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.

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