Azure and Service Providers

Bernd Harzog recently wrote about Microsoft’s Three Pronged Windows Azure Strategy – particularly with reference to the Service Provider offering. I’ve now had a certain amount of time to reflect on the announcement and try and work out what is going on and it doesn’t seem to constitute a wholehearted strategy to put resellers on a level playing field with Microsoft.

First, it’s important to remember this is not Microsoft’s first attempt to establish a channel for Azure, as long ago as the middle of 2010 it announced an Azure Appliance initiative with hardware partners and service providers on a Limited General Availability basis.  There are rumours that some appliances were actually built. Ebay was rumored to have taken a few – but perhaps that was just auctioning off the prototypes. In practice, there hasn’t been uptake amongst the Service providers, and perhaps there hasn’t been the pull from customers of hosting companies, after all why would you buy Azure off a Reseller?

So the question is why would a Service Provider model for Azure work right now?  The answer is that there appears to be absolutely no overlap in function between the version of Azure previously offered via hosting companies and the version that is now being offered.

Microsoft themselves describe their new offering in the following way

“Microsoft is bringing Windows Azure Web Sites, Virtual Machines, the Service Management Portal and API to Windows Server, enabling Hosting Service Providers to easily deliver high density website hosting and Infrastructure as a Service scenarios in a Windows Server-based environment. Developing these services in Windows Azure enables a consistent customer experience across cloud platforms.”

No mention of the other three pieces of Azure… Big Data, Media and Cloud Services.  “Cloud Services” is the PaaS formerly known as Azure, which was all that there was in 2010 when the appliance was released.  So, essentially, all the Service Providers have access to is

  • A way of provisioning Windows and Linux VMs (probably quite an expensive way of doing the latter since with the Microsoft SPLA you pay for every bit of hardware that Windows touches).
  • A way of  managing multiple website on a single Windows Server with a self-service provisioning interface

If you go and install the tech preview you will find that they aren’t lying – this is all there is, and it requires both a MySQL instance and a SQL Server instance to do it.

Many service providers are having success with the Microsoft platform – there are a number of emerging DaaS providers, and there is a lot of hosted SharePoint and hosted Exchange.  And there is quite a significant market in hosting applications on behalf of independent System Vendors (ISVs) selling applications.  In fact  this is the dominant market positioning of independent .NET PaaS vendors outside of Azure – vendors like TechCello and Apprenda  are targeting .NET ISVs with a specific SaaS-enabling solution – majoring on multi-tenancy and  billing.

ISVs are of course being targeted very aggressively by Microsoft to move to Azure as a PaaS, so there is potentially an opportunity for hosting providers to help sell the PaaS to ISVs. There are also good reasons for ISVs to buy Azure off a hosting provider because it insulates them a little bit from Microsoft who are, after all, an application ISV.  However, hosting providers only get to sell the bits of Azure that aren’t really targeted at ISVs.

Thus the announcement doesn’t really seem to signal a coherent approach to offer Azure through a service provider route. It’s also important to remember that the solution is still in technical preview (there is, for example no way for the hosting provider to offer multiple domain names on its cloud, and there is no Active Directory Support, and the installation document contains hundreds of manual steps and is 47 pages long). It may be just a holding announcement before a third approach comes along.

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