Microsoft Goes Further Into the Cloud

For as long as most of us have been using computers at work, we’ve been using Microsoft products. Aside from a few handfuls of creatives on Macs and geeky types using Linux, being an office worker has usually meant being intimately familiar with Word, PowerPoint and Excel.

But, at least by many accounts, a new era is dawning. We’re no longer tethered to the programs installed on our hard drives. It’s often easier to collaborate with colleagues by sharing a Google Doc than by emailing a Word attachment. And more and more work gets done entirely outside of the constraints of an office computer, by coworkers accessing a shared company platform on the web.

In this environment, Microsoft is well aware that it needs to compete where its customers are working—in the cloud. In 2010, it rolled out Windows Azure, a computing platform that lets users run programs, store data and analyze information on remote Microsoft servers. That first generation of Azure is classified as a platform as a service product. It works together with the company’s software-as-a-service offering, which lets businesses use the familiar Microsoft programs in the cloud through Office 365.

Now, though, Microsoft is aiming squarely at the market for raw computing power currently dominated by Amazon. The most money in the cloud computing world today lies in that raw power, known as infrastructure as a service. The new Windows Azure offering, currently only available in “preview” allows users to rent virtual machines on the company’s servers by the hour or by the month.

Google also recently unveiled an infrastructure-as-a-service offering, which means the market is getting much more crowded with big-name players. That means customers may be able to find good deals as companies vie for their business. But it also means more to consider for anyone looking to sign up with a cloud provider, from making sure any given company will keep data safe and accessible to figuring out how to compare prices in an apples-to-apples fashion.

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts on major cloud computing players.

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