Microsoft (news, site) announced new Windows Azure features and cheaper pricing options in hopes for being a stronger competitor against Amazon Web Services’ (news, site) EC2 cloud offering.

The Azure Platform

Microsoft released Azure in February of this year and has been rushing to catch up with the features offered by cloud leader Amazon and other competitors like IBM, Cisco Systems, EMC Corp., VMware and Rackspace.  Microsoft has released an aggressive Windows Azure road map.

The Azure is a platform as a service (PaaS) offering.  Unlike the IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) products of Amazon and Rackspace, the focus of PaaS is on applications, not the underlying infrastructure or virtualized machines. Compared to IaaS, PaaS attempts to handle more of the actual management and provisioning of virtual machines for users.


Azure architecture

The New Features

The new features of Azure include two new capabilities that enable customers to get on the quicker:

  1. Windows Azure Virtual Machine Role
  2. Server Application Virtualization

Windows Azure Virtual Machine Role allows customers to run an instance of Windows Server 2008 R2 on the cloud, making it easier for developers to move applications without time intense development modifications.  This is similar to what traditional IaaS offering provide for users. Amazon has been supporting a comparable feature for several months.  

The other new feature, Server Application Virtualization, provides developers the ability to transfer application images to Windows Azure, harnessing the underlying management capabilities of the platform.

Microsoft also presented several enhancements to AppFabric to speed the process of assembling services by providing application deployment and management capabilities.  In addition, the company released Windows Azure Marketplace, including the new DataMarket (formerly “Project Dallas”), from beta.  DataMarket includes 35 providers of commercial and public data subscriptions. The data includes demographic, financial, mapping, and entertainment data as well as other content to power applications and analytics.

Cloud Pricing Wars?

Microsoft seems to be directly competing AWS’ pricing by announcing Extra Small Instances that cost only 5 cents per hour. AWS recently announced Micro Instances, including a free year’s use of one Micro Instance, which cost 2 cents per hour.  Although Microsoft’s instances are twice the price, users do not have to manage low-level infrastructure details like with AWS.

In addition to the Extra Small Instances, the existing Azure pricing model has two plans. The first is consumption based.  The consumption based plan requires no commitment; you pay for what you use. The second plan discounts the cost, but customers must make a six-month commitment.

Let's see how Amazon responds to this.