AzurePlatform_logo_2010.jpgThis has been a big few weeks  for cloud news from some of the biggest names in technology. Larry Ellison did an about-face and now loves the cloud. Both Oracle and Red Hat made major announcements about their cloud strategies. Hewlett-Packard talked up its public cloud strategy at HP Discover. Now, it’s Microsoft’s turn, and what it has to say may be the most surprising announcement yet.

Meet the New Azure

This week, Microsoft has been behaving like a two-year-old with a secret. The company was scheduled to make a big announcement about its cloud platform, Azure, today, but Bill Laing, VP of Server and Cloud, couldn’t wait to reveal the news. Microsoft has long been criticized for peddling proprietary solutions and attempting to crush any technology that competes with its offerings. However, things have changed in Redmond. Microsoft has become more open; the company even created an entire subsidiary dedicated to openness.

Microsoft is taking things even further. After years of treating Linux as a scourge that must be eliminated, Microsoft has added support for multiple Linux distributions to Windows Azure. The change accompanies a list of other changes Microsoft is making to its cloud platform in an effort to gain market share from Amazon Web Services.

Since the inception of Windows Azure, Microsoft has championed its role as a public platform-as-service (PaaS) solution running Microsoft’s operating system. Today, that changes. Microsoft has broadened its focus and stepped down the cloud stack and embraced the reality that enterprises don’t want to deploy everything to the public cloud. Azure now offers infrastructure-as-a-service capabilities and hybrid cloud options. Azure now features Virtual Machines (VM), based on an open virtualization format, that allows users to move virtual hard drives between the cloud and on-premises servers. Even more surprising is the fact that the VMs support Ubuntu, CentOS and the SUSE Linux distributions.

Azure users can select and provision a Linux distribution from the Microsoft Windows Azure Image Gallery or import their own Linux build. In addition, Azure can update the virtual distributions with security patches, bug fixes and enhancements. The VMs are also persistent, which means they can be shut down and restarted without losing data. 

Linux isn’t the only open-source software featured on Azure. Java, PHP and several other non-Microsoft technologies were already supported to a limited degree on Azure. Microsoft is more deeply integrating the support and attempting to attract developers by adding Python and command line support for Windows and Mac in the Azure SDK.

What’s Next

The availability of Windows Azure is being expanded to customers in 48 new countries over the next month, including Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Egypt, South Africa and Ukraine. This addition means Azure is now available in 89 countries. Microsoft is providing additional details on the Azure changes today at a “Meet Windows Azure” event that will be streamed live at 1PM PST.

Microsoft and other vendors understand that the data center and networks are becoming increasingly virtualized as technology leaders strive to migrate to IT-as-a-service. Microsoft is not becoming more open because it is the right thing to do; the company is becoming more open because that is the only way to survive.