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Microsoft Again Pitches Azure as the Best Cloud for Business

Key Speakers At The Microsoft Corp. Build Developers 2016 ConferenceKey Speakers At The Microsoft Corp. Build Developers 2016 Conference
Scott Guthrie, executive vice president of the cloud and enterprise group at Microsoft Corp., speaks during a keynote session at the Microsoft Developers Build Conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Thursday, March 31, 2016. David Paul Morris—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Microsoft’s brain trust wants you to see the company’s Azure cloud as the best set of computing, storage and networking services for big businesses.

Executive vice president Scott Guthrie, speaking at the company’s Ignite conference in Atlanta on Monday, stressed the breadth of Microsoft Azure cloud services, noting they now include 34 cloud “regions” or sets of data centers, worldwide. That is more than Azure’s two biggest cloud competitors combined, according to Microsoft.

Those rivals went unnamed but they would be Amazon (AMZN)Web Services and Google (GOOG) Cloud Platform. Given that cloud regions and the data centers that serve them are defined differently by the three providers, expect some push back on that one.

Why the concept of a cloud region is worth noting is that the further a cloud data center is from the customer, the slower the response times. So, if you are the chief information officer of a global company with dealings in Germany, Japan, and North America, you’ll probably want to enlist a cloud provider with data centers on the ground in or near each of those major markets.

Microsoft is also making an important software tool for fixing potential security vulnerabilities in Windows and Office available to customers as part of Azure. The tool, known as Project Springfield, is supposed to do the critical job of finding flaws in software code before it is deployed.

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Also at the conference, Microsoft.(MSFT) talked (again) about using field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) to run more of its cloud services. These chips, which are more flexible than the standard microprocessors like Intel’s (INTC) X86 chip family, can be adapted or reprogrammed to handle different tasks as needed. Microsoft has used these chips to run its Bing search engine for a while, but it plans to deploy them more widely in re-designed servers. The move to deploy more FPGAs undoubtedly pushed Intel (INTC) to pay $16.7 billion for Altera and its expertise in this area last year.

One of the biggest payoffs from that flexibility is that FGPAs, in theory, should be able to adapt to accommodate new artificial intelligence (AI) applications. AI, by definition, means computers that learn on the fly, based on the data they crunch. When data is moving that fast and furious, adaptability is key.

Microsoft said Monday that it plans to deploy FGPAs in Azure in 15 countries.

Microsoft has poured billions of dollars into building Azure as a shared public cloud infrastructure that businesses can use to augment or perhaps replace their own data centers. But Microsoft is playing catch up. Amazon introduced its first cloud-based storage services more than 10 years ago and has built a big lead, starting with startups, but it has added more corporate customers over the years.

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But Guthrie and others at Microsoft feel their current roster of big business customers gives it an advantage over companies like Google and Amazon that don’t have those long-term customer relationships.

“For us, enterprises are not an afterthought, they are our design point,” Guthrie said during his presentation at the conference.

One big advantage Microsoft has over Google (GOOG) and AWS is that it has long touted a hybrid cloud approach that would let customers keep some data and applications in-house and under their control while deploying other data and applications to a shared public cloud. Amazon and Google must play catch up there.

Tim Crawford, analyst with AVOA, who tracks information technology, thinks that Microsoft alone has a comprehensive strategy in this arena.

The company also said on Monday that it’s releasing the latest test version of Azure Stack, a “mini-me” version of the Azure software that customers can run on their own servers. Azure Stack, which was to have shipped this year, is now slated to become broadly available next year.

There were also a raft of security announcements at the conference that are meant to show current and would-be customers that Microsoft is dedicated to providing safe infrastructure that runs in-house or in its public cloud.

Earlier today, Microsoft and Adobe Systems (ADBE) announced a cloud alliance Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella is slated to speak more about Azure later on Monday.