Oracle vs. Microsoft vs. Red Hat: Three cloud recipes

Three tech giants want to challenge Amazon Web Services, and the methods they're using shine a light on their wider corporate strategy.

Oracle, Microsoft and Red Hat have all updated their cloud plans – and the differing choices of each shine a light on their wider corporate strategies.

In typical Microsoft fashion, the Redmond giant has gone for a relatively closed extension to its Windows Azure cloud, which sees it embrace Linux virtual machines and start to offer an infrastructure-as-a-service capability.

Virtual machine data can be moved between on-premise clouds and Azure clouds - so long as it is packaged in the VHD (Virtual Hard Disks) format. Though Microsoft spins VHD as being a "common virtualisation format" it mostly lives in Windows software. Support from other vendors is minor - virtualisation leader VMware does not natively support VHD, as it has its own Virtual Machine Disk Format (VMDK), though it does provide a conversion tool.

Meanwhile, Oracle has focused on specific cloud-based technologies for key business tasks like ERP, talent management and sales and marketing, along with business technologies such as database and document services, aiming squarely at rivals such as SAP.

Although there is a small infrastructure element to Oracle's announcement - via the developer and web services on its platform services - the company is not emphasising this. No surprise- this lines up with Oracle's love of high margins, and reflects that it doesn't want to end up in a "race to the bottom" with Amazon in terms of price.

Red Hat may not have the stomach for producing a fully fledged IaaS service, as it promised at the launch of CloudForms in May 2011, so has, to use modern startup parlance, 'pivoted' the technology to become a management layer for other IaaS clouds, such as OpenStack.

Unlike Oracle and Microsoft's approaches, CloudForms is more like an overlay that can sit on existing software and hardware and manage the movements of jobs and data. Red Hat has form in this area, as it operates a fruitful middleware business via JBoss.

A race with no end in sight

These announcements are important steps in as the companies jockey for position in a race critical to their futures.

For Microsoft, attracting developers to build applications for Windows is key. And increasingly developers start out on cheap instances provisioned from Amazon, Microsoft has realised that it needs to encourage these developers to work on a platform it owns in languages and formats that suit its purposes. You can bet the company will throw a lot of money at Azure and I would be surprised if there isn’t a major developer-focused effort, too.

Similarly, Oracle makes its money from software licenses for on-premise database and business process applications, and has an incentive to keep things there -hence the great emphasis placed on its on-premise hardware, sold on the tagline of 'software and hardware, engineered together'.

The fear is - if companies move their CRM software to the cloud, for example, then at some point they'll start wondering about their database software as well. For this reason, though Oracle's cloud announcement is something of a 'me too', it is an important one, as the stakes are very high.

Red Hat may have the most interesting strategy of all three companies. With the rise of the cloud, in the short term the complexity of organisation’s IT stacks is set to increase, rather than decrease. That’s because the cloud software ecosystem is so diverse and priced so competitively that many companies are experimenting with more and more applications.

As every application developer is trying to get their bits of software to work with various clouds, the need for a management layer that can marshal all of them is obvious. If Red Hat can keep CloudForms open, and if the OpenStack cloud framework which it is designed to dovetail into, is successful, then there could be a lot of money in the making.

For now, the future is much the same as the past, with each of these giants.