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Cloud

Microsoft Azure: The smart person's guide

This comprehensive guide about Microsoft Azure includes common use cases, technical limitations, and what to know before adopting the cloud computing platform.

Image: Microsoft

The rise of cloud computing provides businesses the ability to quickly provision computing resources without the costly and laborious task of building data centers, and without the costs of running servers with unutilized capacity due to variable workloads.

Azure, Microsoft's cloud computing platform, launched in February 2010. In addition to traditional cloud offerings such as virtual machines, object storage, and content delivery networks (CDNs), Azure offers services that leverage proprietary Microsoft technologies. For example, RemoteApp allows for the deployment of Windows programs using a virtual machine, with clients on Windows, OS X, Android, or iOS using the program through a remote desktop connection. Azure also offers cloud-hosted versions of common enterprise Microsoft solutions, such as Active Directory and SQL Server.

This easily digestible introduction to Microsoft's cloud platform will be updated periodically to keep IT leaders in the loop on new Azure services and ways in which they can be leveraged.

Executive summary

  • What is it? Microsoft Azure is a collection of various cloud computing services, including remotely hosted and managed versions of proprietary Microsoft technologies, and open technologies, such as various Linux distributions deployable inside a virtual machine.
  • Why does it matter? Azure lacks upfront costs or an appreciable time delay in resource provisioning — capacity is available on demand. With a usage-based billing formula, Azure is a compelling option for enterprises transitioning from on-premises Windows servers to the cloud.
  • Who does this affect? Azure can be utilized at any scale, from a garage startup to a Fortune 500 company. Because of the ease of transition, organizations with an existing Windows Server deployment may find Azure to be best suited to their needs.
  • When is this happening? Azure launched in February 2010, with additional services and regional data centers being added continually since launch.
  • How do I get it? New users receive a $200 service credit good for 30 days when signing up for Microsoft Azure; the credit can be applied toward any Microsoft-provided service. Additional discounts and credits are available for startups, nonprofits, and universities.

What is Microsoft Azure?

Microsoft Azure is a platform of interoperable cloud computing services, including open-source, standards-based technologies and proprietary Microsoft solutions. Instead of building an on-premises server installation, or leasing physical servers from traditional data centers, Azure's billing structure is based on resource consumption, not reserved capacity. Pricing varies between different types of services, storage types, and the physical location from which your Azure instances are hosted.

For example, Storage pricing varies based on redundancy and distribution options. In the Central US region, locally redundant storage (LRS), with 3 copies in one data center, starts at $0.024 per GB. Zone redundant storage (ZRS), with 3 copies distributed across different data centers, starts at $0.03 per GB. Geographically redundant storage (GRS), with 3 copies in one data center and 3 copies in a second geographically distant data center, starts at $0.048 per GB. Read-Access GRS, which allows for read access at the second data center, starts at $0.061 per GB.

SEE: Microsoft lays out its security plan for a mobile-first, cloud-first world

In addition to the aforementioned storage, virtual machine, CDN, and Windows-related services, Azure also offers a variety of other services. Azure IoT Suite offers various options for connecting and monitoring devices, as well as providing telemetry and analytics services. Redis Cache is a managed version of the popular open-source Redis data structure server; DocumentDB is a hosted NoSQL database for specific use cases; and Search is an OData-based managed search service. Azure Media Services offers cloud-based video playing, indexing, transcoding, and content protection services.

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Why does Microsoft Azure matter?

Azure, like other cloud service providers, offers the ability to instantly provision computing resources on demand. Compared to the laborious task of planning and building an on-site data center, along with the requisite hardware upgrades, maintenance costs, server cooling requirements, electricity costs, and use of floorspace — particularly for offices with associated real estate costs — the savings can add up very quickly.

The benefits of Azure extend beyond cost control, however. The laborious task of administering certain technologies such as Windows Server, Active Directory, and SharePoint can be greatly eased with the combination of Azure and Office 365. This frees up IT staff to work on new projects, rather than spending time on general system upkeep.

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Who does Microsoft Azure affect?

Organizations with an existing deployment of Microsoft technologies, particularly Windows Server and Active Directory, will find Azure to be a compelling upgrade. As Windows Server 2008 has reached the end of mainstream support, planning for a migration to cloud-hosted Azure services may be preferable to investments in new server hardware and Windows Server licenses.

As with any cloud service, the cost benefit is more real for cash-strapped startup organizations that lack the capital for provisioning hardware and associated costs of a traditional on-premises deployment, or leasing dedicated servers in a traditional data center. Because the billing structure of Azure is based on resources used, turning to the cloud allows the IT backbone of a given company to scale with corporate growth.

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When is Microsoft Azure happening?

The Azure platform was announced in October 2008, and reached general commercial availability in February 2010. Originally called Windows Azure, it was renamed to Microsoft Azure in July 2014.

Under Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Azure has expanded to include support for a variety of Linux distributions available in virtual machines on the Azure platform. Presently, CentOS, CoreOS, Debian, Oracle Linux, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE Linux Enterprise, openSUSE, and Ubuntu are supported in the Azure platform. Additionally, Azure supports Docker images.

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How do I get Microsoft Azure?

Microsoft's BizSpark program offers $10,000 per month of Azure service credits for users of BizSpark Plus for one year for a total of $120,000. Eligibility is dependent on collaboration with a startup accelerator, with Microsoft partnering with over 150 startup accelerators in 47 countries.

For other organizations, BizSpark is available to privately-held companies less than five years old that earn less than $1 million annually. The standard tier provides up to $750 per month ($150 per month for up to five developers) for three years for a total of $27,000.

Microsoft has also pledged to donate $1 billion in cloud services to universities and nonprofit organizations over the next three years. Eligible organizations can register for free access at Microsoft Philanthropies.

For individual developers, new registrants receive a $200 platform credit applicable toward any Azure service, excluding third-party offerings in the Azure Marketplace.

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About

James Sanders is a Java programmer specializing in software as a service and thin client design, and virtualizing legacy programs for modern hardware.

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