Ever since Microsoft launched the Windows Azure platform-as-a-service, and even more so after the 2010 announcement of infrastructure-as-a-service offerings, people have been wondering when they would come out with a public cloud offering that more closely matches those of its main competitors in the IaaS space – namely Amazon and Rackspace. The wait is finally over. Infrastructure-grade virtual machines are finally available on Windows Azure.

This is probably the most exciting part of the cloud to be in, since it’s not only where the competition is heating up, but is also the first thing everyone thinks about when talking of cloud computing. This, then, is the place to be in order to be noticed. But there is another advantage to being in this bottom of the cloud stack: customers that are already running on Microsoft’s public cloud infrastructure can be moved more easily to the public cloud platform, which was the original vision behind Azure.

Earlier this year, I reviewed the (at that time) top 11 infrastructure-as-a-service providers that had public cloud offerings. At that time, I chose not to include Microsoft in the comparison due to the peculiarities of its offerings, which made it very hard to match the feature sets. But now, with a similar offering on the table, I naturally wondered how this offering would have fared. To quickly recap the comparison, at the time, I created 14 dimensions that relate to the promises of cloud computing and the concerns of enterprise users: price, SLA, security certifications, vertical and horizontal scaling capacity, support, and so on (you can see the full list here).

No big surprises

On the flat comparison I made between companies, Microsoft would come in fourth place, behind only Amazon, Rackspace and OpSource. Looking only at the defined dimensions, Azure virtual machines have no big advantages or disadvantages over the main competitors. Some key points:

  • Competitive pricing: the VMs will run you roughly $58 per month if we consider a 730 hour month on the pay-as-you-go plan, only slightly more than Rackspace’s average of $51. Microsoft is charging the same hourly rate as Rackspace ($ 0.08) for Windows VMs, but charges more for Linux VMs.
  • Data transfer costs are very low for US/Europe traffic, but high for other regions, resulting in a high average cost.
  • The APIs for the VMs don’t seem to be as extensive and simple to use as that of other providers, but that will probably change in the near future (or I may have missed something).
  • Support, monitoring, and SLAs are pretty standard, with no big innovations.

The VMs are still in “preview”, so there may still be quite a few changes before they are finally open to the general public. One thing that particularly annoyed me is the “20 cores” limit they imposed on the accounts. You can have only a maximum of 20 processing cores at any given time (extra small and small instances count as one core, medium is 2, large is 4 and extra-large is 8). If you want more than that, you’ll have to get in touch with a Microsoft representative to discuss your needs. While this prevents people from abusing the service, some people may prefer to go to another provider instead of having to discuss their plans with Microsoft.

In a nutshell: the new Azure VMs are a solid entrance into the public cloud market for Microsoft. While they don’t have any exceptional features or characteristics that set them apart from the rest, they aren’t lacking in any department either. I believe that where they’ll really shine is in the integration with Azure’s PaaS offerings, but we have to wait and see. For now, an already exciting and contested market  has become even more so.

To explore further: Windows Azure and Azure VMs