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vSphere vs. Azure: The real battle

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Hyper-V vs. vSphere is SO last year.

Cloud computing is the main theme at this week’s Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference, and Hyper-V has taken a backseat to Windows Azure. The focus on Azure, a Platform as a Service (PaaS), marks a significantly different approach to private clouds than VMware has taken with its cloud infrastructure model.

And it means that when we talk about the battle between VMware and Microsoft, the folks in Redmond want us to talk less about vSphere vs. Hyper-V and more about vSphere vs. Azure.

Go to any VMware show and you’ll hear that vSphere, its virtual infrastructure product, is the foundation for building a private cloud. But during his WPC keynote yesterday, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said, “The difference between a cloud infrastructure and a virtual infrastructure is dramatic.” (Of course, as our senior news director Barbara Darrow wrote, “That’s what I would say too if I were trying to displace the VMware juggernaut.”)

Furthering Ballmer’s message, Microsoft’s Robert Wahbe, corporate vice president of server and tools marketing, told me yesterday, “The heart of a cloud is Platform as a Service. … Infrastructure as a Service is a feature of a cloud platform, but it’s just a feature.”

Azure has strictly been a public cloud platform, focused on developers, but that changed yesterday when Microsoft announced the Windows Azure Platform Appliance. Hyper-V will be part of the platform, but it’s unclear exactly how much.*

Framed this way, Microsoft’s approach to virtualization and private clouds seems very comprehensive. But it’s a long ways off for most customers — even Wahbe acknowledged that the infrastructure piece, which is VMware’s focus, is “where people are today” — and Azure and Hyper-V are still relatively new products.

Will this approach help Microsoft catch up to VMware? Maybe, but not anytime soon.

*For some reason, Wahbe and other Microsoft execs were reluctant to say that Azure is “based on Hyper-V,” instead saying that its virtualization technology uses Hyper-V, System Center and Windows Server. I’m not sure what the difference is, but apparently there is one. And in case you were wondering, the appliance won’t support VMware, Wahbe said.