Microsoft makes it harder to avoid Azure

Microsoft announced that it rolled out a load of new capabilities to Azure yesterday afternoon. What struck me as I read through the lengthy blog post about the updates was how deeply Microsoft is integrating Azure into other products.

It’s an excellent way for Microsoft to move long-time customers onto Azure. The result is that some businesses may take baby steps toward using Azure, in some cases hardly realizing they’re doing so. But it’s a great strategy for Microsoft to get customers onto Azure in a small way with hopes that they’ll at least consider Microsoft’s cloud services when it comes time to move to the cloud in a big way.

windows azure_0.jpgImage credit: Flickr/D.Begley

One of today’s announcements is the general availability of what Microsoft is now calling Windows Azure Backup Services. This is a simple offering for backing up Windows Server to the cloud.

Microsoft doesn’t use the word, but this is a classic hybrid service. It lets businesses that are running servers on-premises to set a regular back up to Azure for data on their servers. Microsoft makes a point of noting that the data is encrypted on site at the customer’s premise before it is sent to Azure and the customer retains and manages the encryption key.

The service only sends new data so it doesn’t eat up bandwidth unnecessarily and Microsoft is offering an enterprise SLA. It looks relatively painless to set up, making it a good first step into the public cloud for businesses that have been shy so far.

Another new hybrid service that Microsoft unveiled today is the preview version of Hyper-V Recovery Manager. The service uses Azure to coordinate the replication and recovery of private clouds that use System Center Virtual Machine Manager. The service is designed to help users replicate between two sites, both of which can be on-premises for disaster recovery.

Microsoft also announced some changes to Azure Active Directory that push users in the direction of using the service. For instance, now, all Windows Azure accounts will automatically have a Windows Azure Active Directory created for them. Administrators can use Azure Active Directory to grant rights to manage Azure resources to these users.

Admins can synch the Azure directory to an on-premises Active Directory if they want. Within the Azure Active Directory, admins can add and remove users from directories, enable multi-factor authentication and other management functions.

More interesting will be the Azure Active Directory features that Microsoft promises will come later this year. These features, which will be free, include single sign-on for Microsoft and third-party apps, user provisioning, and security and auditing reports. Those features will put Microsoft in direct competition with startups like OneLogin and Okta as well as new entrants to this space like Salesforce.

Creating Azure Active Directory accounts for all Azure users invites all Azure customers to use Azure Active Directory. Once the forthcoming features become available, those customers may see little reason to try one of the startups. The result is that Microsoft has made Azure stickier.

Competition for enterprise cloud customers is stiff. Not only does Microsoft face giant Amazon Web Services, it also contends with other long-time enterprise vendors like HP and IBM. The new features it rolled out today make it easy for enterprises to start using Azure, even if only minimally.

Read more of Nancy Gohring's "To the Cloud" blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @ngohring and on Google+. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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