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Microsoft announced a series of improvements for its Windows Azure cloud computing platform today, aiming to level the playing field with Amazon Web Services and other rivals by making it easier to develop websites and build applications that work across the cloud and traditional corporate servers.

The company also trotted out a high-profile customer as an example, with a case study detailing how Pottermore, the Harry Potter fan site, uses Windows Azure to handle a crush of demand.

Wizardry aside, what exactly is the company doing with Windows Azure, and what does it mean? Wade Wegner, the chief technology officer of Microsoft partner Aditi Technologies and a former member of the Windows Azure team, offered this context via email.

Today’s release marks a significant milestone for Windows Azure. To date, Windows Azure has been a platform that allows developers to build and run applications across Microsoft’s global datacenters – the key emphasis has been on “applications”. Windows Azure has not been a platform for providing the underlying infrastructure for running your own virtual machine – this has been a key pain point for many customers looking to move to the cloud that Microsoft has heard loud and clear. Today’s announcement makes it clear that Windows Azure is more than just a Platform-as-a-Service provider.

Here’s more from Forrester Research analyst James Staten in this blog post.

Windows Azure debuted as an ahead-of-its-time foundational Platform as a Service (PaaS) for its core installed base of .Net developers but has since expanded and extended its appeal. Unlike application-centric PaaS offerings that really are extensions of a single SaaS application, ala Salesforce’s Force.com, Windows Azure is meant as a general purpose platform and has grown more general and applicable since its initial release. Last year it grew from .Net to other languages that ran atop Windows and its ASP server including Java, Javascript, PHP, Python, Ruby and other common web languages.  It added APIs and integrations for Visual Studio, Eclipse and popular scripting languages. But you needed a Windows machine to deploy and the target was a Windows server or middleware service. With its June release, Microsoft has finally joined the mainstream by adding a full Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) offering that lets you deploy just about anything. The new IaaS service is clearly designed with at least surface knowledge of the market leaders, Amazon Web Services, Rackspace and others, and leverages a much more mature Hyper-V as the virtualization layer. Both Windows and Linux are supported (all but RedHat it seems) as the guest OS and you can deploy directly from a Mac or Linux machine.

More in this Microsoft blog post.  The company will have an extended webcast tomorrow afternoon to detail the changes.

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