Feb 9, 2017

Microsoft Azure 101: What You Need to Know Before Deploying


Microsoft’s cloud offering was late to the party, but still a big hit among business users — 82 percent of North American businesses have evaluated Azure, and the same number say it’s part of their overall cloud strategy. While Microsoft has done its best to ensure a simple transition from on-prem offerings or other clouds, Azure adoption can get complicated if you’re not prepared.

Here’s what you need to know about making the move, what’s currently on offer and what may come next for Azure.

The Basics of Azure

Most companies are familiar with Amazon’s AWS cloud services, which are widely considered simple, powerful and relatively inexpensive. While Azure tops Amazon in some cases and pulls on par in others, there’s both overlap and distinct differences that can make Azure adoption somewhat confusing. Let’s look at the basics.

First up, some history. Microsoft rolled out Azure in 2010 to compete with Amazon. Thanks to a solid service ramp-up of PaaS and IaaS, cost-effective pricing for Enterprise Agreement customers and the cloud linkage of familiar Microsoft services such as Office and SQL Server, Azure has enjoyed substantial growth year over year.
However, it’s worth breaking down the details of this cloud offering before making a move. For example, Azure virtual instances come in three different abstraction levels to suit multiple business needs:

  • Virtual Machines — This IaaS deployment provides customizable Windows and Linux virtual machines, but gives local IT complete control over their OS.
  • Cloud Services — Azure’s middle ground, this tier represents Microsoft’s original PaaS offering, which provides scalable cloud apps and affords in-house pros some control over VMs and OS architecture.
  • App Services — This PaaS play provides fully managed Web, Mobile and API apps for companies, while Microsoft handles the hardware, OS, networking and load balancing.

Azure Terms and Terminology

Before moving to Azure, it’s a good idea to get familiar with Microsoft’s block and object storage terminology to avoid any confusion down the line. While AWS calls its block storage “Elastic Block Storage”, Microsoft opted for “Page Blobs”. Object storage instances, meanwhile, are known as “Block Blobs” in Azure, which often trips up admins trying to provision disk-like block storage — when using Microsoft, Page Blobs are actually Block Storage.

Pricing, meanwhile, is straightforward: It’s entirely per-hour and on-demand. But that doesn’t mean there’s a single price for Azure. Instead, Microsoft leverages its Enterprise Agreements (EA) to great effect here, providing organizations steep discounts depending on how much companies want to spend upfront and the length of term they’re willing to accept. By and large, the use of these EAs has significantly accelerated the growth of Azure over the last few years.

Azure Instance Types

Microsoft has also broken down Azure into multiple instance “types,” giving companies the ability to select services and features that best meet their needs. While more than 80 types are available, Microsoft groups them into larger categories, which include:

  • A-Series — General-purpose instances, A-series offerings promise consistent processor performance and “modest” amounts of memory and storage. Some are tailored to handle more compute-expensive tasks with increased core numbers.
  • D-Series — More compute power and storage thanks to more cores, more memory on each core and solid-state drives (SSD) for temp storage.
  • Dv2-Series — This series offers 35 percent more processing power than its predecessor thanks to newer processors running in Turbo mode.
  • F-Series — Using the same processor cores as the Dv2-series, the F-series comes in at a lower per-hour cost for budget-conscious companies.
  • G-Series — The big memory series, offering the highest capacity and using Intel Xeon E5 V3 processors.
  • H-Series — Designed for companies with compute-intensive projects, the H-series can handle large-scale modeling, HPC clusters and simulations.
  • N-Series — Pure performance; the N-series adds graphical processing units (GPUs) to take on the most demanding workloads.
  • DS, DSv2, FS and GS-Series — A mixed bag that offers high-performance storage, processors and memory with the ability to use SSD storage and caching, in turn maximizing I/O operation. Ideal for organizations that require specialized cloud instances.

General Advice

Once you’ve made the decision to move any or all of your workload to Azure, it’s worth taking the time to draft a solid migration plan. First, decide why you’re moving specific services to the cloud and which aspect of the Azure stack best suits your needs. While it’s a good idea to slightly overprovision rather than opt for a 1:1 ratio between demands and performance, resist the urge to purchase above and beyond a reasonable buffer. There are two reasons for this. First, cloud computing costs continue to fall as large-scale providers “race to zero,” meaning you’ll get more bang for your buck over time rather than upfront. In addition, the evolution of processor cores, storage media and GPUs means that “best of breed” today may be middle-of-the-road in 12 months.

The Future of Azure

So, what’s next for Azure? Microsoft plans to transition calling service Skype away from P2P and entirely into the cloud over the next few months as the company looks to support real-time collaboration across both desktops and mobile devices.

Meanwhile, Microsoft also has its eye on the private cloud: At the company’s recent Ignite conference, new Azure Stack private cloud deployments were announced for Dell, Lenovo and HPE. These new Stacks won’t be available until mid-2017 but speak to a savvy move on Microsoft’s part to tap the growing private cloud market with an enterprise-ready solution. Azure is also partnering with Docker to accelerate the use of containers on Azure Stack — as part of this plan, any commercial customers who purchase a new Stack will also receive a Docker commercial license.

While Microsoft wasn’t an early adopter of the cloud and faced significant competition from established offerings such as AWS, the combination of high-value services, straightforward pricing and continual evolution of the Azure offering have made it a force to be reckoned with in the cloud computing market. Before adopting Azure, however, it’s worth knowing the basics, identifying the ideal deployment type and getting a handle on where this cloud is headed.

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