The most fundamental element of any public cloud offering is Infrastructure as a Service, known by the acronym IaaS. The definition of IaaS is standardized compute, storage and networking capabilities hosted by a service provider and offered to customers on-demand.
Distinguishing which IaaS subscription (Amazon AWS or Microsoft Azure) is best for your organization is a challenging proposition, especially if you consider only basic functionality. However, if you dig a bit deeper there are some attributes that may sway your decision.
While Amazon was the first to recognize and commercialize IaaS with its EC2 (compute) and S3 (storage) offerings, Microsoft was a bit more cautious in its approach. The companies’ narratives have certainly influenced their approach to IaaS.
Amazon’s open source strategy, embraces the benefits of Linux and the open source ecosystem that surrounds it. It continues to be a smart and highly effective approach that has allowed Amazon to amass a substantial customer base.
A logical progression to AWS’s success is its penetration into the Windows IaaS market - as Microsoft-centric shops benefit from the cost efficiencies and productivity gains of IaaS.
Amazon by all accounts is the IaaS market leader with a broad range of service offerings and an extensive network of partners that provide managed and professional services. Organizations that deploy AWS consider the technology to be mature, stable, and a safe choice.
It took a bit of time for Microsoft to embrace cloud computing. The success of the cloud model and AWS in particular forced their hand, as Microsoft had to stave off their enterprise customers from moving on-premises to IaaS platforms hosted by AWS and other smaller competitors.
As Microsoft’s strengths center around their enterprise customers and their control of the entire Windows ecosystem it is only natural that they were going deliver an IaaS solution in the form of Azure that:
- Looked familiar and natural to Windows Systems Administrators
- Tightly integrated with the Windows ecosystem
- Heavily leveraged Hyper-V
Microsoft’s strategy has been quite successful allowing them to break away from the field to become a strong #2 contender in the IaaS arena. Once Microsoft decided to commit to cloud computing, it most definitely went all-in.
IaaS – Azure
To be competitive, Microsoft had to not only match core AWS IaaS capabilities, but it also had offer compelling and exclusive technology that addressed under served areas. While AWS focused on those that embraced public cloud infrastructures, Microsoft recognized that there was a segment of the market as yet unaddressed.
Microsoft’s IaaS strategy is to embrace environments that not only want to run a traditional IaaS infrastructure, but also want to operate an integrated on-premise and/or public cloud infrastructure. They recognized that not all organizations can forklift their applications on to public cloud. For example, industries like banking and finance need to maintain physical control of their IT assets for compliance and/or regulatory reasons.
If your needs are predicated on an IaaS model that operates as on-premises cloud or in a tightly integrated hybrid mode then Azure Stack presents an absolutely unique set of capabilities. Azure Stack is Azure in a box, it operates as an on-premises cloud solution and it integrates with public cloud Azure. Leveraging the Hyper-V hypervisor and the accompanying technology stack allows Microsoft to deliver a tight integration between on-premises and cloud resources.
Seamless integration manifests itself a number of ways within Azure and Azure Stack. Let’s take a look at two examples:
- Compute – As Microsoft has 100% control over the operating system it is able to offer real-time bi-directional migration of the VM’s between on-premises and cloud. AWS requires an additional abstraction layer of software to accomplish this.
- Storage - Azure offers hybrid storage solutions that tightly integrates with data centers. The data can be seamlessly accessed between on-premises and cloud, helping with disaster recovery, compliance, and more. AWS does offer a similar capability; however, the Azure implementation is more tightly integrated into the operating system.
As of the time of this writing Azure Stack can only be delivered by Hewlett Packard, Dell, and Lenovo. Microsoft requires control of the hardware and software platform in order for the Azure updates to be stable and dependable.
As you can well imagine, there is a significant minimum investment required (somewhere in the $300K range). Much like Azure, Azure Stack is also pay as you use. The initial selling point of Azure is that it is all OPEX, so an explanation to the CFO may well be in order when you request $300K+ of CAPEX for Azure “Stack”.
Is there an AWS in a box offering on the horizon? It is hard to predict, although Amazon certainly isn’t shy about extending its reach. AWS in a box would require Amazon to negotiate some significant hurdles including substantial changes to their highly customized version of the Xen hypervisor. It certainly would be a challenge, however that has never stopped Amazon before.
IaaS - AWS
If your IaaS criteria revolves around having the most robust and flexible of capabilities and being able to manage a large number of resources then AWS has a compelling story.
- Amazon’s EC2 brings with it a large variety of virtual server configurations known as instance types. Organizations with workloads that are resources intensive tend to be attracted to the EC2 offering. Instance types are optimized to address different use cases. Within a given instance type there are different instance sizes. The ability to readily pick from a variety of instance types and instance sizes allow organizations to quickly address just about any kind of workload, be it compute, memory, or I/O intensive.
- Total AWS server capacity is almost an order of magnitude bigger than Azure and other competitors combined. We’re talking 6 times the size. The sheer mass of AWS helps drive IaaS costs down, which drives more usage - which ultimately drives more innovation and thought leadership. The majority of innovations are seen in AWS first, and then percolate down through the competitive landscape.
- Depending on the type of workload, AWS may offer the most cost-effective option. Granted pricing is always going to be confusing, especially given the fact that an apples-to-apples pricing comparison between AWS and Azure is next to impossible. With that said, with a bit homework you can determine which provider’s pricing model is best optimized to your workload.
For example, compute intensive workloads can take advantage of creative EC2 pricing, Spot Instance Pricing allows you to bid on unused EC2 capacity, with a claimed savings off up to 90%!
- Like Azure, AWS offers quite a few storage options, however if you need to move large amounts of data AWS provides some rather unique products
If you’ve got massive amounts of data, and by that we mean so massive that internet-based transfer isn’t cost effective, and if that data needs to be moved between on-premises and cloud then Amazon offers technology that can be classified as the ultimate in “sneaker-net”.
If you are considering IaaS and looking at AWS and Azure, you really can’t go wrong with either one. Ultimately it is going to depend on the type of workload and the IT infrastructure that you want to operate.
If you’re a large shop, geared mostly to open source, and you’re also operating Windows, then AWS is more than a safe bet. If your bias is to move away from on-premises and to go 100% public cloud then AWS again would be an excellent option.
AWS has always been about providing elastic cloud resources in a highly configurable and reliable environment.
If you’re a Windows shop, and you need to operate a combination of on-premises cloud and public cloud, then Azure Stack is the only realistic option. If your competency is almost exclusively Windows-centric and you want to leverage a close relationship with Microsoft, again you can’t go wrong with Azure.
In the end if your IaaS requirements are “lowest common denominator”, you can’t make a bad decision here. It is largely a matter of taste, as the two juggernauts are slowly inching towards functional parity. There are differences that can sway organizations, but the majority of IaaS needs can be met by either provider.