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From Amazon EC2 to MS Azure: A quick cloud computing provider overview

Still learning about the cloud? This quick rundown of four well-known vendors with cloud computing services is for you.

Managed services providers, outsourcing companies, software vendors and even retailers are among those reinventing their marketing pitches and developing new services as cloud computing providers.

Cloud computing encompasses everything from pay-as-you-go software subscriptions (Software as a Service, or SaaS) to infrastructure that can be provisioned and spun up or down as business needs dictate. At present, it's often used for application development and testing, or by smaller companies that can avoid heavy up-front investment costs in Web hosting, transaction engines and data centers.

Here's a sampling of a few heavy hitters that are putting their muscle and money behind the cloud:

Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) Often cited as the poster child for cloud computing providers, Amazon has taken a few hits for recent outages, but that isn't stopping organizations -- a lot of them Internet startups -- from building their business on the EC2 cloud. Amazon Web Services also has an ecosystem of third-party tool vendors that extend Amazon's capabilities and appeal. EC2 gives customers the ability to quickly spin up or down servers to meet traffic spikes or lulls versus building their own infrastructure or expanding their data centers.

Unisys Secure Cloud A later entrant to the cloud computing provider game, but no stranger to the concept of outsourcing, Unisys Corp. recently introduced the Secure Cloud and Stealth security technology. As the name implies, Unisys is banking that its Stealth technology, developed for the Department of Defense, will help CIOs overcome data protection squeamishness associated with sharing infrastructure and resources over the Internet. Its consulting service, backed by 800 Unisys employees, shows how to build an internal cloud, an external cloud or a hybrid in Unisys' data centers.

Windows Azure Microsoft's cloud computing strategy is shaping up to be a pricing battle, an approach it uses often to topple entrenched vendors. Its suite of services includes Windows Azure for storing and managing Web-based applications in Microsoft data centers, SQL Azure for databases in the cloud and .Net Services for developing .NET cloud-based applications.

Microsoft is offering a discount program that gives customers a 15% to 30% discount on compute consumption charges. The next version of the Office suite, due out in 2010, is also expected to have lightweight online versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, taking direct aim at Google Apps.

Google Apps Anywhere access to productivity applications is nothing new to Google Inc., which introduced Google Docs as an alternative to Word three years ago. More recently, Google announced that it will add a browser-based operating system called Chrome OS that works with Google Apps, which run the gamut from Gmail, Docs and Calendar to Talk and Sites.

Third-party applications are also available for Google Apps, and the company has a platform that lets developers build and run applications on Google's infrastructure. Chrome OS is based on Linux and is meant to run on netbooks. Google said it is in talks to roll out Chrome OS on netbooks developed by Hewlett-Packard Co., Lenovo Group Ltd., Acer Inc. and others.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Christina Torode, Senior News Writer.

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