Azure vs. Amazon AWS

Azure and Amazon AWS are the two leading cloud computing providers. Which cloud provider is best for your business?

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Posted September 22, 2015

Ken Hess

Gartner’s recent 2015 Cloud Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) Magic Quadrant holds two companies in the Leaders quadrant: Amazon Web Services and Microsoft’s Azure. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the oldest of the public cloud offerings and has held a position in the Leader quadrant for five consecutive years. Microsoft’s Azure runs a close second behind AWS. And that’s saying something for Azure, which didn’t make it into the report at all until 2013, when Gartner dubbed it a Visionary.

Since Microsoft Azure first appeared on the IaaS Magic Quadrant in 2013 as a Visionary, it has crossed the line into the Leader quadrant with AWS in 2014. Microsoft is a relatively late entry into the IaaS field, becoming publicly available in 2010, while AWS launched in 2006.

Microsoft has made advances in the IaaS space against AWS because Microsoft’s services are integrated, easy to use, and offer an array of industry standard solutions in its Azure Marketplace. Microsoft also has capitalized on the fact that AWS and its associated services are somewhat difficult to navigate and its customer service is famously lacking. Even today, Amazon’s services are complex—complex enough to justify hundreds of tutorials, user guides, and troubleshooting documents.

Both services offer free trials for testing the arrays of products. Microsoft offers $200 in services for 30 days, while Amazon offers 12 months of access to the AWS Free Tier that includes 750 hours per month of Windows and Linux t2.micro instance usage, 5GB Amazon S3 storage, 750 hours per month of Amazon Relational Database Service (RDS) of micro DB instance usage, and 25GB Amazon DynamoDB storage that includes up to 200 million requests per month.

azure vs. amazon aws, Gartner

The Gartner Magic Quadrant

As for pricing or price comparisons between the two services, there is no particular set “menu” of prices available. Each situation is different, but to make it simpler for customers to estimate costs, both companies provide service calculators. Amazon’s Simple Monthly Calculator allows you to enter the number of Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) instances, the number of Elastic Block Store (EBS) volumes, IP addresses, data transfer information, load balancing, and all of Amazon’s various offerings. Although not entirely obvious from the calculator page, to add more features and services use the left navigation list.

Microsoft’s Azure Pricing Calculator is just as complex as Amazon’s, although on the surface it looks easier possibly because of Microsoft’s design aesthetic. Microsoft’s calculator allows you to choose SQL database options, Hadoop options, App services, networking, web, mobile, identity, and media services all on the same page. Microsoft’s calculator is thorough and complete. You can probably estimate your costs very closely with this calculator tool.

Microsoft’s calculator provides you a more intuitive experience than Amazon’s does. This is in part due to Amazon’s somewhat confusing feature and service names, such as Amazon Glacier, Amazon Kinesis, Amazon Redshift, and Amazon SES to name a few. You’ll have to learn Amazon’s nomenclature prior to attempting to estimate any advanced services or features for your infrastructure needs.

But fear not, if you’re a price conscious type, AWS has cut its prices many times over the past few years to exceed customer expectations and to maintain its dominance as a low-cost cloud IaaS provider. How many is “many,” you ask? Between 2008 and April 2014, Amazon lowered its prices an unprecedented 42 times.

Gartner IaaS Research Director Kyle Hilgendorf stated in a slide presentation titled, “Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure” that the reason that AWS maintains its top spot in the Leader quadrant is because it provides 92 percent of the required features for enterprise use, while Azure only provides 75 percent; a raw difference of 18 key features. AWS provides more features that Azure in seven out of eight categories. Microsoft edged out AWS in the Support & Service Levels category.

Evaluation Categories:

    • Compute
    • Storage
    • Networking
    • Security & Access
    • Service Offerings
    • Support & Service Levels
    • Management & DevOps
    • Price & Billing

Under the eight general categories, Gartner used 205 individual criteria to assess each company for the IaaS Magic Quadrant report.

Clearly, Gartner’s analysis suggests that AWS is the winner of the pure by-the-numbers research conducted for the report. What the report can’t compare objectively is Microsoft loyalty from its partners and from enterprise businesses. Enterprises have a great deal of money, time, and effort invested in Microsoft products. That brand loyalty coupled with tight product integration and deeply discounted pricing may prove to be very stiff competition for AWS.

However AWS has its advantages for customers as well. It is the largest Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) and IaaS provider with a capacity of more than five times higher than that of its 12 closest competitors combined. AWS offers auto scaling, automation tools, an extensive management suite, and a variety of security tools, mobile services, analytics, networking, databases, and application services.

