With Microsoft’s Windows Azure striving for greater relevance and adoption, a relatively unknown vendor, Tier 3, is providing a cloud alternative for Microsoft .NET applications. Tier 3 is using VMware’s open source code as the basis of its offering, which opens the door for direct competition amongst VMware and Microsoft for .NET cloud workloads in the future.

Tier 3′s .NET play
Colleague J. Peter Bruzzese recently provided an update on new pricing, open source support and a free trial of Windows Azure. Support for Node.js and Apache Hadoop for Azure are sure to attract the developer attention. Whether the attention, and the free trial, will turn into paying users is an open question. That said, Azure remains the leading cloud destination for Microsoft development shops seeking a platform as a service offering. That’ll change if Tier 3, and maybe VMware, has a say.

Tier 3 recently open sourced Iron Foundry, a platform for cloud applications built using Microsoft’s .NET Framework. Iron Foundry is a fork of VMware’s Cloud Foundry open source platform as a service. According to Tier 3,

we’ve been big supporters of Cloud Foundry–the VMware-led, open-source PaaS framework–from the beginning. That said, we’re a .NET shop and many of our customers’ most critical applications are .NET-based.

It seems to have been natural to start with the Cloud Foundry code and extend it to support .NET. Tier 3 is continuing its efforts to better align elements of the core Cloud Foundry code to better support Windows using .NET technologies in areas such as command line support on Windows, which Cloud Foundry supports through a Ruby application. Tier 3 is also working with the Cloud Foundry community to contribute elements of Iron Foundry back into Cloud Foundry and into other the Tier 3 led IronFoundry.org open source project.

Tier 3 offers users two routes to use Iron Foundry. Open source savvy users can download the Iron Foundry code from GitHub under the Apache 2 license and run it as they wish. Alternatively, users can use a test bed environment of Iron Foundry for 90 days at no charge. The test bed is hosted on Tier 3′s infrastructure. Pricing for the hosted offering has not been released. This should raise some concerns about committing to a platform prior to knowing what the cost will be as I’ve discussed before.

VMware’s path to .NET support
It’ll be interesting to see how Microsoft and VMware react to Iron Foundry over time. VMware appears to have the most to gain, and least to lose with Iron Foundry.

Since Iron Foundry is a fork from Cloud Foundry, there’s just enough of a relationship between the two that VMware can claim .NET support with Cloud Foundry. In fact, VMware can claim the support with very little direct development effort themselves, obviously a benefit of their open source and developer outreach strategy around Cloud Foundry.

VMware could, at a later time, take the open sourced Iron Foundry code and offer native .NET support within the base Cloud Foundry open source project and related commercial offerings from VMware. Considering that Microsoft is aggressively pushing HyperV into VMware ESX environments, there’s sure to be a desire within VMware to fight into Microsoft’s turf.

On the other hand, Iron Foundry is a third party offering, over which VMware holds little say. If it falls flat against Windows Azure, VMware loses very little, and didn’t have to divert its development attention away from their Java-based offerings on Cloud Foundry.

Microsoft on the other hand faces the threat of Iron Foundry attracting developer attention away from Windows Azure. Until now, Microsoft has been able to expand Windows Azure into areas such as Tomcat, Node.js and Hadoop support without having to worry about its bread and butter offering, support for .NET based applications in the cloud. Having to compete for .NET application workloads will take resources away from efforts to grow platform support for non-Microsoft technologies on Windows Azure.

Request details from Tier 3 and VMware
As a user, the recommendation to understand pricing before devoting time and resources holds true for Tier 3′s offering. The added dynamic of and established vendor like VMware potentially seizing the torch, either by acquisition or a competitive offer, from Tier 3, could prove attractive to some .NET customers seeking an alternative to Windows Azure.

I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies, or opinions.