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Microsoft Doubles Down on Cloud Databases to Fend Off Amazon and Google

May 10, 2017, 7:00 PM UTC

Databases are the life blood of big businesses. Companies use this key software to store and parse sales and product information. Databases underlie inventory and manufacturing systems.

And that is probably why Microsoft executives spent a big chunk of time at its annual Build tech conference in Seattle talking up new database options for use in the Microsoft Azure public cloud.

First up: Azure Cosmos DB, a new and distributed database that grew out of the company’s earlier DocumentDB, a NoSQL database. For non-techies, SQL (which stands for structured query language) is the standard way users build and interact with relational or SQL databases.

By contrast, NoSQL (a.k.a. not only SQL) databases handle messy, unstructured data—the sort generated by sensors or other devices in the field. Traditional SQL databases like Microsoft’s own SQL Server or Oracle’s flagship database are all about dealing with more orderly row-and-column databases needed for accounting and other systems.

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As the amount and different types of data have exploded, so has the need for NoSQL databases like MongoDB (MONGODB), Couchbase, and now Cosmos DB.

The distributed nature of Cosmos DB means that companies can put their data near where it’s needed at Azure data centers worldwide. The closer data is to those who need to use it, the faster the operations, which should appeal to big companies, says Tim Crawford, an analyst with Los Angeles-based consulting firm AVOA. Crawford also puts Cosmos DB roughly in the same category as Amazon Aurora and Google Spanner databases.

Related: Google Spanner Here at Last

Something like Cosmos DB solves a fundamental problem for big tech and Fortune 500 companies, which is that they generate a ton of data in all sorts of formats that needs to be stored and then accessed quickly. These companies also tend to have outposts all over the world, so the distributed nature of Cosmos DB could be a draw, Crawford said.

Microsoft also took the unusual step of announcing guarantees on Cosmos DB performance in the form of what the industry calls a Service Level Agreement. In theory SLAs guarantee certain levels of performance and if those standards are not met the provider has to offer rebates or make-goods to the customer.

Related: Amazon to Play Up New Database, AI at Cloud Confab

Executive vice president Scott Guthrie claimed on Wednesday that this comprehensive SLA means Cosmos DB will perform at the 99th percentile “in terms of latency, throughput, and availability.” That translates to a promise that database operations will happen fast and accurately—or else. Details about the SLAs were not available.

Technology consultant MSV Janakiram, who covers all the big cloud providers, said that this wide-ranging SLA is indeed an industry first.

Guthrie also announced a new tool to move customer databases from their own facilities to Azure, if that is their desire. “This offers a near-zero-downtime migration both for Microsoft SQL Server as well as non-Microsoft databases like Oracle (ORCL) as well,” he said.

Related: Microsoft Azure Gaining Traction in Business

This is reminiscent of a similar tool Amazon (AMZN) rolled out last year to move Oracle and Microsoft databases to AWS.

And for the many, many developers who run PostgreSQL or MySQL databases, Guthrie also talked up PostgreSQL and MySQL services running on Azure. That also echoes AWS moves over the past two years.

Microsoft—under CEO Satya Nadella, who kicked off the show on Wednesday—is battling to make sure that the tens of thousands of companies running Windows and Office now stick with the company and its Azure cloud as they go forward. Microsoft certainly does not want them to defect to Amazon Web Services or Google (GOOG), both of which are making a run at business customers.

On stage, Nadella claimed that 90% of Fortune 1000 companies use Microsoft’s cloud products, which include not just Azure, but Office 365 and other products. Of course, many of those companies likely use AWS, too.

As of now, AWS remains the largest (and oldest) public cloud provider, and it seems intent on rolling out new business-friendly features as fast as possible to build on that lead.

That leaves Microsoft as well as Google and others to catch up.