Before you mention any issues regarding Azure’s lack of Linux support, Microsoft has gone to great lengths to support Linux on its Azure platform, including a command line interface, MySQL clustering, LAMP stack, Docker containers, gaming servers, and support for rpm-based and dpkg-based distributions. Azure also supports SUSE, openSUSE, CoreOS, and FreeBSD in its MSOpenTech VM Depot.

Developer tools and support are both important to businesses, because many want to use public cloud infrastructure as test environments for production services. A full complement of tools is essential to this effort. Microsoft offers the online version of its Visual Studio suite and the Azure SDK, which is a powerful integrated development environment (IDE). Using it, developers can write, test, and deploy code, plus make database connections and on-the-fly changes to code.

Amazon counters with its own set of tools including, CodeCommit for version control, CodeDeploy for automated application deployment and updating, CodePipeline for continuous code modeling, visualization, and automated releases, and Command Line Interface that provides a unified tool that allows developers to interact with all parts of AWS.

For the Compute service, Microsoft has two options: Cloud Services and Virtual Machines. Virtual Machines are exactly what you expect them to be: dedicated amounts of compute power in the form of a number of CPU cores (1 to 8), RAM (0.75 to 14GB), disk space (20 to 240GB), and an operating system/database server (Windows, Linux, Oracle, SQL Server). Alternatively, AWS offers full virtualization via its EC2 instances, containers via Amazon ECS, virtual private cloud, elastic load balancing, auto scaling, applications via AWS Elastic Beanstalk, and AWS Lambda, which is a highly available compute platform for backend web developers that is also a zero administration service.

Storage options for Azure and AWS users are varied. Both AWS and Azure offerings are roughly equivalent to each other. Azure users have choices of Block blob, File, Page blob and disk, and table and queue storage types. And for data redundancy, you have locally redundant storage (LRS), geo-redundant storage (GRS), Read Access GRS (RA-GRS), or Zone Redundant Storage (ZRS) from which to choose. The data redundancy type options are based upon which storage type you select. You can also select your storage geographic region from a dropdown list, but be aware that some regions and redundancy types are more expensive than others. AWS customers have several storage options and multiple choices to make.

Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3) is a very popular choice for storing and retrieving data from anywhere on the web and is the basis for many third party commercial cloud storage services such as Dropbox. AWS also offers CloudFront to distribute your static and dynamic web content. AWS Elastic Block Store (EBS) is block storage that’s appropriate for database workloads. You can also encrypt this block-level storage as an added feature. Amazon Elastic File System (EFS) is in preview, but it is a file storage for EC2 virtual machines (VMs) that allows you to create, mount to your EC2 instances, and then read and write data from your VMs and to and from your filesystem.

AWS Glacier is the equivalent of Azure Backup, which is for “cold” data that’s accessed infrequently. Think of Glacier as your archival data storage. AWS supports data import and export in much the same method as offered by Azure. You can have your data uploaded into your environment by sending portable storage devices to Amazon. Export works the same way and is much more efficient than using the Internet to transfer huge amounts of data. Finally, AWS Storage Gateway is a service that connects your on-premise software appliance with your cloud-based storage to provide seamless integration between your two environments.

Hilgendorf suggests making the decision between Azure and AWS by answering a few questions about your computing needs.

Choose Amazon Web Services if you require:

  • significant scalability and automation offerings
  • local and global availability
  • a robust application marketplace
  • the most robust feature set
  • multiple levels of security

Choose Microsoft Azure if you are:

  • deeply invested in Microsoft technologies
  • able to accept scalability limitations
  • using Azure PaaS or Office 365
  • wanting to use a single provider
  • needing a contingency plan for AWS
  • benefiting financially by using it

Some of the limitations mentioned by Hilgendorf are that Azure’s autoscale feature is limited to pre-provisioned VMs, it only integrates with CPU core monitoring, firewall and ACLs are managed on a VM by VM level, and there are RBAC limitations for compute and networking.

For Microsoft to have made huge advances in such a short period of time in its IaaS offering means that it is serious about being a leader in the cloud space. It also means that Amazon will have to continue to innovate and accelerate its own services.

You can also expect Azure and AWS to continue their price lowering to commodity status. Hopefully the price war won’t compromise service quality or innovation in either camp. For now, Amazon remains in the lead in Infrastructure-as-a-Service, but for how long is anyone’s guess.

See more in our 5 part video, Working with AWS cloud Computing: Pros and Cons

    1. How to Launch an AWS Deployment
    2. AWS Costs and ROI
    3. Common AWS Mistakes
    4. "Cons" of AWS
    5. What is the Future of AWS?

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Tags: cloud computing, AWS, Azure

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