

The Windows Azure appliance is "a really big container" that includes locked down, Microsoft-specific networking and storage running the Windows Azure and SQL Azure services, says Amy Barzdukas, general manager of Microsoft's Server and Tools Business.

"It is a cloud that you run internally: It's is a private cloud, but it's supported by massively scalable Microsoft services. We are extending the Azure platform into our customers and partners' data centers," Barzdukas said in an interview with CRN prior to WPC.

Building private clouds is expensive business, but enterprises that need tight control over data for security compliance reasons regard the public cloud as a lawless, Wild West frontier. Microsoft is betting that the Windows Azure appliance will assuage these concerns and convince customers -- especially large enterprises -- that it's OK to move their core assets into the cloud.

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Cost savings, naturally, are part of the package. "Very large customers want to be able take advantage of the cost and agility the public cloud can provide, but they need to do so with more control," Barzdukas said. "This is an opportunity for large customers that wouldn’t be able to embrace a full public cloud because of issues around data sovereignty and compliance."

Microsoft's initial Windows Azure appliance partners include eBay, HP, Dell, and Fujitsu.

The Windows Azure appliance is helping eBay handle automatic, scalable capacity management on its massive ecommerce platform, which has 90 million active users generating 75 billion SQL queries every day, according to James Barrese, vice president of technology at eBay.

"The Windows Azure appliance is going to allow me to run Azure in my data center, and that allows me to focus my engineering a little higher up in the stack," said Barrese. "We get control over data, security, and privacy. And internally, we get the flexibility, efficiency and rapid time to market that the public cloud offers."

Microsoft's cloud pitch to partners emphasizes that cloud opportunities will be on their terms, a reflection of how the software giant has positioned itself as the neutral "Switzerland" in the public-versus-private cloud debate.

For example, Microsoft Monday released the beta of Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7 Service Pack 1, which includes virtualization improvements and stronger support for private clouds.

"If you want to build and run a private cloud within the data center today, you can do with the Windows Server platform. But if you want the lower cost of cloud, you do on the public cloud of Windows Azure," Barzdukas said.

Microsoft also rolled out the Release Candidate for the System Center Virtual Machine Manager Self Service Portal, which includes tools and best practices to make it easier to provision and develop private clouds. This is a free offering that weaves self-service portals with the light provisioning engine built on Windows Server and System Center, Barzdukas said.