news Microsoft this morning revealed plans to offer its Windows Azure platform as a service from Australian datacentres located in Sydney and Melbourne, in the latest move by a global technology giant to offer cloud computing services from Australian facilities to meet local demand and address concerns around data sovereignty.
Azure is similar in some ways to alternative cloud computing platforms offered by companies such as Amazon Web Services, in that it does offer infrastructure as a service offerings such as compute and storage on demand. However, it also operates as a platform as a service product that allows developers to build applications using Microsoft’s diverse software environments.
The platform was initially announced by Microsoft in late 2008, and has seen a number of large improvements since that date, including technical additions and new features, as well as new locations. Currently Azure offers services primarily from the United States, where most of the Azure datacentres but it does also offer a number of other regions in Asia and Europe. Australian customers have been known to use Microsoft’s Azure facilities in Singapore.
This morning, on its Australian blog, Microsoft announced a significant expansion of Azure to support Australians with local infrastructure. “As part of our commitment to flexibility and choice, we are announcing the planned expansion of a new Windows Azure major region for Australia,” wrote Microsoft Australia Server & Tools Group lead, Toby Bowers. “When completed, this new major region will enable the delivery of Windows Azure services locally from Australia and allow us to better address our customers’ and partners’ cloud computing needs.”
“The new Windows Azure major region in Australia will consist of two sub-regions located in New South Wales and Victoria. These two locations will be geo-redundant, offering our customers the ability to back up their data across two separate locations, both within Australia. We know that providing disaster recovery, while ensuring data sovereignty goals are met, is critical to many of our customers and we look forward to delivering a solution that meets those requirements.”
In an interview with Delimiter following the announcement, Bowers said Microsoft had made its decision to support local Azure infrastructure because seen a “healthy demand” for Azure services from Australian customers. The executive noted that Microsoft currently had thousands of customers using Azure in Australia and expected growth momentum on the platform to continue. In particular, the company has seen its enterprise subscriptions to Azure jump by 49 percent in the past six months.
Those customers, Bowers said, were looking for solutions to data sovereignty, disaster recovery and latency issues, and so Microsoft’s global team had evaluated the Australian region and determined the deployment of local infrastructure should go ahead. “It’s really a testament to how quickly this market is growing,” the executive said.
Although Bowers noted the full suite of Azure services would be offered from the Australian facilities, he was reluctant to share many details of when the facilities are slated to come online, or whether the Australian facility will feature price parity with Microsoft’s international facilities.
“We aren’t sharing additional details on timing at this stage; our teams are hard at work to bring the region online,” Bowers said. The executive noted that Windows Azure was “priced consistently” around the world and highlighted recent announcements by Microsoft where the company had offered to match the prices of competing infrastructure from players like Amazon.
In addition, Bowers could not confirm whether Microsoft was planning to use its own datacentre space in Australia to provide the Azure services, or whether it would lease space in existing datacentres.
Bowers did, however, confirm that local partner organisations would be “critical” to Microsoft’s Azure adoption strategy for Australia. Microsoft has long pursued a close partnership strategy with third party systems integrators and other organisations to sell and deploy its technology, and it appears as though a similar situation will exist with its Azure facilities in Australia. “We’re working closely with partners here locally,” the executive said.
One potential issue for Australian customers of Azure may be that data stored in Microsoft’s Australian facilities may still be subject to examination by the US Government, if it chooses to seek access under the country’s controversial Patriot Act.
When Microsoft launched its software as a service offering Office 365 in Europe in mid-2011, the company’s UK managing director Gordon Frazer said at the time that as Microsoft was headquartered in the US, it was subject to US laws — including the Patriot Act. Asked about the issue this morning, Bowers gave a very similar issue.
“Like any corporation that is headquartered in the US, we are subject to US law,” the executive said. However, he noted that “for the vast majority of customers, data sovereignty is not an issue”, and noted that hybrid scenarios, where customers keep sensitive data in highly controlled local facilities not subject to the Patriot Act, and less-sensitive data in other facilities, were becoming more common.
One Australian organisation that is leveraging the strengths of what Microsoft this morning referred to as a “hybrid solution to innovate and streamline its IT operations” is iron ore giant Fortescue Metals Group. In Bower’s statement this morning, he noted that Fortescue was using the (non-Microsoft) StorSimple platform for its on-premises storage needs, while also using Azure.
Fortescue CIO Vito Forte said, according to Bowers: “StorSimple and Windows Azure provide the best of both worlds—the economies of the cloud with on-premises levels of performance and security”. Fortescue is also, according to Bowers, in the process of building its environment for testing and development, and expects to move as much as 50 percent into Windows Azure by the end of June. System Center 2012 will apparently play a central role for the company to help manage its hybrid environment. Forte added: “Public cloud comes first, but hybrid cloud/on-premises gets used where necessary”.
Gartner research director Michael Warrilow said the Microsoft deployment was good for competition due to the fact that companies such as IBM and AWS already had infrastructure locally, with Rackspace and VMware also having recently revealed plans. “Organisations shouldn’t assume Amazon Web Services is the only choice now or in the future,” the analyst said, advising end users to look at competitors. In addition, Warrilow noted the deployment was good for Microsoft, as it showed the vendor’s commitment to the cloud computing market.
Warrilow noted that so far, interest in Azure had been “minimal” due to latency, security and privacy concerns. “But this will increase now,” he said, noting that Microsoft’s announcement would be good news for medium-sized organisations, customers who already used Microsoft technology extensively (“Microsoft shops”) and those generally evaluating platform as a service solutions.
However, the executive also noted that Microsoft were only announcing the new facilities at this point — they weren’t due to be open for business until later in the year.
The news comes as a number of other major organisations have recently launched cloud computing-based facilities in Australia, including Amazon Web Services and Rackspace. Amazon last month launched a dedicated Australian support facility to support local customers, and claimed at the time that it was seeing strong uptake of its infrastructure by Australian customers. VMWare has also recently revealed plans to deploy local cloud infrastructure, and traditional IT giants such as Fujitsu, CSC and IBM also operate local facilities. Holdout companies which have not deployed local infrastructure include giants Salesforce.com and Google.
Awesome! Great to see another major global vendor deploying Australian infrastructure. Kudos to Microsoft for this great move, and we look forward to seeing how deployment and uptake of the local datacentres goes. So we’ve got Amazon, we’ve got Rackspace, we’ve got IBM, VMware, and even SAP and Oracle. Now, we only need to get a few more cloud computing/SaaS players to the tablet in Australia … Salesforce.com, Google, NetSuite … I’m looking at you.