By Phil Koster
Senior Cloud Engineer
Trivalent Group, Inc.
According to Microsoft: “Microsoft Azure is a growing collection of integrated cloud services—analytics, computing, database, mobile, networking, storage, and web—for moving faster, achieving more, and saving money.”
If you were able to read that sentence and understand exactly how Microsoft Azure might impact your organization and whether or not you should be investing time in further evaluation, this blog post is not for you. This post is aimed at helping the mid-to-high-level manager who does not have a technical background answer the question of whether or not you should be considering Azure in your business.
There is a lot of material on the Internet, but a lot of it is very technical or is too watered down. You may even be ignoring it altogether just because you can’t find understandable information on what Microsoft Azure is or does or how it can help your business. Don’t worry. I am from Trivalent, and we are here to help.
Being a Michigan-based company, I will use cars as analogies here. Microsoft is a vendor just like Ford, Chevrolet, and Toyota. If I had to pick a single category, I would say referring to “cloud” is like referring to SUV’s. We all know what an SUV is, but the technical definition and the popular definitions are not always the same and there is a wide variety of products in that category. Drilling into each vendor’s product lines, there is a subset of options and offerings based on what you want to do, how much power you need, and how much you want to spend. It gets very confusing very quickly.
Starting with the most basic, when most people use the term “cloud,” what they mean is more accurately “public cloud computing,” referring to the general concept of resource sharing. In truth, cloud computing as we think of it today started with mainframes back in the 1970’s.
Cloud offerings fall into general categories that typically end in “as a service” (aaS in acronyms). Several categories and sub-categories exist, but I am only going to cover the most basic ones. By far the most common is Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). SaaS specifically refers to the end, customer-delivered product (this is a key differentiator). That end product might be a generic service, such as email (e.g., Gmail, Hotmail) or a website (e.g. GeoCities, Squarespace), or be more specific, such as QuickBooks or SalesForce.
Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) means your computing infrastructure is what is being provided to you. Typically, this comes in the form of a “server” that is provided to you with certain requirements and specifications. You do not get/have to control the hardware directly, but you do have full control at the Operating System level (meaning you can install and remove applications, enable and disable services, etc.).
Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) means you are given access to a “platform” that sits in between IaaS and SaaS.
One of the reasons it is hard to find understandable information on Microsoft Azure is that it spans IaaS and PaaS and starts to dip into the SaaS realm. Although Microsoft has many SaaS offerings (see Office 365), they do not (usually) fall under the umbrella of the Azure product line. Microsoft has not done a great job of sub-dividing Azure in a way that allows you to easily understand the different options. If I lumped together the Ford Edge, Escape, Explorer, and Expedition into one product family, you might start getting confused with Ford’s SUV’s as well.
Part of the problem is that Azure is a newer product line, and part of it is Microsoft does not want to limit your thinking by setting an artificial boundary. Azure is, to put it simply, a collection of features from which you can choose how best to combine them to make a service that is right for your business.
So, what kinds of things can Microsoft Azure do for you? It can be a pure IaaS service and provide you with blank servers. You would then need an IT person who knows how to install an Operating System like Windows or Linux and configure it for you and keep it running, but you would not have the hardware problems. Azure can also be a PaaS service and provide you, for example, a Microsoft SQL instance so your application experts can create and manage databases.
Azure can even be an application platform for you, allowing your organization to build your own SaaS on top of it, including test and development environments. It can have varying level of redundancy (or lack thereof). It can be a replication target for your DR plan.
As broad as that is, you may still be asking the question: “Should I be looking at Microsoft Azure?” In my experience, there are 6 basic business considerations. Each of these will have varying levels of impact and importance to you and your organization. How much of an impact needs to be investigated.
Consideration One: Corporate financial preferences. The first consideration is the most obvious one as well as the most often avoided, and that is direct financial costs. The reason this is often avoided is the difficulty in comparing. When you purchase a cloud service, you are combining both your capital and operational expenditures into one large operational expense. If your organization is one that heavily favors a capital-based financial model over an operational one, there is no cloud service that is right for you. Cloud services are always a subscription, and you never own anything except the data itself.
Consideration Two: Legal or regulatory issues. Regulatory compliance issues, such as HIPAA, SOX, PCI DSS, and the myriad of other legal requirements, are something a lot of organizations struggle with. Microsoft Azure can help with these types of issues. Microsoft Azure complies with common regulations, such as FDA, FERPA, HIPAA, ISO 27001/27018, PCI DSS, etc. In many cases, Azure’s regulatory compliance may actually reduce your administrative burden to stay in compliance.
Consideration Three: Physical environment. One of the single biggest “features” of any cloud offering is a reduction in your on-premise hardware footprint. You should be looking at Microsoft Azure if you are tired of any of the following: buying new servers every 5 years, renewing hardware warranties, dedicating valuable square footage to servers, having to maintain a separate HVAC system, and paying for electricity 24×7 just in case you or some other employee needs to work late or on a weekend.
Consideration Four: Administrative burden. Are you having problems or just plain getting tired of maintaining lists of licenses, renewing support agreements, approving outages for upgrades, keeping staff trained on non-core business functions, and other similar tasks? These are some of the things that can be alleviated and sometimes altogether eliminated with Microsoft Azure.
Consideration Five: Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery. Many of you may have listened to Trivalent’s John Hey preach about BC/DR considerations in our BIASurvivor educational service offering. What you may not realize is how big of a burden that moving your hardware off-premise lifts from your shoulders. If you are like many (most?) SMB’s, if you have any BC/DR plan at all, it is probably just basic Information Technology BC/DR in the form of things like backups; it likely is not a well-documented item (let alone the recovery process). It probably does not tie into a business level BC/DR plan of any kind, and you probably have very grave concerns about its effectiveness. A move to Microsoft Azure may get you much closer to the BC/DR plan you have been wanting at the same time you accomplish many of your other goals.
Consideration Six: Flexibility and growth. Services like Microsoft Azure typically allow you to spin up resources and services as you need them. If you are a growing business (especially if you are rapidly growing), this allows you to start as small as possible with the smallest financial footprint possible. Then you can increase repeatedly as needed. This is one area where the argument for on-premise equipment and capital expenditure simply cannot win in a rapidly growing organization.
To summarize, if you are ok with an OPEX-based financial model, have regulatory concerns, are tired of wasting space on servers, are trying to find ways to decrease the administrative overhead of your IT department in general, want to improve your BC/DR situation quickly and easily, or are in a growing organization, you should be talking about Azure with your Trivalent team. Even if Microsoft Azure is not a good fit for your business, Trivalent may have other solutions to these problems.