What is Microsoft Azure?
The modern business landscape is reliant on powerful technologies that help organisations perform at their best. Cloud computing is one of the best examples of this, enabling businesses to quickly scale, adapt and make cost-savings whilst future-proofing their infrastructure.
There are many cloud computing providers, but one which will not be new to most is Microsoft Azure. With 56% of organisations worldwide use Microsoft Azure for their cloud services, it’s one of the major players in the industry, delivering innovative services that ensure customers get the most value from their investment.
From flexibility and scalability to security and cost-savings, there are many reasons why global businesses are choosing Microsoft Azure.
We asked our Azure Technical Architect, Dan Rios, for his thoughts on Microsoft Azure:
"At Nasstar we’re seeing more customers adopting Azure. Specifically they have a business drive to modernise applications and data, and automate (through Infrastructure-as-Code and DevOps mindset) over traditional ‘lift-and-shifts’ migrations.
"I think unless there’s an urgency on a deadline to meet, looking at a modernisation approach over a fast ‘lift-and-shift’ migration is much more beneficial. This way, organisations can truly leverage the benefits Azure has to offer."
In this guide, we’ll delve deeper into Azure, understanding how it works, its benefits, and importantly, what it can do for your business.
Understanding Microsoft Azure
While we’re sure you’ve heard of it, and you may even already use it, you might still be asking ‘what is Microsoft Azure?’. There’s a lot to unpack with this cloud computing platform, and it can be complex if you’re not familiar with cloud terminology. So, let’s go back to basics.
Microsoft Azure is a scalable cloud computing platform. It comprises a broad range of over 200 products and services, each created to support organisations in their quest to bring new solutions to life.
Users have the flexibility to choose the tools that work best for them, with a variety of services and products designed to support all industries. These services range through compute, analytics, networking and data storage. Businesses using Azure can build, run, and manage their applications across multiple clouds, on-premise and at the edge, using the tools and frameworks that best suit their needs.
To further support your ongoing cloud journey, Microsoft Azure offers different forms of cloud computing to help you tailor a solution that meets your goals. These include Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), and serverless functions. This is vital for digital transformation where out-of-the-box solutions don’t work for everyone and scalable, adaptable solutions are needed.
Exploring Microsoft Azure services and features
With such a wide range of services and features available, it’s best to categorise them into core Microsoft Azure services and more specialised offerings.
Core Azure services
Three key Microsoft Azure services include Azure Virtual Machines, Azure SQL Database, and Azure App Service. The first two of these are free for the first 12 months from account creation, while Azure App Service is always a free service. There are also free tiers for App Services and SQL after 12 months.
Azure Virtual Machines
An Azure Virtual Machine is an on-demand, scalable computer resource available in Azure. They are commonly used when you need more control over the computing environment. With Azure Virtual Machines, you have the flexibility of virtualisation, without needing to purchase and maintain the physical hardware to run it. Although, you will still be responsible for maintaining the virtual machine.
Businesses use Azure Virtual Machines in several different ways, including:
- Cloud applications – Depending on the application, demand could fluctuate. In this case, it might be economically beneficial to run your application on a virtual machine. The scalability of Azure Virtual Machines means you only pay for what you need and shut down machines you’re not using.
- Development and testing – If you need to test a new application, Azure Virtual Machines enable you to do this quickly and easily. You can create a computer with specific configurations that will enable you to code and test your application.
- Data centre extension – It's possible to connect the virtual machines in your Azure virtual network with your business’ existing network, which is great for busier periods where more space is needed.
Azure SQL Database
The Azure SQL Database is part of the wider Azure SQL family and comprises an always up-to-date and fully managed relational database service that is built for the cloud. It’s fundamentally a PaaS database engine designed to handle most database management functions without user involvement. These tasks often include upgrading, patching, monitoring, and backups.
Using Azure SQL Database enables you to build and develop apps with a multi-model database that scales as you need it to. It’s great for businesses that need to focus on application development without worrying about updates and provisioning.
Security is baked into the Azure SQL Database, with several layers of protection and intelligent threat detection that help ensure your data remains secure. Additionally, built-in AI and high availability maintain peak performance and durability.
