Assessing Windows Azure at its four-year mark

Windows (s MSFT) Azure has come a long way since it launched just over four years ago. Windows Azure Media Services are serving up the Sochi Winter Olympics to millions of people even as I write this. Last year Azure snagged the FedRAMP seal, certifying it for use in U.S. government work. these are all signs of progress.
It’s fair to say that Microsoft’s first Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) iteration of Azure left many cold, and thousands of startups and developers flocked instead to Amazon Web Services’ more fundamental Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS). Many of those who were in the market for PaaS opted for Engine Yard, Google(s goog) App Engine or Heroku(s crm), as Gigaom Research analyst Janakiram MSV noted in his recent, comprehensive take on Azure’s status (registration required.)

Windows Azure on the upswing

Here are some of MSV’s takeaways (full disclosure — he has worked at both AWS and Microsoft in the past), but please check out the full report for more.
Embrace of open-source languages and tools
Eclipse, MySQL Node.js, Git and even Linux were all brought into the Azure fold to help attract non-.NET developers. MSV also gives a ton of credit to Scott Guthrie, the Microsoft corporate VP who, among other things “killed the old management portal built using his favorite technology, Silverlight, in favor of a simpler HTML5 portal.”
Jumping on the IaaS bandwagon
Instead of bifurcating IaaS from PaaS as Google did with Google App Engine and Google Compute Engine, Microsoft extended Azure to include IaaS capabilities by working around limitations of its PaaS. For one thing, it expanded its “stateless VM Role architecture to support persistence and other key IaaS capabilities.”
Believing in hybrid
I’m not sure Microsoft had much choice but to push hybrid cloud given the huge Windows Server installed base in corporate server rooms, but it looks like a good move now. AWS’ Achilles heel is the perception that it’s all-public-cloud-all-the-time (Amazon’s private CIA cloud notwithstanding.) Startups may love the idea of spinning up virtual machines in a public cloud, but companies with key intellectual property and the need to comply with regulatory requirements are loath to put all that stuff out in shared infrastructure. For them, a pairing of private and public cloud in a hybrid model seen as is the way forward.

Microsoft corporate VP Scott Guthrie

Microsoft Corporate VP Scott Guthrie

There’s still work to do

Now onto the negative side of the ledger sheet: Here are some things Microsoft needs to address in Azure.
Performance, performance, performance
Windows Azure Infrastructure Services “lacks the concept of block storage,” which is usually needed to support persistence — the notion that the underlying app or data will survive if memory is disrupted.  Update: Microsoft works around this by providing persistence through object storage — the persistent disks are stored as objects on Azure Storage, basically the equivalent to Amazon S3. But, MSV writes that the “lack of storage-optimized VMs, SSDs and provisioned IOPS” remain major limitations for Windows Azure.
The Red Hat gap
Yes, Azure supports Linux — if that Linux happens to be Ubuntu or SUSE. But Red Hat(s rhat) Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is conspicuously absent from this list. While that is apparently more about Red Hat’s reluctance to embrace Azure than a lack of effort by Microsoft to get it aboard, it remains a big problem for Microsoft. For many customers running SAP or Oracle enterprise software, RHEL is Linux. Given Microsoft’s corporate focus, this lack of certification or support is a problem.

Summing up

The knock on Windows Azure by those who have fully embraced AWS is that while Microsoft took years to come out with IaaS capabilities, Amazon has churned out feature enhancements and price cuts over and over again. But again, Amazon’s core user base has, up until now, been startups and individual developers rather than slower, more conservative corporations and big businesses. It could be that Windows Azure has hit its stride at the perfect time for those businesses to move to cloud.
Note: This story was updated at 11:13 a.m. PST to clarify how Azure storage deals with persistence.