This latest evolution of computing has seen cloud services surge forward rapidly over the last few years, everything that was once performed in the air conditioned server room of you IT Department can now be run in the Clouds. With economies of scale and pricing models designed to attract attention even home users can now afford to have their own server room, in the clouds.
Released to the public in 2010 Windows Azure is Microsoft’s entry into the Cloud hosting world. Offering an incredibly feature rich infrastructure for everyone to take advantage of, from small one man companies to worldwide corporations Azure is the cloud for the people.
What is Azure and what can it do?
Since its release Azure has grown to encapsulate almost every function of an IT department (except local network infrastructure of course), all can now be hosted within Azure’s white fluffy clouds. Web site hosting, virtual machine hosting, mobile services, media services, SQL Server hosting and identity management all provided remotely by the one host. The servers that once filled air-conditioned sealed rooms can now be replaced by a high speed internet connection; Microsoft will even run an optical fibre out to its larger customers.
After shifting to the clouds all of your IT departments server maintenance functions are performed by your host, Microsoft in Azures case. Tasks such as software patches, server farm operations, and power all become Microsoft’s problem. Other important functions such as backups, restores and user access control are all provided by Azure’s web interface and managed in-house or by a third party IT support company of your choice.
Around the world Microsoft has established a number of large data centres that it uses to house its Azure servers. Behind the secured doors of these facilities, on each of the boxes housing the world’s data is Microsoft’s Azure Operating System. The OS allows Microsoft to offer an extensive collection of cloud services that require an entirely new set of acronyms.
New terms such as PaaS for Platform as a Service which is for quick web and app development using Microsoft’s on-demand run-time environment, a development platform for hire. IaaS or Infrastructure as a Service which provides deployment platforms. This can include renting virtual machines, a service that competes with Amazon and RackSpace. The VM technology has recently been upgraded to include persistent VM’s that come pre-installed with Windows 2008 R2 SP1, Linux, Server 2012. VHD drive images can also be uploaded for that custom install experience. SaaS is Software as a Service which offers finished applications available on a rental basis.
Unlike Microsoft of old Azure users aren’t locked into using only MS software. Need a Virtual Machine setup on Linux, no problem the new Microsoft is fine with that. The clever part by Microsoft though happens when you need Microsoft software, with all of the license costs included the normally expensive buy in cost disappears, taking away Linux’s only real advantage.
Azure Active Directory
Azure Active Directory provides a single sign on for Azure hosted SaaS apps, as well as sign on integration within Visual Studio. Azure reaches out from the cloud with Azure Active Directory, able to integrate with an existing on site Active Directory installation.
A special secured edition of Azure is being offered to U.S. government customers, Windows Azure US Government Cloud. Azure has been granted Provisional Authority to Operate (P-ATO) from the FedRAMP (Risk and Authorization Management) Joint Authorization Board, a sort of pre-emptive seal of approval that indicates Azure meets FedRAMP’s standards for security. Microsoft claims Azure is “the first public cloud of its kind to achieve this level of government authorization,” although other vendors, including AT&T, HP, Akamai, and Amazon (the latter for its AWS GovCloud service) have received P-ATO or FedRAMP accreditation in the past.
Azure offers a number of ways to get SQL Server running in the cloud. The typical Virtual Machine option can be used to host Windows Server and SQL. Azure SQL Server Database system is the simpler option that hosts your database without the need to setup servers and software. Management Studio is used as much of the interface to manage your cloud databases. The remaining server features are controlled using Azures web interface. Azure SQL Server Database is a cut back version of Enterprise, many of the most complex features not being present. Stored procedures are also simplified in this version of SQL.
Recent rumors of the upcoming SQL Server upgrade 2014 will have memory caching functionality that should offer 20-30 times speed improvements over current SQL Server versions. Obviously SQL Server will be around for a while yet. Don’t be confused by the cloud, there will always be a place for in-house servers for development, the 80% of operations that make up day to day tasks will be done cheaper on the clouds though.
Pricing for Azure SQL Server is cheap, exceptionally cheap. For databases less than a GB (gigabyte) Microsoft will charge poultry $10 a month, $20 a month for up to 10GB. A far cheaper option than using a VM for a simple database.
Pricing for each of the major services is extremely flexible, for websites and mobile services database size, bandwidth and support each have a slider allowing customization. A simple website with a 1GB database and 15GB of bandwidth and no support will cost $11.19 a month. Bargain hunters will note that up to 10 websites can be setup for free, fine if zero bandwidth is an option.
Virtual machine pricing is a little more complex with the number and type of virtual machines, SQL Server, BizTalk, Bandwidth and Support as options. Windows and Linux VM’s are available, both starting at exactly the same price for the base 1Ghz CPU with 768MB of RAM configuration. The high end A7 configuration with 8 x 1.6Ghz CPUs with 56GB RAM will cost an eye watering $1517.76 per month for the Windows configuration and $1220.16 for the Linux VM.
