Microsoft Azure has emerged as a serious competitor for AWS, reporting 97% growth over the last year. As impressive as that is, however, it’s nothing compared to how Microsoft has moved its partner community onto Azure, as well as its other business changes (like Office 365). If this doesn’t sound like a big deal, consider that Microsoft announced at its Inspire conference that it has 800,000 partners who, in turn, employ 17 million people.

It’s hard enough changing the behavior of one person, or even a handful. But 17 million? Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella should get a statue in his honor for that.

Follow the money

Granted, not all of those partners focus on Azure. Many work with Office 365, Xbox, or other Microsoft initiatives. Indeed, getting the exact number of Azure partners is a bit cumbersome. Yes, Microsoft has 20,000 companies selling through its Cloud Solution Provider program, but that refers to cloud resellers and managed service providers, a relatively small percentage of business partners who would build on Azure. Needless to say, with Microsoft’s Azure business the focus of its overall business, that’s where the bulk of its partner efforts are going, too.

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Many of these partners have been with Microsoft for some time, focused on Windows Server. For these, it could be argued that such partners didn’t have much choice if they wanted to stay in the Microsoft fold. Microsoft’s mobile business evaporated, the PC market is in terminal decline, and Microsoft’s server business was moving to the cloud. What else could they do?

Go to AWS, for one. ISVs, SIs, and others haven’t supported Microsoft out of charity. They’ve done so because they’ve been able to make money. Indeed, for years Microsoft has been promoting its cloud business to partners as a way to accelerate their Microsoft-related revenues, telling them in 2014 that cloud-centric partners were making 1.5X the profits as less cloudy peers.

Moving heaven and earth

It has worked. A big part of Microsoft’s Azure success, and key to its pitch to customers, is that Microsoft Azure is the best place to run hybrid workloads, among other things. This story becomes easier to sell if there is a deep bench of partners to call on to facilitate the journey.

For anyone who has worked on the sales side of an enterprise software company, Microsoft’s partner momentum with Azure is nothing short of incredible. I have worked for large enterprise software vendors and startups alike, and in both cases it’s a slog to build a partner community. Moving that partner community as products and business priorities change, however, is…brutal.

SEE: Microsoft launches Azure Container Instances to easily bring Linux containers to the cloud (TechRepublic)

This is true even when the obviously self-interested thing to do would be to change with the times. Back when I worked at Novell I saw sales professionals, as well as our partner community, stubbornly persist with NetWare even as the product was in obvious decline. It was simply too hard to switch, even with a fresh new Linux product (SUSE) to jump to.

As Microsoft stumbled through its early forays into cloud, its partner community had every reason to bolt for AWS or other potential alternatives. En masse, they stayed, and Microsoft has since added new partners. Knowing as I do how hard this is, color me impressed.