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Why Microsoft took its cloud private

'Mi Azure es su Azure'

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Analysis Tongues were wagging that Microsoft was set to announce a cloudy infrastructure and data center partnership with Japanese server maker Fujitsu sometime this week. And it turns out that what Microsoft actually did at its Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington, DC on Monday was tap Dell, HP, and Fujitsu to deliver private or hosted versions of Microsoft's Windows Azure platform appliance.

The Windows Azure platform appliance, which was also announced Monday at the conference, is the Azure Windows services cloud and related back-end servers (as in the software usage of that term, and basically limited to the SQL Azure implementation of SQL Server at this point) that have been set free to roam in your data centers or in third-party data centers on specific stacks of servers, storage, and switches. It scales from "hundreds to tens of thousands of servers," according to Microsoft.

Because Microsoft is still essentially a software company (at least in the data center, if not on the desktop with keyboards and mice and in the living room with the Xbox game console), none of the details of the Dell, HP, and Fujitsu Azure hardware stacks were provided, but the announcements did offer a few hints.

As El Reg reported back in October 2008, Dell's Data Center Solutions bespoke system group won the primary contract to provide the server and storage for the initial Azure cloud built by Microsoft.

Neither company provided feeds and speeds of the machines being installed back then, or the data centers they are housed in, and the word on the street was that Microsoft would eventually also host some of Azure in its massive containerized data center in the Chicago suburbs.

Knowing when to let go

It's pretty clear from the many surveys by IT market researchers, server and operating system vendors — which are tense about cloud computing and its effect on server revenue streams — and cloudy infrastructure providers hoping to ride the cloud phenom, that companies are very keen on having more flexible IT, but not so keen on letting go of it.

And that's why Microsoft's announcement of an appliance version of the Azure cloud is important, and why Dell, HP, and Fujitsu have pushed their way to the front of the line.

Actually, it would be equally honest to say that these three vendors have been pulled to the front of the line by Microsoft itself, and for one very simple reason: Microsoft needs Azure to run on the x64 iron upon which data centers are already comfortable running their own Windows workloads.

Dell and HP are already Microsoft's platform providers for Azure. The word on the street is also that Azure has more Dell iron than HP iron at this point, but this has not been confirmed by Microsoft and is subject to change just as the nameplates shift around in other data centers as new generations of machines come to market with their feeds, speeds, and pricing.

HP is the world's dominant supplier of Windows platforms, followed by Dell, but Fujitsu has a strong presence in Europe and Asia. If you have these three selling and supporting the hosting of Microsoft Azure appliance software in data centers, and then move on to allow them to sell actual physical Azure appliances based on their own gear, then you have a lot of the bases covered.

Dell is cooking up a little something it calls the Dell Services Cloud to run the Azure platform appliance in a data center of its choosing (it could be one owned by Microsoft or it could be something completely different), and the company will eventually sell Azure appliances like it sells PowerEdge servers and PowerVault storage today.

Dell's Services group is implementing the "limited production release" of the Azure platform appliance software stack announced by Microsoft on Monday, but the company has not said when it will be generally available or when the Azure appliances proper will be ready for sale. The only specific thing that Dell did say in its announcement is that its services group operates clouds today, offering managed hosting and software-as-a-service cloudy infrastructure for more than 10,000 customers around the globe thanks to its Perot Systems acquisition last year.

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