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LONDON — The surprise emerging from the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Discover conference here this morning was not that the new company is expanding its predecessor HP’s relationship with Microsoft. 

Rather, today’s expansion effectively dissolves what might otherwise have become the two companies’ principal bone of contention: dueling claims to a chunk of the hybrid cloud.

“We’re sort of reaffirming for our joint customers that Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Microsoft have a preferred relationship,” said Garth Fort, Microsoft’s General Manager for Cloud and Enterprise, in a joint briefing with reporters.

“What that means for us is, HPE is a preferred provider of the infrastructure, to run not just traditional IT in private clouds, but is also a preferred provider into the Azure environment.”

The move brings to a decidedly happy close HP’s dalliance into the world of public cloud services.

When HP established Helion just 19 months ago, it was with the intention of leveraging its footprint in the on-premise side of hybrid clouds, to keep customers from drifting into a public cloud world that appeared would be dominated by Amazon or Microsoft, or a combination of both.

At that time, HP began making huge commitments in OpenStack, the open source collection of Linux-oriented components for provisioning hybrid cloud platforms. It was a move that forced Microsoft to produce Azure Stack, a competitive form of its Windows Server-oriented software, to maintain a foothold in the emerging hybrid cloud space.

But businesses’ interest in Helion as a public cloud platform never even sparked, with some analysts actually unable to measure Helion’s adoption among enterprises as a definitive percentage.

Turning Off the Ignition

Almost immediately in the wake of Helion’s failure to launch, HP retooled Helion as a cloud development platform. Last July, HP acquired Stackato, a popular platform-as-a-service for multiple-language development, from ActiveState.

Then last October, without much fanfare or surprise, HP wound down its Helion public cloud, posting a notice to customers that it would “sunset” the service next Jan. 16.

This morning’s announcement by Microsoft and HPE effectively replaces the Helion public cloud with Azure, for customers that are provisioning hybrid cloud services (partly on-premise) under the Helion brand.

“We exited the HP Public Cloud specifically because we were led to believe there was a lot more growth in the market… by partnering, in many cases, with the classic partners we’ve had for years,” said Bill Hilf, HPE’s senior vice president for cloud. As recently as 2013 was an Azure product manager at Microsoft.

“What hybrid really means is, there is much broader ecosystem growth in cloud computing,” Hilf told me, before emphasizing the “a” in the sentence describing Azure as “a preferred public cloud partner,” thus alluding to the absence of exclusivity.

He stated that many HPE customers have already invested in Microsoft technologies, and are coming to HPE with the expectation of being able to leverage Microsoft platforms — even though, as last month’s dramatic Microsoft partnership announcement with Red Hat made clear — running Red Hat Linux on Azure is now not only technically feasible, but permissible by license.

Turning On the Reaction

Yet there are more subtle and profound ramifications that extend beyond the “sunset,” over the horizon, where things may not look so dusky.

Today’s other major revelation was the introduction of a new class of HPE server hardware, called Synergy, that moves its hybrid cloud resource provisioning system OneView into embedded hardware.

This system touts HPE’s new “converged infrastructure,” enabling OneView to gauge the resources that individual applications may require – even apps running on bare metal, rather than in virtual machines – and apportion exactly the private and public cloud resources to match those requirements.

What HPE is not saying yet, as though the details have yet to be established, is the extent to which this provisioning may involve Microsoft Azure.  It’s difficult to imagine, at this point, Azure not being involved.

What it would mean is that Azure’s place as HPE’s preferred public cloud provider (the default choice, unless an alternate is explicitly specified) would be hard-wired into HPE hardware. Although Azure is not Windows and does not force customers to use Windows, some folks here in London are (out of habit) skeptical that any open path given to Microsoft will be leveraged for other purposes — for example, a channel to Microsoft’s preferred provider

It’s a situation that one reporter here, recalling the era of Microsoft’s preferential treatment of its Internet Explorer, described to HPE and Microsoft executives as something less than an open market policy.

“The vast majority of our clients use different software to back up, whether it’s to disk or tape, from CommVault and other partners like that,” Microsoft’s Garth Fort told the reporter.

Fort went on to explain that Windows’ and Windows Server’s default backup option is to a USB drive, with Azure being the alternate choice.  The purpose of the HPE partnership, he explained, is to help customers figure out the right mix of services, rather than prescribe any particular one.

Which sounds nice on paper, but even the least tech-savvy customer is certain to know what a “preferred provider” relationship is when she sees one.

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Title image by Alessia Caudiero