Amazon's (AMZN) maintains a sizeable lead in cloud computing, but Microsoft (MSFT) Azure is fast gaining ground.

Azure should grow at 70% to 80% in fiscal year 2018, Evercore analyst Kirk Materne wrote after meeting with companies that work with the large cloud providers. That's nearly double the rate that Amazon Web Services has posted in recent quarters.

"While [Amazon Web Services] remains the clear leader in terms of public cloud computing today, one of the most notable takeaways from our meetings was the improving position of Azure, both as it relates to product maturity and market presence," Materne wrote. A slate of new features ranging from speech recognition tools to an app for coding on their phones brings Azure closer to Amazon Web Services' rich suite of tools, while Microsoft has refocused its sales force on the cloud. 

Check out how you can literally @CodeAnywhere on multiple devices & platforms via the #Azure cloud: https://t.co/qGtRakCxDA @MSPartnerApps pic.twitter.com/YnBKq2xDhU

— Microsoft Azure (@Azure) August 15, 2017

AWS had 41% of the global market for public cloud services at the end of the second quarter, according to Synergy Research Group. Microsoft is second with 13%, Alphabet Inc.'s (GOOGL) Google Cloud Platform has 7% and IBM Corp. has 5%.

Growth of 80% in 2018 would actually mark a deceleration for Azure, which reports its growth rate but does not disclose revenues. Microsoft's cloud service grew 97% in the fourth fiscal quarter of 2017, which closed June 30. Azure grew 93%, 93% and 116% in the prior three quarters, respectively.

By comparison, Amazon Web Services grew revenues by 42% in the first half of the calendar year.

Azure is adding new features, and narrowing the gap between its offerings and Amazon's.

Some of Microsoft's new features include tools to build machine learning applications; cognitive services tools that build apps that Microsoft says can recognize speech and even detect emotion or sentiment; the Visual Studio for Mac web-based code editor; and Kubernetes, an open-source system for deploying applications using containers, a kind of virtual operating system that the large cloud providers feature.

Microsoft recently shook up its sales force to focus on the cloud. Changes in the organization are contributing to a better position in the market. "We believe the fact that Microsoft is now incenting its field organization to focus on the amount of Azure consumed is also creating more focus on driving customer success on Azure, and this is resulting in a growing pipeline and greater understanding of Azure's capabilities," Materne wrote.

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Editors' pick: Originally published Aug. 16.

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