Microsoft on June 7 announced changes to its Windows Azure cloud platform that opens it up to Linux, and introduces Azure Web Sites for the quick creation and low-cost deployment of Web applications.

The new services bring the ability to run Linux virtual machines in Azure as well as support for virtual machine persistence, which allows changes to the VM image to be maintained after reboots. These add a level of Infrastructure-as-a-Service that will enable Microsoft to better compete with the likes of Amazon EC2 for cloud share, according to Wade Wegner, former lead technical evangelist for Windows Azure at Microsoft, now CTO at systems integrator Aditi Technologies for the past three months. “Opening Azure up to run Linux in a different stack is a realization that people run these technologies, and [Microsoft] doesn’t want that to prevent them from running Azure,” he said.

OpenLogic quickly introduced CentOS—built from Red Hat Enterprise Linux—and service-level agreement support via the new Windows Azure Gallery. For now, other Linux distributions that will reportedly run on Azure include versions of OpenSUSE, SUSE Enterprise Linux and Ubuntu. “This will help companies who have made strategic bets on Microsoft but have other systems. The Linux images will be provided by partners,” Wegner said.

Azure Web Sites is built from Microsoft’s application hosting platform that was codenamed Antares, and supports non-Microsoft technologies such as MySQL, Node.js and PHP, as well as its own .NET. “Microsoft wants to make it easy to build apps and deploy them where you want. You can build a VHD, run it in Hyper-V, or upload it to Azure, or take a snapshot and run it on an outside provider,” explained Wegner.

Microsoft’s vision still is about Platform-as-a-Service, Wegner noted, but added the infrastructure services provide necessary steps to get there. It also provides for hybrid, or mixed-load, clouds, which enable more than running applications in the cloud or on-premise.

With the new Windows Azure Virtual Networking service, Wegner said, developers “can build stateless Web apps and take advantage of the cloud’s extreme scalability, and can connect back to the infrastructure that could be running on-premise or in Windows Azure.”

He gave the example of an organization that wants a website that scales over the cloud, but also wants to run MongoDB or SQL Server 2010. “That can be connected as a solution that can be put in a vNet and live on the same subnet, which opens up communication to other corporate networks. That’s pretty compelling capability,” he said.

This, he pointed out, makes the IT pro much more relevant with Windows Azure. “Most developers don’t have experience with vNets and subnets. Now, they will require the services of IT.”