Azure App Service
For businesses that need to create enterprise-ready web and mobile apps, Azure App Service is a great solution. It enables you to quickly and easily create apps for any platform or device and deploy them via a scalable and reliable cloud infrastructure.
Azure App Service is flexible too, giving you the opportunity to work with .NET, .NET Core, Node.js, Java, Python or PHP in containers, or running on Windows or Linux. This fully managed service has maintenance, security patching, and scaling built in, giving you back the time to focus on app development. Azure App Service already handles over 6 billion requests per day, so you can rest assured that you’ll be meeting robust performance, security, and compliance requirements.
Specialised Azure services
With over 200 products and services available within Microsoft Azure, it’s unlikely you’re going to need to use all Azure features at one time. This is why there are several specialised services designed for businesses with specific requirements.
Azure AI and Machine Learning
The Microsoft Azure platform comprises specialised Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) services, enabling businesses to be at the forefront of these emerging and rapidly evolving technologies.
Azure AI is a selection of AI services created with developers and data scientists in mind. The tool enables you to build and deploy your own AI solutions, while using decades of breakthrough research, responsible AI practices, and Azure’s signature flexibility.
Azure Machine Learning was also created for developers and data scientists, offering the ability to confidently build, deploy and manage high-quality models faster. With this tool, time to value is accelerated with industry-leading machine learning operations (MLOps), open-source interoperability, and integrated tools.
Microsoft Azure IoT (Internet of Things) is a managed app program that gives businesses all the tools they need to create customised and flexible IoT apps. The service delivers secure, scalable, and open edge-to-cloud solutions, all from Microsoft’s cloud. A key benefit of Azure IoT is that you can build intelligent environments that are already inclusive of security, privacy, and compliance.
Azure IoT is a great tool to have in your arsenal if digital transformation is a key goal for your business. By creating intelligent environments in the Azure cloud, you can seamlessly connect, monitor, automate and model devices and applications to drive results.
Azure DevOps Services
For businesses that need to manage software projects, Azure DevOps is a great choice. This integrated set of modern dev services enables organisations to get the most from their software projects, supporting everything from planning and development to testing and deployment.
Most of the included services in the suite can be accessed and used via the web interface which is available from all major browsers. The key services included as part of Azure DevOps include:
- Azure Boards – plan, monitor and collaborate across teams
- Azure Pipelines – build, test and deploy with CI/CD
- Azure Repos – unlimited, cloud-hosted private Git repos enabling collaboration for better code
- Azure Test Plans – test and send with manual and exploratory testing tools
- Azure Artifacts – create, host, and share packages with the team
GitHub Advanced Security for Azure DevOps – continuously develop securely
The Azure global infrastructure is complex. It’s comprised of two key parts – physical infrastructure and connective network components. The physical infrastructure refers to over 200 physical data centres that are categorised into regions and linked by a large, interconnected network. Each of these connected data centres within the Microsoft Azure network provides high availability, low latency, scalability, and access to the latest cloud infrastructure advancements.
Data centres and regions
Microsoft Azure data centres are physical buildings that each house a group of networked computer servers, much like any other data centre. The difference is that they are located all over the globe, and each belong to a specific region. An Azure region is a set of data centres in one defined location. Regions are deployed within a latency-defined perimeter and connected through the dedicated regional low-latency network.
Azure currently has more than 60 regions, with at least two data centres in each. By using this structure, Microsoft Azure can provide the redundancy and availability that businesses need to keep services running smoothly and efficiently.
Azure Resource Manager
The Microsoft Azure Resource Manager is a deployment and management service specifically designed for Azure. Users can create, update, and delete resources from their Azure account using a comprehensive management layer. Management features include access controls, locks, and tags, each created to secure and organise your deployed resources.
Azure Resource Manager enables businesses to group the services for their solution, rather than deploying, managing, and monitoring them all individually. It’s a vital time-saving tool but can also help you find cost-efficiencies. Businesses using Azure Resource Manager can also redeploy solutions throughout the development lifecycle, giving them confidence that these resources are deployed in a consistent state.
Azure Availability Zones
Within each Azure region, there are Azure Availability Zones. These unique physical locations are designed to offer high availability that protects your apps and data from any failures within the data centre. All zones are comprised of one or more data centres, each equipped with independent power, networking, and cooling.
