In much the same way that Microsoft brought spreadsheet crunching to the business world through its now-ubiquitous Excel, the company is hoping to make a similar impact with big data analysis with its new Windows Azure HDInsight service.
"I think what we've always done well as a company is take hard technology problems and simplify them. So we're making Hadoop simple, and bringing it to everyone," said Eron Kelly, Microsoft general manager for the data platform group.
Offered on Windows Azure as a PaaS (platform as a service), Windows Azure HDInsight provides a copy of the Apache Hadoop data processing platform and associated tools. HDInsight will use the Hortonworks Data Platform (HDP), which is the flagship Hadoop distribution offered by Hortonworks.
Microsoft is not the first to offer Hadoop as a cloud service. Amazon Web Services offers Hadoop and Rackspace plans to offer the HDP as a service soon. IBM's SoftLayer hosting service also announced this week that it will offer the ability quickly spin-up copies of Cloudera's Hadoop distribution across multiple bare-metal servers.
But Microsoft is hoping to carve out a competitive advantage in this growing space by simplifying the process of deploying and then using Hadoop.
For instance, the service works well with Microsoft data analysis tools. Users of the Excel spreadsheet can deploy a feature of the spreadsheet, called power BI, to ingest, then analyze and visualize data delivered by Hadoop MapReduce.
Microsoft first announced plans for this service in 2011. Originally, the company intended to develop its own version of Hadoop, along with Hortonworks, which would be configured to run on Windows Server.
"We realized pretty quickly there would be a level of redundancy between what Hortonworks would provide and what we were going to provide. So we decided to align on one core offering, HDP on Windows," Kelly said. Microsoft contributed over 16,000 lines of code to Apache Hadoop, an open source project, and related software.
Windows Azure HDInsight will run a stock version of HDP, allowing users to seamlessly move their workloads between Azure and other non-Azure HDP deployments, Kelly said. After Hortonworks releases its next version of HDP, version 2.0 is due next month, Azure's version of HDP will be automatically upgraded.
The company has actually been running Windows Azure HDInsight in full production mode, at least for select clients, for a couple of months, Kelly said.
The city of Barcelona has used the service to analyze traffic patterns, garbage collection and data about other municipal duties, hoping the data will be useful in making more informed spending decisions.
A group of researchers at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University are using the service to run DNA sequencing tools.
Quentin Clark, Microsoft corporate vice president of the data platform group, will speak more about Windows Azure HDInsight at O'Reilly's Strata and Hadoop World conference, this week in New York.