Dell, eBay, HP and Fujitsu have become the first big names to buy into Microsoft's Azure in its new appliance form, Microsoft has announced at the start of its Worldwide Partner Conference.
Until now, customers would have to have bought the platform-as-a-service Azure cloud application system through Microsoft's own data centres, but will now be able to run it from within their own networks. Further development should see that extend to their customers' data centres though timescales for that remain hazy.
Dell was quoted as saying it planned to have a Windows Azure Platform Appliance running by January 2011, while eBay said it planned to use it in two of its data centres to run applications such as its iPad auction listings.
"We are at an inflection point in technology history," Microsoft's CEO, Steve Ballmer, said in an address. "For customers, cloud computing creates tremendous value, which translates to massive opportunity for Microsoft and its partners."
Microsoft has a number of challenges with Azure, not least convincing the market in a space it does not dominate as it has the PC desktop. Its rivals include Google, and Amazon, which has currently approaches cloud computing from an infrastructure perspective. The cloud is unlikely to be as easily dominated by any one player and Microsoft also has desktop and server revenues to protect.
The next challenge is a physical one. Azure normally ships in a contained box, which works for data centres but has limitations beyond that important segment. When Microsoft talks of an 'appliance' this is no 2U rack device. It consists of large number of servers and networking gear inside a large metal box. Customers will inevitably wants something that racks, even if that does run to many servers.
The company has yet released details of pricing although it does appear that Dell, HP and Fujitsu will be able to build the appliances from their own hardware at some point.