A Brief History of Microsoft Azure

Microsoft’s cloud computing platform, Azure, is now five years old. I remember reviewing an early version of Azure in 2011, and my major takeaway was that the documentation describing Azure services and capabilities was incomprehensible, and the web-based user interface was difficult to use. Having had experience with Amazon Web Services, I thought Microsoft was going nowhere in their efforts to deliver a competitive alternative.

Then, around May 2011, Scott Guthrie, the then Corporate Vice President of the .Net platform at Microsoft, took over the Azure Application Platform team. Under his leadership, the Azure user interface was rewritten from a Silverlight application to a lightweight HTML5 web portal. The Azure platform also improved incrementally and started to feel more like an organized set of services.

The Evolution of Azure

Fast forward a couple of years to 2014, and Azure has become a comprehensive, robust cloud platform for not only IaaS, but also PaaS cloud computing models. Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) will be familiar to many, since it is simply the virtualization of physical computers and network equipment. Think of this as Hyper-V or VMware running on hardware that Microsoft maintains for you in their data centers. Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) is a logical evolution of this model. Since the infrastructure needs for the development and deployment of web and mobile apps is primarily about providing things like a web server hosting environment and access to resources such as databases and APIs, it makes sense to remove the need for setup and management of the actual operating system and network services. PaaS abstracts these things away, and instead provides a higher-level environment suitable for hosting apps. This means that new app hosting environments can be establishing in seconds, scaled on demand, and billed based on resource utilization rather than virtual machine and device reservations. Also, in 2014, the new Azure portal was announced. As of today, it is still in preview, although customers are now being actively encouraged to switch to it, and the newest Azure offering are only supported via the new portal.

The new Azure portal is a masterpiece of usability engineering. The designers of this site considered the complexities of Azure’s growing portfolio of capabilities, and the different kinds of UI “widgets” needed for managing the various configuration and monitoring aspects of the Azure environment. The new portal is based on the idea of vertical panes, called blades, that open to the right-side of the window (shuffling existing blades to the left) as you drill down on objects and settings in the UI. It is very well thought out. You will likely feel immediately comfortable working with it for the first time, and be able to competently create and explore the myriad of Azure features without experiencing contextual loss and general confusion.

Is Azure Just for Microsoft Technologies?

Azure is about enabling solutions through the cloud. In some cases, this means extending traditional Microsoft products, such as IIS, Biztalk, and SQL Server to services running in the cloud. In other cases, it means providing support for non-Microsoft technologies, such as Linux operating systems and big data support via Hadoop (known as HDInsight in the Azure environment). Non-Microsoft development technologies are also actively embraced and supported, as are non-Microsoft databases of both the SQL and no-SQL variety. In other areas, new technology was created or significantly modified specifically for the Azure environment, like storage services, identity management, and media services. The latter of which has made a considerably splash when it supported some of the largest events on the planet like the FIFA World Cup and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

So, while a developer familiar with existing Microsoft technologies will find the transition to Azure an easy one, there is also great support for developers working in many other popular programming languages, frameworks, and services.

The Business Case for Cloud Computing

There’s no doubt that many businesses are already starting to migrate their system and software infrastructure to cloud environments. But what are the tangible benefits for making this change?

First, is certainly cost. In many cases, the usage cost of cloud infrastructure is less than the cost to build and operate internal infrastructure, especially when considering the technical staff needed to maintain and support it. With Azure, Microsoft is tackling cloud-based infrastructure on a grand scale, with precise attention to Enterprise concerns such as scalability and redundancy, which translates to measurable performance and availability benefits. It is unlikely that even large businesses can apply a similar level of expertise needed to maximize the operational value of their infrastructure. Also, much of the cost shifts from capital expenditure to operational costs. And, hardware and software platform infrastructure is just not a good investment in most cases. Except for companies whose main focus is their infrastructure, all this hardware is just a liability that is better outsourced to Azure or another reputable cloud service company that does have infrastructure ownership and management at the heart of their business.

Should I Trust Microsoft with My Data?

If you’re a CIO considering cloud-based solutions, then chances are you’ve already been asked, or asked yourself, this question. Surely, it must be more risky to outsource your precious business data to another company’s infrastructure rather than keep it in-house on servers residing in a building that your company owns.

In the last few years there have been highly publicized data breaches of customer and corporate confidential data from organizations ranging from national banks and retail stores, to electronic giants. These data breaches suggest that the primary threat entry point is through network infrastructure, out-of-date software, and poorly written code. Physical locality of the hardware is rarely a factor. But while most targeted data breaches occur not just from external hackers, breaches from company employees as not uncommon and can be harder threat to mitigate.  Having physical access to hardware and imperfectly maintained infrastructure opens up opportunities for these internal threats.

So, it seems that utilizing Microsoft’s cloud services can not only decrease costs but also reduce infrastructure security liabilities. That’s a win. But do you actually trust Microsoft? It turns out that yes, you do, already. If your company uses computers running Windows, then you’re trusting Microsoft to provide you a secure platform to use within your own infrastructure, and every time Windows Update runs you’re trusting Microsoft to come into your workplace and update the software you use every day.

If you’re a technology decision maker and haven’t taken a close look at Azure yet, then it’s time to start assessing cloud computing platform opportunities to identify potential quick wins as well as long-term strategies for reducing cost and reducing liability, while at the same time improving your Enterprise infrastructure delivery capabilities.

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