Unique Proposition: Cloud Price Wars Rage, But The Real Battle Is For Differentiation

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Microsoft's Azure Cloud: Ace In The Hole For Mobility?

At the same time it's engaged in a price war, Microsoft is portraying its cloud as more enterprise-ready than what its rivals offer. Microsoft says 57 percent of Fortune 500 firms are now using Azure either for Platform-as-a-Service or Infrastructure-as-a-Service, and it is adding new features and services to keep the ball rolling.

Microsoft is more focused on developing innovative, high-quality services than it is on keeping up with the latest cloud server and storage price cuts, Steven Martin, Microsoft's general manager for Azure, said in a blog post in late March.

"Vendors will ultimately extol their track records for building and running services far more than their prices and SLAs," Martin said in the blog post.

While Microsoft is still a distant third to Apple and Google in the mobile device space, Azure is emerging as a cloud that can connect to and provide services for all types of mobile devices.

One example is Azure Mobile Services, its cloud back end for mobile apps that can handle storage, authentication and push notifications for iOS and Android apps, which launched last June.

Last month, Microsoft unveiled its Enterprise Mobility Suite, which includes Windows Intune, Microsoft's cloud-based mobile device management service, as well as a new premium version of Azure Active Directory, and Azure Rights Management Services, which administrators use to delegate access to Microsoft cloud apps.

Matt Scherocman, president of Interlink Cloud Advisors, a Cincinnati-based Microsoft partner, described Enterprise Mobility Suite as a "critical" product for Microsoft because it works with iPads, Android devices, Microsoft Surface and Windows 8 tablets from third-party vendors.

"Mobile device management from other vendors has been good, but customers ultimately want the ability to manage and maintain all the devices in their organization, not just mobile ones," Scherocman told CRN. "Microsoft also has the file management and synchronization technologies to be able to truly deliver anywhere productivity."

This year at Build, Microsoft introduced several new features for mobile developers, including single sign-on with Active Directory, offline data sync and remote debugging. Microsoft also released a software development kit for developers to use to integrate Active Directory with iOS and Android apps.

Azure's breadth of supported developer tools, and particularly the ease with which Microsoft developers can make the transition to building apps for the cloud, is another important advantage, according to partners.

"When we are developing a Microsoft-based solution, Azure is by far the easiest platform for that task," Carl Fitch, CEO of Statera, a Denver-based Microsoft partner, told CRN. "Put differently, it makes intuitive sense to use the development environment inherent in Azure if we are using the Microsoft stack of development tools."

So despite Microsoft's late start on the mobile device side, Azure could be its ace in the hole. If Microsoft can get millions of iOS and Android devices and apps using Azure for back-end services, that would put it in the proverbial catbird's seat, according to partners.

When it comes to pricing, Microsoft has yet to do much experimentation. It charges for Azure on a per-hour basis but calculates partial hour charges on a per-minute basis, which means customers only pay for what they use. Microsoft, Redmond, Wash., also has vowed to keep pace with Amazon's price cuts, though it hasn't said whether it intends to do the same with Google's.

Microsoft currently runs Azure in 10 regions worldwide, and has revealed plans to open two new regions in Australia, two in China in conjunction with local partner 21Vianet, and one new region in Brazil, which will give it a total of 16 global regions.

NEXT: Amazon: First Mover Pushing Envelope With New Services

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