Microsoft Joins the Free-Cloud Club

Add Microsoft (s msft) to the list of cloud providers offering free usage levels for their cloud offerings, as the company is now offering 750 free hours of Windows Azure usage. Like most things free, though, there is a catch: the trial only lasts through June, it’s limited to Extra Small Compute Instance (or 25 free hours on a Small Compute Instance), and storage, bandwidth and transactions are capped at relatively low levels. The move is clearly an attempt to increase Windows Azure’s attractiveness to developers, a strategy that carries over from the enterprise software world, and that other cloud providers have latched onto, as well.

The big picture is that just like many software vendors offer free, but limited, versions of their software to bring in potential paying customers, so, too, are cloud providers taking this tact. Amazon Web Services (s amzn) has received a fair amount of praise lately for its free usage tier, and Google (s goog) App Engine has had free resource quotas since its inception. Cloud computing might be infinitely more convenient for application developers than procuring resources from IT departments or dealing with traditional web hosts, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take some convincing to get them to try it out. I haven’t heard plans to this effect, but I would suspect that Rackspace — another developer-friendly cloud provider that runs its own infrastructure (and therefore doesn’t have to pay a provider) — is considering a free tier of its own, especially now that both AWS and Microsoft are doing it.

If the goal is to counter free tiers by competitors AWS and Google, though, Microsoft’s offering looks a little bare on the surface. AWS’s free tier doesn’t have an expiration date, and it generally provides higher levels of everything. Even Google App Engine has a free tier, which, although it doesn’t offer free compute resources, does includes 6.5 CPU hours per day, 1GB of free storage and a relatively high number of transactions, page views and the like. However, the argument could be made that Windows Azure, which sits somewhere in between AWS and App Engine on the IaaS-PaaS spectrum, offers higher value than both other offerings as a result. But that’s a debate for another day.

For now, developers can try out AWS, Windows Azure and Google in limited capacities and decide for themselves which option they prefer. Maybe Microsoft is just confident that they’ll choose Windows Azure, and maybe it will be be correct. Or maybe we’ll see a new, extended free trial coming down the line.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user fengergold.

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