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.

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 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.

SEE: All of TechRepublic's smart person's guides

Executive summary

  • What is Microsoft Azure? 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 Microsoft Azure 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-premise Windows servers to the cloud.
  • Who does Microsoft Azure 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 was Microsoft Azure released? Azure reached general availability in February 2010, with additional services and regional data centers being added continually since launch.
  • How do I get Microsoft Azure? 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.

SEE: Special report: The cloud v. data center decision (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Image: Microsoft

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-premise 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, hot locally redundant block blob storage (LRS-HOT), with 3 copies in one data center, starts at $0.0184 per GB. Geographically redundant storage (GRS-HOT), with 3 copies in one data center and 3 copies in a second geographically distant data center, starts at $0.0368 per GB. Read-Access GRS (RAGRS-HOT), which allows for read access at the second data center, starts at $0.046 per GB.

SEE: Cloud computing policy (Tech Pro Research)

In addition to the aforementioned storage, virtual machine, CDN, and Windows-related services, Azure also offers a variety of other services.

Microsoft, in coordination with hardware vendors such as Lenovo, Dell EMC, HP Enterprise, and Huawei, offers the Azure Stack appliance for use in hybrid cloud deployments. The Azure Stack appliance allows organizations to run Azure applications from the public Azure cloud while leveraging data hosted on-premise, as well as running the same services from the public Azure cloud on the Azure Stack platform. Azure Stack is scheduled to ship in September 2017.

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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 onerous 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 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-premise 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 a company's IT backbone to scale with corporate growth.

SEE: Job description: Cloud Engineer (Tech Pro Research)

Presently, 36 regions are available for use in Azure, and four new regions have been announced for future use. Compared to AWS and Google Cloud Services, Azure has a wider reach in developing markets, with more regions across Asia Pacific, and plans for regions in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa scheduled to reach general availability in 2018. Of the currently deployed regions, 14 are located in the US (6 of which are government-use regions), 2 are in Canada, and one is in São Paulo, Brazil. In Europe, the United Kingdom and Germany have two each, while Ireland and The Netherlands each have one. (Two are planned for France.) For Asia Pacific, India has three, while Japan, Korea, China, and Australia each have two. Hong Kong and Singapore host one region apiece.

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When was Microsoft Azure released?

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. Additional service regions have been added continuously since the service was announced.

Azure Stack, the turnkey hybrid cloud solution offered by Microsoft and a number of hardware vendors, was first announced in May 2015. With the first technical preview in January 2016, organizations could use their own hardware as part of an Azure Stack deployment. This plan was subsequently walked back, with Microsoft requiring users to buy a prequalified Azure Stack system, under the belief that such offerings would perform better.

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, Clear Linux, CoreOS, Debian, Oracle Linux, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE Linux Enterprise, openSUSE, and Ubuntu are supported in the Azure platform, as well as FreeBSD. Additionally, Azure supports Docker images.

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What services compete with Microsoft Azure?

One of the core strengths of Microsoft Azure is the ease of transition for organizations looking to migrate from other Microsoft products, such as SharePoint, or integrate tightly with an existing Windows deployment. For those organizations, Azure is likely the most compelling option for a seamless transition to the cloud. Additionally, Microsoft also heavily touts compliance certifications for government users, noting that Azure was the first public cloud platform with a FedRAMP P-ATO.

In terms of scale, Google, Amazon, and IBM are certainly capable of handling any amount of data or compute tasks you can generate. Amazon Web Services, much like Amazon itself, aims to be everything to everyone; as such, AWS has the most extensive portfolio of cloud services of any public cloud provider. Google Cloud Platform's core strengths are in machine learning, big data tools, and extensive container support. For IoT, the cloud provider market is still wide open, with tailored solutions available from GE Predix, Samsung's ARTIK Cloud, and ThingWorx.

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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 200 startup accelerators in 47 countries.

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.

In 2016, Microsoft 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. New users can register here.

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About James Sanders

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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