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An IT pro’s guide to Microsoft Azure

Last updated on December 4th, 2018

Whether you are considering cloud or already utilising cloud services it’s likely you have heard of Microsoft Azure. Our guide will provide a high-level overview of this cloud platform, the different applications, the benefits and the potential drawbacks.

What is Microsoft Azure?

Microsoft Azure is Microsoft’s public cloud computing platform. It was introduced in October 2008 as Windows Azure but was later rebranded as Microsoft Azure in April 2014. It provides a range of cloud services, including those for compute, analysis, storage and networking, as well as cloud-based versions of enterprise Microsoft solutions such as Active Directory and SQL Server.

The platform is designed to allow businesses to have a way to easily build and manage customised applications and other services, which are then deployed on an enterprise-grade data centre that’s supported or managed by Microsoft.

As of November 2018, Azure is generally available in 54 regions around the world.

Microsoft Azure Regions

What services does Microsoft Azure provide?

The directory of Azure services is growing all the time so for the most up to date information it is recommended that you check their website. Below we have broken the services down into key types.

  • Compute – Including virtual machines, cloud apps, containers, batch schedules and APIs
  • Networking – Provision private networks, load balancing, VPN gateways, manage traffic and monitor network performance.
  • Storage – Includes cloud storage, blob storage, queue storage, file storage and disk storage as well as cloud backup and recovery.
  • Web and Mobile – These services allow you to do things like create and deploy cloud apps for web and mobile, automate access and use of data, build cloud APIs, send phs notifications and deliver content virtually to all devices
  • Containers – Including container registry, container instances, and service fabric and container server
  • Databases – These services include managed SQL database and managed MySQL database as a service, data transformation and movement and Azure Cosmo DB.

Examples of Microsoft Azure products

  • Data & Analytics – Among others things, these services allow you to build, deploy and manage predictive analytics solutions, create interactive data visualisation and manage data transformation,
  • AI and Cognitive Services – Includes a range of APIs such as emotion recognition, facial detection, computer vision and speech conversion.
  • Internet of Things – These services help users to capture, monitor and analyse IoT data from sensors and other devices.
  • Enterprise Integration – Enables users to connect cloud environments and automate the access and use of data.
  • Security and Identity – Manage Azure deployment, schedule and run jobs and create automation. Identify and respond to security threats,
  • Developer Tools – Collaborate with other users, create environments and detect, triage and diagnose issues within web apps and services.
  • Monitoring and Management – Monitor, manage, analyse and automate your Azure resources.

What are the benefits of Microsoft Azure?

  • Fast – Azure is fast to deploy, operate and scale.
  • Easy Transition – Typically easier to use “out-of-box” and more user-friendly. This, alongside the fact that Azure virtual machines integrate with other Microsoft products, generally makes the transition to cloud infrastructure smoother.
  • Security – Microsoft holds a number of security accreditations including ISO/IEC 27018, iso 27001, ISO 9001, Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) STAR Self-Assessment, ITAR, HIPAA and the HITECH Act, FEDRamp and IRS 1075. With Azure, you also have complete control of the collection, access, use and distribution of your company data, as well as complete visibility and control over data storage and access.
  • Development – Microsoft regularly adds new features and solutions to Azure’s directory.
  • Agile – Enables businesses to develop, test, feedback and retry when developing applications without expensive outlay or complicated infrastructure.
  • Global Reach – Azure is currently available in 38 global regions, with a further 4 planned.
  • Scalable – Microsoft Azure can typically be leveraged for any size business, from a start-up right up to enterprise level organisation.
  • Flexible – Like other cloud service providers, Azure offers the ability to instantly provision computing resources on demand.
  • Fully Integrated – Contains many elements beyond storage, including a unified delivery pipeline, IoT integrations and a development environment. Azure is also closely integrated with other Microsoft tools such as SharePoint, Office 365 and Outlook.
  • Protected – Azure has regional and global fail over options, hot and cold standby models as well as rolling reboot capabilities.
  • Compliant – For tightly regulated industries like financial services, Azure is compliant with regulations.
  • Deployment – You can deploy Azure anywhere, whether that’s your own data centre or a single model to deploy on-premise and to the cloud.
  • Reduced IT Costs – Helps you to reduce costs typically associated with expanding infrastructure.

Potential drawbacks of Microsoft Azure

Many consider Microsoft to be one of the top three public cloud platform providers, alongside Google and Amazon. However, that doesn’t mean their platform is perfect.

Downtime

Azure does have a reputation for being difficult to manage, but one of the biggest issues is downtime. CloudHarmony reported that, during the course of 2017, Azure experienced a total of 740 minutes of downtime, compared to Amazon Web Services which experienced 205 minutes and Google which experienced a total of 11 minutes.

Microsoft has experienced several significant periods of downtime throughout 2018. Back in June, Microsoft’s Azure cloud went down for eleven hours, affecting customers in North Europe, due to an underlying temperature issue in one of the datacentres in the region. Microsoft also experienced a further lengthy outage in September when a severe lightning storm in the San Antonio area disrupted the power supply to the data centre in the region and knocked the cooling systems offlines, damaging a ‘significant amount’ of equipment. The issues affected anyone with workloads in the South Central US data centre as well as customers worldwide who were using Active Directory and Visual Studio team Services, for more than 24 hours. However, no data was lost during this period as engineers decided to prioritise preserving customer data instead of moving customers over to another data centre, which could of results in the loss of some data, according to a report from Microsoft.

Although the amount of downtime looks shocking, it is important not to take these findings completely at face value. Microsoft has previously stated that the reason their average downtime can look disproportionate is due to the fact that they operate in such a high number of regions across the world, far more than other providers. They argue that when looking at average uptime across regions Azure reliability is “in line with that of the other cloud providers measured”.

Management

Azure also requires a certain level of management, including patching and server monitoring, to ensure optimal performance. It may be “user-friendly” and easy to set up, but at a management level, it requires some expertise to ensure that all parts work together efficiently. Of course, one way to obtain this level of expertise – and simultaneously reduce the burden of management – is to engage with a managed service provider who has experience in managing and operating cloud infrastructures.

Conclusion

For many businesses, cloud computing is a perfect tool for moving a business forward. Providing access to advanced technologies and infrastructure without the associated cost of on-site resources. Deciding which cloud platform is right for you comes down to your needs. Although the cost of using the cloud is a big concern, that alone shouldn’t inform your decision making. Many providers offer a free trial so you can experience what each platform is like hands on.

Another option to consider is to opt for a private managed cloud. With this approach, you receive all the benefits of public cloud, such as agility, scalability and efficiency, but with greater levels of security, control and flexibility as you will have a dedicated, single-tenant environment. Furthermore, choosing a reputable third-party provider to manage your cloud environment removes the burden of responsibility for hardware and data centre operations, allowing businesses to focus on the applications which run their operations.

Images from Microsoft

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