Microsoft executive Scott Guthrie.
Courtesy: Microsoft
By Michal Lev-Ram
October 1, 2014

Much has already been written about Microsoft’s new Windows 10 and the reintroduction of its long-lost Start button after the company unveiled its updated flagship operating system on Tuesday morning. The new OS may provide a much-needed advance over its predecessor, Windows 8, but it is unlikely to restore Microsoft (MSFT) to its former glory as the operating system of choice for computing devices—certainly not in an era where tablets and smartphones have largely supplanted the PC in terms of attention.

Where Microsoft is seeing a lot of growth, though, is in its cloud-based businesses like Azure (a platform for managing business applications) and Office 365 (the cloud-based version of its signature productivity software suite). In the company’s most recent earnings report, revenue from commercial cloud services grew 147%, representing an annualized run rate of over $4.4 billion.

“Our Cloud OS represents the fastest growing opportunity for Microsoft,” newish CEO Satya Nadella said during a call with investors in July. It’s no wonder Nadella, the former executive vice president of Microsoft’s cloud and enterprise group, is bullish on the business. Since taking over the top job earlier this year, he has reorganized the company and made selling Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure and applications a priority.

Nadella also tapped Scott Guthrie, a longtime Microsoft exec, for his old role. Fortune recently caught up with Guthrie to ask about some of the changes under Nadella, the competition with Amazon, and what differentiates Microsoft’s cloud products.

Fortune: How has your role changed?

Guthrie: I took over in February, I think the same day Satya became CEO. One of the things that Satya talks about is how we’re living in a mobile-first, cloud-first world. I think the cloud and enterprise group in Microsoft has been very focused for the last two or three years on that mission. We’ve been in the process of transforming our business to really embrace that. I’d say a lot of my focus has been around, how we accelerate that even further? How do we move down that path? And then, how do we embrace customers and build the set of products that they really want in this mobile-first, cloud-first world, and provide a uniquely differentiated offering that we think only we can provide?

What’s unique about what Microsoft is offering?

The story I usually tell customers is how we’re really doing three unique things—three things that the combination of which we think is unique in the industry.

One is, we’re focused on and delivering a hyper-scale cloud platform with our Azure service that’s deployed around the world. We’re now in 16 regions around the world. Each region is a cluster of multiple data centers. Put in perspective, Amazon has about half that many regions. Google for their cloud platform only has about a fifth of those regions today. So we actually now have the broadest coverage from a geographic perspective. From a scaling perspective, I think we’re one of [very few]—Amazon and Google being the other two—hyper-scale providers out there that are installing many, many hundreds of thousands or millions of servers every year in our cloud data centers.

We believe that that geographic footprint, as well as the economies of scale that you get when you install and have that much capacity, puts you in a unique position from an economic and from a customer capability perspective, where we can take the customers and can literally spin up tens of thousands of virtual machines, or store petabytes or exabytes of storage instantly anywhere in the world. Ultimately we think there are about three providers out there that are going to be able to meet that need.

Where I think we differentiate then, versus the other two, is around two characteristics. One is enterprise grade and the focus on delivering something that’s not only hyper-scale from an economic and from a geographic reach perspective but really enterprise-grade from a capability, support, and overall services perspective. I think that’s something that Microsoft has really kind of invested for 20-plus years in terms of getting there to be enterprise grade. It’s something you can say pretty easily, that you’re enterprise grade. But it takes an awful lot of time both to build out the muscle and earn the trust of organizations.

The other thing that we have that’s fairly unique is a very large on-premises footprint with our existing server software and with our private cloud capabilities. One of the things that we’re focusing on is, how do we enable organizations and enterprises as well as the startups and ISVs to build solutions that span not only hyper scale public cloud but can also integrate within enterprise’s existing data centers and build hybrid solutions that span across both?

What’s your assessment, in light of everything you just said, of how Amazon has been able to move forward in gaining so much market share?

Well, I think Amazon was one of the first to really go big in the cloud space. So I think there’s certainly a first mover advantage that they’ve been able to benefit from. I wish we started three years before we did with our own cloud effort. Kudos to them for really embracing it as early as they did. In terms of where we’re at today, we’ve got about 57% of the Fortune 500 that are now deployed on Microsoft Azure. Obviously a core part of my mission is to not just be the solid number two but to actually gain on the current leader from a market-share perspective. Ultimately the way we think we do that is by having a unique set of offerings and a unique point of view that is differentiated.

Does the fact that Satya [Nadella] had your role in the organization before becoming CEO in any way change the relationship that you have with the CEO now?

Well, I don’t know if I’d say there’s been a big change from that perspective. I mean, I think obviously we’ve been saying for a while this mobile-first, cloud-first…”devices and services” is maybe another way to put it. That’s been our focus as a company even before Satya became CEO. From a strategic perspective, I think we very much have been focused on cloud now for a couple of years. I wouldn’t say this now means, “Oh, now we’re serious about cloud.” I think we’ve been serious about cloud for quite a while.

Certainly it helps the fact that the CEO is a big believer in cloud and has a bunch of first-hand experience running the cloud businesses. It certainly helps, not only in my world, but also some of the other cloud services that we’re doing, whether they’re device specific or gaming specific or with our Office business, which is outside of the cloud and enterprise group.

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