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Azure and AWS continue their race for public cloud dominance

In the battle between public cloud vendors, Microsoft hopes its large enterprise customer base and a focus on hybrid cloud can help it close the gap with AWS.

AWS might top the list of the leading public cloud vendors, but its rivals will not rest. Microsoft Azure, in particular, has made strides with its broad enterprise footprint, and the wind continues to blow in its direction.

"Azure has momentum in terms of adding features and reaching toward parity over time," said Deepak Mohan, research director for IDC's Storage and Infrastructure group. "They aren't yet at one-to-one with AWS, but they have made great progress."

AWS, Azure race to build out features, global footprints

The biggest difference between Azure and AWS is the cachet attached to their interconnected products and services and how they slice up their global footprint, said Patrick Kerpan, CEO of Cohesive Networks, a cloud-based security company that works with both cloud providers. Azure leads AWS in worldwide points of presence with 36 global regions, four of which have multiple availability zones. AWS has 18 data center regions, almost all of which have multiple availability zones, plus edge locations to offer CloudFront and Route 53 in more places around the globe.

In addition to their global footprints, Azure and AWS continue to compete in terms of their cloud feature sets. For example, AWS tends to lead in terms of the variety of its infrastructure as a service (IaaS) offerings, but Azure has a strong platform as a service (PaaS) portfolio, said Girish Phadke, technology head for Microsoft and cloud platforms at Tata Consultancy Services, which partners with both AWS and Microsoft.

"While AWS has more granular configurations and pricing models available in the IaaS space, Azure provides a richer collection of PaaS services," Phadke said.

Additionally, Azure introduced its B-Series of VMs, which target entry-level workloads, such as web servers, small databases and dev/test workloads. The pricing formula fits occasionally "bursty" loads that might incur significant expenses under other, more typical cloud usage models.

"That definitely brings them to parity with AWS on the low end," Mohan said.

Dharshan Rangegowda, founder of ScaleGrid, a database-as-a-service company that automates MongoDB and Redis management on DigitalOcean, Azure and AWS, echoed some of these sentiments. Azure is definitely catching up to AWS in terms of a simple feature-by-feature comparison, but in terms of parameters like reliability, performance and uptime, "Azure is still considerably behind AWS," he said.

For example, when you run an action -- such as create, stop or start -- on a number of VMs, it seems to occur more quickly and with fewer errors on AWS than on Azure, Rangegowda said.

Azure's enterprise and hybrid advantage

AWS, in general, has been a go-to for "born in the cloud" startups, such as Netflix or Reddit, but enterprises already invested in the Microsoft ecosystem and Windows servers tend to gravitate toward Azure, Kerpan said.

Rangegowda agreed: "Given that Microsoft already has established relationships and business deals with large enterprises, they often are the first cloud provider considered by these companies."

Furthermore, when it comes to hybrid cloud, Azure simplifies the integration of on-premises applications and Azure-hosted applications with services such as Azure Active Directory Connect, Azure StorSimple, SQL Server Stretch Database and Azure Stack.

"Azure Stack, the Microsoft offering for private cloud, makes seamless movement of applications between public and private cloud possible," Phadke said.

Compare carefully

One indication of Azure's growing adoption comes from the "State of Modern Applications in the Cloud" report from Sumo Logic, a cloud-based data analytics service. The report, which was based on responses from Sumo Logic customers, found that, while Linux has long been the dominant OS in AWS -- representing 80% of instances, according to survey data -- Linux usage in Azure grew from 4% to 16% over the last year, a 300% increase.

But it's never a simple apples-to-apples comparison when you want to evaluate public cloud vendors like Azure and AWS. Instead, all comparisons must be put into context, Mohan said. The total spending on public IaaS is still less than the annual capital spend on on-premises infrastructure, Mohan added.

"Think about how much growth potential remains," he said.

So, while providers strive to gain mind share relative to the competition, most of the big public cloud vendors are still much more focused on their own expansion and growth, rather than their rivals.

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