Despite unveiling prices for its upcoming Windows Azure cloud platform that appear merely on par with incumbent rivals such as Amazon, Microsoft Corp. says Azure will gain ground with Web developers by offering more and better features for the money.
Free from today until its official launch in November, Azure's still-in-beta services range from a hosted .Net platform to an online version of the SQL Server database called SQL Azure.
At its Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans on Tuesday, Microsoft detailed three pricing models for Azure: a consumption model, a subscription model for partner resellers, and an option for volume-license customers such as large enterprises.
The first "pay-as-you-go" model aimed at small developers attracted the most attention, though, because the pricing was closely comparable to services offered Amazon.com, Salesforce.com's Force.com and Google Inc.'s Google App Engine.
Microsoft is charging 12 cents per CPU/hour, 15 cents per gigabyte of data per month, and 10 cents per 10,000 transactions for storage purposes.
While The Register declared Azure to be cheaper than Amazon.com's price for hosted Windows and more expensive than a Linux instance, Silicon Valley Insider called Azure's price "not significantly different than either Google or Amazon."
"The actual per-unit pricing is totally uninteresting in my mind," Prashant Ketkar, director of marketing for Windows Azure, told Computerworld on Tuesday. "What will it cost me end-to-end?"
Ketkar says that Azure offers a number of standard features that, if purchased as add-ons for most competing platforms, cause their prices "to be substantially more expensive than us."
He cited Azure's automated service management as a "killer feature" that enables apps on a downed server to be reloaded onto another server with minimal interruption using Microsoft's "fabric controller".
Azure is also able to dynamically scale on demand, and automatically create two extra backups of data, Ketkar said.
Iein Valdez, product development director for Appirio Inc., a SaaS systems integrator that supports both Google App Engine and Force.com, disputed Ketkar's cost calculations.
"On Google App Engine, you're only paying for the resources you use, unlike Azure where you pay for any running compute instances even if your application is unused," Valdez said.
He said also that Google App Engine is easier to use and more scalable than Azure.
"App Engine has completely transparent auto-scaling, with Azure you'd need to correctly provision and tear down instances as demand fluctuates&and this can be real headache," Valdez said. "From the database [datastore] perspective, the business edition of SQL Azure appears to max out at 10GB, unlike App Engine, which has no data limitations. This can be a real problem for even small-scale applications."
Meanwhile, an Amazon.com spokeswoman said that the company's prices are "intended to give users the most flexibility possible in building their applications." She invited developers to use Amazon.com's online calculator to check the cost of running services such as its S3 storage or EC2 application-hosting service.
While Microsoft is counting on the loyalty of legions of .Net developers moving their apps to Azure, Ketkar said, it also believes it can win over developers who have already moved to rival cloud services.
"It's still 15 minutes into the first quarter, as my senior VP likes to say," Ketkar said. "It's still evolving technology. So I don't think any good developer has committed to any platform."
With its Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), Microsoft is letting third parties such as CSC sell a version that is hosted on their own servers, not Microsoft's data centers.
With Azure, Microsoft is remaining more restrictive. Neither partners nor enterprises will be allowed to host Azure at launch, Ketkar said, but that may come "a few years down the road."
Such services, which would parallel the long-term unification of the Windows Server and Azure roadmaps, would likely be called something other than Azure, he said.