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Microsoft: Azure not pie in the sky

While still early, Microsoft says things are moving along with its cloud-based operating system. New users are being added every day, though it won't say how many are using the service.

A slide at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference in October aims to show where Windows Azure fits in Microsoft's broader lineup for business customers. Robert Vamosi/CNET

Microsoft is trying to convince folks that its cloud operating system is more than hot air.

The software maker unveiled Windows Azure at its Professional Developers Conference in October. Since then, the company has said that pieces of Azure will be ready in final form by the end of the year, but the company has been rather quiet about how Azure is doing.

In a phone interview last week, Microsoft senior director Steven Martin said that Microsoft has been adding more users to Azure every day, though he won't say how many people are using the service at this point.

"We are approving more and more developers every day," Martin said.

The company has also made changes to its storage model and pledged to expand the set of database services it will offer to include relational capabilities. An update to the Azure code was released in January and the company is set to give more details on its plans at next week's Mix conference in Las Vegas.

One of the things that makes Azure tricky is that it is just hard to wrap one's head around.

"We are at the point where a lot of people understand what they announced," said Gartner analyst David Smith. "It took weeks to understand that."

But while many are still trying to understand Azure, some businesses are writing actual Azure code.

Among the early Azure users are business software maker Epicor, S3Edge, and Micro Focus. Internally, Microsoft is using Azure for both its Live Mesh and LiveMeeting services.

Martin also said that a significant number of large businesses are kicking the tires themselves, trying to figure out what, if any internal applications might make sense to run via Microsoft's servers.

"While a lot of the folks that want to go public are the partners and the (independent software vendors), a lot of the day-to-day users of the technology are actually medium-size and large businesses that are either piloting or exploring the technology."

Epicor senior director Erik Johnson said his ERP (enterprise resource planning) software company is trying out Azure as a way to offer companion services to their traditional on-premise software. Azure makes particular sense for mobile devices, Johnson said, since it is hard for cell phones to get inside a company's firewall.

The big unknown, though, is how much Microsoft will charge for using Azure. Microsoft has said only that it intends to be competitive with other cloud-computing options.

"Our biggest leap of faith is that the pricing is going to be attractive," Johnson said. "That leap of faith right now is actually bigger than the technical leap of faith."

In an investor presentation last month, Microsoft's Doug Hauger acknowledged that customers want to know more about pricing, but declined to offer new details.

Johnson and others might not want to hold their breath, either. Although Microsoft is expected to release more technical details at Mix, the company is not likely to talk more about pricing, I'm told.