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Microsoft's Windows Azure Plan B: A hard drive, a courier and a data-centre monkey

Narrow pipes no obsticle to terabyte customers

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Microsoft, Amazon and Apple have spent tens of billions of dollars rolling out state-of-the art data centres over the past few years.

These companies are building massive facilities housing thousands of servers with dedicated fibre and Ethernet connections that shunt tens of gigabytes per second.

But when customers are generating and shifting terabytes and petabytes of data, the existing hardware can’t cope.

That’s when you fall back on Plan B: a hard drive, a courier and data-centre nerd.

On Monday, Microsoft announced a pilot service where it’ll accept customers’ hard drives at its US data centres, where staff will manually upload your data.

Same if you want to quit Windows Azure: Microsoft will download your data to a hard drive and ship it back.

The physical import/export service was announced with a raft of updates to Microsoft’s cloud on Monday. Other changes are more on the digital features – managing virtual infrastructure and running your own site on the Windows Azure service.

Scott Guthrie, Microsoft Windows Azure corporate vice president, blogged:

The Windows Azure Import/Export Service enables you to move large amounts of on-premises data into and out of your Windows Azure Storage accounts. It does this by enabling you to securely ship hard disk drives directly to our Windows Azure data centers.

Once we receive the drives we’ll automatically transfer the data to or from your Windows Azure Storage account. This enables you to import or export massive amounts of data more quickly and cost effectively (and not be constrained by available network bandwidth).

The service sounds like a backwards step but it’s important in helping Microsoft literally shovel hundreds of terabytes of customer data into Windows Azure rather than waiting for them to squeeze dribs and drabs through narrow network connections.

That way, customers become dependent more quickly on Windows Azure and end up paying Microsoft more money for its cloud service in the long run.

Amazon also-rans

Like everyone else in cloud, Microsoft is coming from behind against the market and momentum leader, Amazon.

Amazon Elastic Compute (EC2) service has been allowing you to ship your hard drives for manual upload or extraction by data-centre grunts since July 2011.

And, as in all other aspects of cloud, Microsoft is using pricing to try to beat Amazon, by making its import/export service slightly cheaper.

Windows Azure import/export is priced at a $40 flat fee per drive you sent it: there’s a pilot period discount – between $27.20 and $32 if you’ve got a six- or 12-month Windows Azure contact. Amazon, meanwhile, charges $40 per drive with an additional data-handling fee of $2.49 per hour it takes its data-centre monkeys to shift your data.

Microsoft's service only works with 3.5 SATA II hard drives with a limit of up to 4TB for the preview. The data volume must be formatted using NTFS.

Microsoft will swallow the cost of shipping the drive back to you - as long as the destination is in the US and the same as your company's address (so no sneaking off to rival providers). Amazon pays “reasonable” charges for devices returned to location in the same country as its data centres, but if you want to ship the device to a different country or if you want express shipment, then you foot the cost.

You can read the about the rest of Microsoft’s updates to Windows Azure here. ®

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