Is AWS or Windows Azure the Right Choice? It’s Not That Easy.

I was thinking about this topic today, and as someone who built the AWS Developer Fundamentals course for Pluralsight, is a Microsoft MVP who plays with Windows Azure a lot, and has an unnatural affinity for PaaS platforms like Cloud Foundry / Iron Foundry and, I figured that I had some opinions on this topic.

So why would a developer choose AWS over Windows Azure today? I don’t know all developers, so I’ll give you the reasons why I often lean towards AWS:

  • Pace of innovation. The AWS team is amazing when it comes to regularly releasing and updating products. The day my Pluralsight course came out, AWS released their Simple Workflow Service. My course couldn’t be accurate for 5 minutes before AWS screwed me over! Just this week, Amazon announced Microsoft SQL Server support in their robust RDS offering, and .NET support in their PaaS-like Elastic Beanstalk service. These guys release interesting software on a regular basis and that helps maintain constant momentum with the platform. Contrast that with the Windows Azure team that is a bit more sporadic with releases, and with seemingly less fanfare. There’s lots of good stuff that the Azure guys keep baking into their services, but not at the same rate as AWS.
  • Completeness of services. Whether the AWS folks think they offer a PaaS or not, their services cover a wide range of solution scenarios. Everything from foundational services like compute, storage, database and networking, to higher level offerings like messaging, identity management and content delivery. Sure, there’s no “true” application fabric like you’ll find in Windows Azure or Cloud Foundry, but tools like Cloud Formation and Elastic Beanstalk get you pretty close. This well-rounded offering means that developers can often find what they need to accomplish somewhere in this stack. Windows Azure actually has a very rich set of services, likely the most comprehensive of any PaaS vendor, but at this writing, they don’t have the same depth in infrastructure services. While PaaS may be the future of cloud (and I hope it is), IaaS is a critical component of today’s enterprise architecture.
  • It just works. AWS gets knocked from time to time on their reliability, but it seems like most agree that as far as clouds go, they’ve got a damn solid platform. Services spin up relatively quickly, stay up, and changes to service settings often cascade instantly. In this case, I wouldn’t say that Windows Azure doesn’t “just work”, but if AWS doesn’t fail me, I have little reason to leave.
  • Convenience. This may be one of the primary advantages of AWS at this point. Once a capability becomes a commodity (and cloud services are probably at that point), and if there is parity among competitors on functionality, price and stability, the only remaining differentiator is convenience. AWS shines in this area, for me. As a Microsoft Visual Studio user, there are at least four ways that I can consume (nearly) every AWS service: Visual Studio Explorer, API, .NET SDK or AWS Management Console. It’s just SO easy. The AWS experience in Visual Studio is actually better than the one Microsoft offers with Windows Azure! I can’t use a single UI to manage all the Azure services, but the AWS tooling provides a complete experience with just about every type of AWS service. In addition, speed of deployment matters. I recently compared the experience of deploying an ASP.NET application to Windows Azure, AWS and Iron Foundry. Windows Azure was both the slowest option, and the one that took the most steps. Not that those steps were difficult, mind you, but it introduced friction and just makes it less convenient. Finally, the AWS team is just so good at making sure that a new or updated product is instantly reflected across their websites, SDKs, and support docs. You can’t overstate how nice that is for people consuming those services.

That said, the title of this post implies that this isn’t a black and white choice. Basing an entire cloud strategy on either platform isn’t a good idea. Ideally, a “cloud strategy” is nothing more than a strategy for meeting business needs with the right type of service. It’s not about choosing a single cloud and cramming all your use cases into it.

A Microsoft shop that is looking to deploy public facing websites and reduce infrastructure maintenance can’t go wrong with Windows Azure. Lately, even non-Microsoft shops have a legitimate case for deploying apps written in Node.js or PHP to Windows Azure. Getting out of infrastructure maintenance is a great thing, and Windows Azure exposes you to much less infrastructure than AWS does.  Looking to use a SQL Server in the cloud? You have a very interesting choice to make now. Microsoft will do well if it creates (optional) value-added integrations between its offerings, while making sure each standalone product is as robust as possible. That will be its win in the “convenience” category.

While I contend that the only truly differentiated offering that Windows Azure has is their Service Bus / Access Control / EAI product, the rest of the platform has undergone constant improvement and left behind many of its early inconvenient and unstable characteristics. With Scott Guthrie at the helm, and so many smart people spread across the Azure teams, I have absolutely no doubt that Windows Azure will be in the majority of discussions about “cloud leaders” and provide a legitimate landing point for all sorts of cloudy apps. At the same time though, AWS isn’t slowing their pace (quite the opposite), so this back-and-forth competition will end up improving both sets of services and leave us consumers with an awesome selection of choices.

What do you think? Why would you (or do you) pick AWS over Azure, or vice versa?

Author: Richard Seroter

Richard Seroter is Director of Developer Relations and Outbound Product Management at Google Cloud. He’s also an instructor at Pluralsight, a frequent public speaker, the author of multiple books on software design and development, and a former editor plus former 12-time Microsoft MVP for cloud. As Director of Developer Relations and Outbound Product Management, Richard leads an organization of Google Cloud developer advocates, engineers, platform builders, and outbound product managers that help customers find success in their cloud journey. Richard maintains a regularly updated blog on topics of architecture and solution design and can be found on Twitter as @rseroter.

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