Setting up a simple VM configuration with a low power VM, tiny SQL Server installation and only 50GB of bandwidth will only cost $60 a month. While this configuration won’t set corporate clients imaginations alight it is enough for a small business to get up and running with. Crank the dials up for a corporate setup and the bill quickly climbs to $19,225.92 a month. With 3 8 core 56GB RAM VM servers taking care of business, 3 SQL Server Enterprise servers (again with 8 cores and 56GB RAM) crunching the numbers along with BizTalk and 1 TB of bandwidth this is corporate infrastructure at the flick of switch.
Cranking all of the configuration selectors to the max you might see a number like $124,070.76 per month, which might sound like a lot of money to you but the cost to run these machines yourself is in the millions. For your money you get 20 x 8 core VM servers, 20 x enterprise SQL Servers and 2 TB of bandwidth. Support is thrown in for free at this pinnacle of pricing.
Pure storage space is on sale starting at $16.63 for 175 GB, going all the way up to 100 TB for $7,527.28 per month. 25 of the cheapest WD 4TB Black hard drives will cost you $8,125 for the same space, if you can fit them somewhere.
All of these numbers are intended as a guide only, there are many more options available and sliders to tweak so see the full Microsoft Azure Calculator for more details and precise costs. Here…
The impact of Microsoft Azure and the Cloud movement in general cannot be underestimated, although the impact long term is still a little hazy. Both IT and Non-IT companies of all sizes could improve business efficiency and cut costs with the intelligent implementation of Cloud technology. This is the common thread for all companies.
Large corporations are in a constant battle to lower costs, the cloud will become an essential weapon in this war of the cheapskate. Shortening time to market for IT projects and applications, far lower TCO without the need for hardware and licenses while data portability can now be a reality.
Aside from the generic Cloud advantages Azure also offers large corporations a unique set of features with the ability to link their on-premises servers directly to Azure. A setup that can be used to allow a measured transition to the cloud, taking advantage of real productivity gains. At the opposite end of the functional scale this could be a setup that is permanent, lowering the cost of maintaining your current hardware while expanding functionality. While keeping your own server boxes and using the cloud may seem counter intuitive it does have advantages. Two way redundancy ensures if the Cloud goes down you can still operate using your servers, and vice versa. Active directory and single sign on keep logins to a minimum, one. The cost savings of backup and restores being shifted to the clouds could alone justify the use of the cloud.
Also an interesting possibility is the option of moving IT back in-house without having to incur the infrastructure costs, the best of both worlds. The value of your IT department’s knowledge is no longer out-weighed by the cost and risk of maintaining it.
Companies supplying IT services to large corporations will need to embrace the cloud fast or face being swept away by it. The value of maintaining large arrays of servers and licenses is quickly disappearing. A small IT company could now setup and on-sell all of the IT functionality required by a large corporation to operate. Share group drives, email, database and application hosting, all supplied via Azure at costs that are orders of magnitude cheaper than ever before. With faster setup times and more flexible fabric that can scale effortlessly the Cloud will change the IT service provider’s landscape.
Small to medium sized companies will see the most immediate and largest impact of all types of companies. All enterprises that have thought of running their own SQL server box and business software but couldn’t afford it now have an option. An option that’s far superior to anything they could have run themselves.
The smallest of all companies, the one man band, now also has similar options to large enterprises. In fact Azure SQL is cheap enough that everyone can afford their own database.
There are many tiers in the IT Industry, as the Cloud permeates through these layers the commercial advantage for those who have done it right could make all the difference in a competitive world.
How they stack up?
While Amazon may offer the cheapest infrastructure services Azure offers the best value and most flexible platform service. This allows everything from quickly deployed small apps to complex custom app, web and business intelligence applications to be developed and deployed quickly. Azure has this year also taken the Nasuni Cloud Platform evaluation, taking the crown from last year’s winner Amazon.
Performance analysis by Nasuni gives the advantage to Azure on speed and functionality. Amazon is still the market leader but Microsoft is catching up fast. Amazon is good at hosting VM’s but Azure is great at shifting your entire IT Infrastructure to the cloud.
Your choice of Cloud provider depends on purpose, as per usual. If bit space is of primary importance then Amazon still offer incredible value. If you are reliant on Microsoft licensed software or have complex requirements then the choice is easy, Azure.
The transition to the Cloud is still in its infancy, an adventure with an unknown final destination. Having the technology in place to cater for every possibility Microsoft appears to be positioning themselves well. How will the world adapt to the clouds? How far will the changes go and can Microsoft keep dancing long enough to make it rain?