Windows Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing service, officially opened for business this week.

The software giant announced that the service, which has been in the works for three years, officially became available in 21 countries. “Starting today, customers and partners across the globe will be able to launch their Windows Azure and SQL Azure production applications and services with the support of the full service level agreements,” Microsoft announced in The Microsoft Blog.

The cloud represents a major investment for Microsoft, which earlier estimated that as much as half of its sales could come from cloud services within the next decade. The company has invested a significant amount in building data centers to support the effort, including opening new facilities in Chicago, San Antonio and Dublin within the past year.

Microsoft claims there are already “tens of thousands” of apps running on its Azure platform, including everything from hobbyist-type applications to corporate-ready offerings. Beta testers have been putting the service through its paces over the past year.

Microsoft also said that starting this week its technology partners on Azure will be able to begin selling their offerings to customers.

Partners include such startups as Lokad, which delivers supply chain forecasts as a service. The application is particularly geared at retail and manufacturing industries.

In the blog, Microsoft said Lokad developed a new statistical model for delivering more accurate forecasts. However, the new model required 10 times more processing power than earlier versions. By moving the application to the Azure platform, Lokad was able to take advantage of scalable processing.

“They now have the ability to deliver 100 times more forecasts with Windows Azure than they could previously – up to 100 million forecasts an hour,” Microsoft says in the blog.



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