Microsoft paints Azure with open source brush

For someone who’s watched Microsoft (s msft) on and off for more than 20 years, today’s Meet Azure event was eye-opening, even though much of the content had been telegraphed, leaked and covered well in advance.

Most striking was that the company bent over backward to not portray Windows Azure as, well, Windows-like. The list of companies mentioned on stage as Azure partners was impressive, even to a cynic. Rightscale CEO Michael Crandell had a key role today. Microsoft showed MySQL (now owned by Oracle(s orcl)!) running on Azure. WordPress (see disclosure) running on Azure. Ubuntu, CentOS running on Azure. Python. PHP. The list goes on.

Who IS this company?  Microsoft by necessity has been moving down this path for years, but this was the strongest-ever manifestation of that new world view. There’s nothing like a big, strong competitor to enforce good behavior.

All the announced Azure services are backed by a monthly service license agreement (SLA) and all the SDKs are available on Github under an open-source license. All the APIs are exposed through REST, Microsoft corporate vice president Scott Guthrie said.

Cloud, Amazon force a kinder, gentler Microsoft

All of this means a couple of things. First, two years into Azure, it’s obvious even to Microsoft that it’s not top of mind when it comes to the cloud. That in this new era, the Windows brand is not necessarily a draw. And that the company needs to woo the thousands of web developers who are not enamored of .NET.

A developer who left Microsoft last year said he’s sure the company has found religion. For real.

“The directive before I left was that you, as a Microsoft product person, had to support non-Windows frameworks and platforms. If you didn’t support PHP, Node etc., in your offerings, then you were not considered a complete solution,”  he said. That was certainly a huge change from when he joined the company nearly a decade before. He declined to be named because he still does work with Microsoft.

Looming in the background here is cloud leader Amazon(s amzn), which has been able to recruit developers en masse to use its inexpensive cloud infrastructure. To compete with Amazon EC2, Microsoft has to offer solid services and offer them cheap.  All new Azure services will be free for 90 days and then pricing by all accounts will be “extremely aggressive,” said one partner who’s taken a look at the plan.  The Azure price calculator is up, but a true analysis of myriad Azure options vs. AWS options will take time.

Before things get too nutty, let’s remember that Amazon is not standing still. As Microsoft adds the persistent Linux VMs and other infrastructure-as-a-service perks, Amazon adds more services to its stable by the week. It even launched a partner program and a big-time Las Vegas developer conference. Microsoft has fielded a partner program and developer shows for decades.

These companies are on a collision course and both realize they need allies among developers and technology partners. Complicating matters is this won’t be a two-man fight: Hewlett-Packard (s hpq) and Oracle both hosted their own cloud events this week. Don’t for a minute think that they’re not focused on Amazon as well.

Disclosure: Automattic, maker of, is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, GigaOm. Om Malik, founder of GigaOm, is also a venture partner at True.

 Feature photo courtesy of Flicker user Carlos Gutiérrez G.