Microsoft is making good on its promise to allow enterprise customers buy Windows Azure preconfigured in datacenter containers from selected partners.
On Juy 12, the company took the wraps off the name for this offering -- Windows Azure Platform Appliance -- and said Dell, Fujitsu and Hewlett Packard were all -to sell this offering.
Despite the name "appliance," the new offering is not the size of a breadbox. These appliances are big preconfigured containers with between hundreds and thousands of servers running the Windows Azure platform.
In the short term, these containers will be housed primarily at Dell's, HP's and Fujitsu's datacenters, with Microsoft providing the Azure infrastructure and services for these containers. In the longer term, Microsoft is expecting some large enterprises, like eBay (which is committing today to purchase this offering), to house the containers in their own datacenters on site -- in other words, to run their own "customer-hosted clouds."
Last year , there was confusion as to whether Microsoft was going to allow customers to buy its Azure offering and run it in their own datacenters. In the end, the Softies said that they wouldn't offer Azure this way. So is today's announcement a 180-degree about-face?
No, claimed Server and Tools General Manager Amy Barzdukas, during an interview I had with her prior to the kick-off of Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference on July 12. A good analogy for these Windows Azure Appliances is a set-top box, she said. Microsoft is the ones providing the "smarts" and the services that power these appliances. Microsoft is doing the patching, the managing and everything but the hosting of the customers' data, she explained.
For some customers who've been unwilling or unable (due to compliance, security and other reasons) to have Microsoft host their data in Microsoft's datacenters around the world, the Appliance option gives them a way to take advantage of Azure's scalability without having to move their data off-premises.
The Azure Appliances are running the same Windows Azure cloud operating system and SQL Azure cloud database that Microsoft runs itself, according to company officials. The target audiences for the product are governments, large enterprises and service providers who might be interested in buying 1,000 servers at a time.
For customers who aren't ready or able to buy in those quantities, Microsoft is continuing to offer Windows Server, Hyper-V, System Center and other server-based components from which these customers can build their own "private clouds" (though these clouds won't be running Windows Azure; they'll be based on Windows Server).
Microsoft also announced today it is making available another of its private-cloud building block technologies: A near-final Release Candidate of System Center Virtual Machine Manager Self Service Portal. (This is the enterprise-focused -- not hoster-focused -- product formerly known as the Dynamic Datacenter Toolkit.) The portal is a collection of tools and guidance for building cloud services on top of the Windows Server platform.
Microsoft and its partners aren't yet providing pricing for the new Windows Azure Platform Appliance offering.
Update 1: The appliances will be available "in production" for partners and customers later this year, Microsoft President of Server and Tools, Bob Muglia, said today.
Company officials also declined to provide timing targets as to when customers will be able to start taking delivery of these appliances in their own datacenters, or as to when the final version of its System Center Virtual Machine Manager Self Service Portal will be available.
Update 2: My blogging colleague Larry DIgnan notes that the new Azure appliance's biggest competitor may be VMware's vSphere.