Microsoft leans on data-center strength to get cloud edge

The company tries to catch up to and surpass Amazon Web Services at TechEd Europe

Microsoft wants to move monitoring and analytics to the cloud, automate management and take over high- performance computing work with its latest Azure products.

That Microsoft wants to make the most of its strong position in enterprise data centers, hoping to move customers to Azure, became even more apparent at the TechEd Europe conference in Barcelona Tuesday.

The company announced Azure Operational Insights, which extends the Azure hosted analytics, monitoring and management tools to on-premises equipment, simply by installing an agent on servers. It's possible to find missing system updates, capacity shortages and track server configuration changes, for example.

The thinking is the same as with many other cloud services: companies can get up and running quickly without having to invest in infrastructure of their own.

"It's really straightforward to get that data up [to Azure] and the amount of insight you can unlock is really powerful," said Jason Zander, corporate vice president of Microsoft Azure.

Depending on what IT staff want to do, Microsoft lets them choose between eight different Intelligence Packs with different functionality. Each pack is a collection of logic, visualization and data acquisition rules.

IT departments that want to try Operational Insights can get their hands on a preview version. The launch gives Microsoft an edge over Amazon, according to one analyst.

"Azure Operational Insights is definitely helpful for hybrid scenarios, which are ignored notoriously by Amazon Web Services," said Stefan Ried, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

Amazon's dominant position in public clouds and its perceived weakness when it comes to private and hybrid clouds isn't lost on Microsoft, as well as most of Amazon's other competitors. Microsoft as well as Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Rackspace and VMware are all trying to counteract the success Amazon has seen by pushing the need for hybrid clouds.

Last week, when Amazon's Andy Jassy was asked about the company's support for hybrid clouds, he first underlined that a growing number of companies are going all-in with its public cloud. But the company also has services like Virtual Private Cloud and Direct Connect that let enterprises extend their data centers to Amazon's cloud, he said.

Microsoft also launched Azure Batch and Azure Automation at TechEd. They are meant to help Microsoft catch up with Amazon or third-party products hosted by Amazon, according to Ried.

The goal with Batch is to make Azure more big-data friendly. Available as a public preview, it offers job scheduling as a service, making it easy to run large-scale parallel and high- performance computing work in Azure. It can be used for media transcoding and rendering, image analysis and processing, financial risk calculations, engineering simulations and stress analysis, and software tests, according to a Microsoft blog post.

This preview is targeted at developers and includes an API that supports REST, a C# object model and Python. The integration capabilities are called Batch Apps and come from GreenButton, a company Microsoft acquired in May.

Over the next months, Microsoft will be adding additional features including application life-cycle management, in-depth monitoring, role-based access for submitting jobs and service management, custom images and Linux. The company is also integrating the Batch Apps management interface with the new Azure portal.

"Microsoft is catching up with Amazon on the cloud services layer. Azure Batch is just one good example," said René Büst, senior analyst and cloud practice lead at Crisp Research.

Automation, on the other hand, is about making Microsoft's cloud more management friendly. It's a significant product for Microsoft, because as enterprises move more applications to the cloud, effective management will become increasingly important.

The goal with the generally available Automation is to save time and money by automating frequent, time-consuming and error-prone cloud management tasks, according to Microsoft. This is done using Windows PowerShell workflows -- so-called runbooks -- to create, deploy, maintain and monitor of Azure resources.

To help users get started, Microsoft has posted some tutorials on the Automation website.

Engine Yard's platform-as-a-service is one of the third-party tools that Microsoft's Automation will compete with, according to Ried. It automates the configuration, deployment and ongoing maintenance of cloud-based applications. It has been available on Amazon's Marketplace for almost three years.

But even if Engine Yard competes with Automation, the company's platform is also available on Microsoft's Azure Marketplace, which was also announced on Tuesday.

To make Azure more successful, Microsoft has depended on third-party tools and applications, as well as its own offerings. To help that happen, the company has opened Azure Marketplace. The only surprise here is that Microsoft hadn't done it before.

Organizations can buy and deploy products that either run on or integrate with Azure without much hassle, Microsoft promises. On Tuesday morning, there were 3,002 products to choose between from companies such as SAP, Cloudera, DataStax, CommVault, Veeam and Trend Micro.

Azure Marketplace will have some tough competition, including similar, already existing, offerings from Amazon, IBM, Oracle and Rackspace.

Microsoft's announcements at TechEd weren't just about Azure. The company also opened up Office 365 to third-party developers with the help APIs that let other companies add features and capabilities to the online productivity service.

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