Redmond, Wash. — When Microsoft debuted its Windows Azure development platform last week at its Professional Developer Conference, vendors and customers alike were paying attention. Like Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), cloud computing’s claim to fame is its virtual environment, making it promising as a hosted service to developers. This means an insurer’s database, backup, integration and security will all be managed by Microsoft’s data centers, which provide an operating system and a set of developer services that can be used individually or together. The company says that its platform can be used to build new applications to run from the cloud, or enhance existing applications with cloud-based capabilities.

Framingham, Mass.-based research firm IDC says the cloud computing market will grow at 15% per year until 2012, making this technology a sweet spot for several technology providers. Yet vendors such as Google, IBM and Salesforce.com have already jumped on the SaaS and cloud computing bandwagons. Last month Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM announced it would make Lotus Notes and its Bluehouse social networking software available through a cloud-computing program. In April, Google, the Mountain View, Calif.-based Internet giant unveiled the Google App Engine, which lets outside software developers create Web applications using Google's tools. Google hosts those applications in its massive “Googleplex” data centers.

Meanwhile, Salesforce, San Francisco, has rolled out toolkits for its Force.com cloud computing platform, which connects it to Facebook, and Amazon.com, as well as to the Force.com Sites product. The toolkits allow Force.com developers straight through access to the application programming interfaces sitting inside Facebook and Amazon. Users run their Web sites in Salesforce's online software environment.

INN editors believe that the similarities between these initiatives are probably not lost on Microsoft, which built its reputation on allowing businesses to build their business applications on Microsoft’s platform. But in following Microsoft’s long-held business model, these vendors also need to differentiate their offerings, as does Bruce Francis, Salesforce’s VP of corporate strategy. In an e-mail to InternetNews.com, Francis remarked, "Azure's strategy of requiring customers and developers to manage a 'construct architecture' doesn't reduce complexity—it just takes away its ZIP code," he said. "Microsoft still places the full burden of managing software operations on its customers and developers. But customers want to build their app and not worry about anything else."

Microsoft’s Doug Hauger, GM of the cloud infrastructure services unit, has publicly defended the Azure platform, saying the applications and data they are offering through Azure are “portable.”

“If a company wants to move its database from Azure to in-house, the data can be streamed right off the servers. Applications also can be redeployed from the Azure network to internal networks,” Hauger said on InternetNews.com.
"We heard that from so many customers; 'Don't lock me into a platform. Prove the platform is valuable and I'll come to it, and let me go where I want to go,'" Hauger said.

Regardless of what the vendor says, the verdict may still be out for some users, such as Lynn Harrison, who reports on a Wall Street Journal blog that her comfort level rests with Microsoft software: “What happens if the Internet service is down? At least now I can work with my Excel and Word without service,” she wrote.

Still others believe that the time has come to revisit software, and see this type of technological change through to fruition. This may be especially true for .Net developers who use Microsoft Visual Studio (software) but will now have access to a new tool set and less upfront costs as a result of Azure.

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Internetnews.com, Microsoft, Salesforce.com

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