With the physical separation of availability zones within a region, Azure ensures that apps and data are protected from issues surrounding the facility. In addition, zone-redundant services replicate a business’ apps and data across Azure Availability Zones to ensure they are not impacted by a single point of failure.
Advantages of Microsoft Azure for businesses
With so many services and features available within Microsoft Azure, there are several Azure benefits for businesses.
When considering IT solutions cost is usually top of the agenda. Microsoft Azure enables organisations to save money through the scalable nature of the solution and only needing to pay for their use. Additionally, by renting a server from Microsoft, as opposed to an on-premise solution, businesses no longer need to worry about the cost of maintenance and replacement of servers.
Microsoft Azure was built to be scalable and help businesses quickly adapt to changing business and customer needs. Whether you experience seasonal demand or are a growing business, Microsoft Azure’s pay-as-you-go model ensures you can scale your IT resources up or down depending on the need.
Backup and disaster recovery
When something goes wrong, businesses need to be confident that their company data will be safe. The platform can recover data 66% faster (on average) than on-premise solutions.
Azure also has a Site Recovery service that offers even greater peace of mind. This feature enables organisations to recover data at a secondary site or directly into the cloud. In addition, Azure’s data back-up services offer 99 years of retention and single-click backup support.
Access, security, and compliance
Security is one of the key considerations when using a cloud computing platform. One of the Microsoft Azure benefits for businesses is that it comprises elevated levels of security for all data stored in the cloud. Users can access their data via two-tier authentication, proxy card access readers, and other complex security measures.
Microsoft Azure also reduces the risk of hacking for businesses, with Azure Active Directory and Identity and Access Management solutions working to prevent these attacks. If your business is in a highly regulated sector such as legal or finance, Azure ensures your data and the access to it is compliant.
Nasstar used Azure to build our OneConsultation virtual consultation service with security and compliance front of mind. It has supported several businesses including Cumbria Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation.
Being able to rapidly adapt to changing market conditions, customer demands, and business needs is vital for success. Microsoft Azure enables businesses to deploy apps quickly and easily.
Users can also benefit from hybrid deployments, with existing in-house IT resources able to simultaneously work with Azure’s cloud solutions. This level of flexibility is the key to ensuring your business remains competitive in the modern workplace.
Azure’s quick deployment enabled us to offer our Azure-built OneConsultation service to NHS Trusts and Foundation Trusts at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and put it live within 72 hours.
Proven best practices for Azure implementation
Whether you’re working with a cloud provider like Nasstar or going solo, there are several Azure best practices that you should adhere to. Taking note of these Azure implementation tips will ensure that you get the most out of your investment, while enabling you to build reliable, scalable, and secure applications in the cloud.
When getting started with Azure, we recommend you review some of the Microsoft frameworks related to cloud adoption. These frameworks offer insight and information that will help with your cloud adoption journey, outlining governance and best practices through different ‘pillars.’
The first framework we recommend looking at is Microsoft Cloud Adoption Framework for Azure. This best practice guide is for those looking to adopt Azure. It can help you define the baselines and governance to wrap around your cloud journey, from adoption strategy and business cases to implementation and resource naming.
Secondly, the Microsoft Azure Well-Architected Framework can help you define the core components you need to ensure your Azure cloud setup follows and aligns to best practices through the defined principles.
On implementation, Dan Rios said: "Moving with the right strategy is crucial for an efficient, secure and cost-effective cloud foundation to build from, of which Microsoft’s Cloud Adoption Framework is key to a successful Azure journey."
Common challenges with Azure implementation
Even if you follow all the best practices and frameworks when implementing Microsoft Azure, challenges will occur. However, being prepared for them is key to mitigating them. Some familiar challenges with Azure setup include:
Differences between cloud and on-premise
When moving to Azure, you’ll have a completely new interface to get used to. With this, there is a chance that you won’t fully understand the differences between apps hosted in the cloud and local deployments. The Azure cloud has special and distinct features in comparison to on-premise solutions. While this might be inconvenient, ensuring you’re up to speed on Azure’s unique features can help clear up the differences.
When hosting applications in Microsoft Azure, it’s imperative that you have a reliable disaster recovery plan in place. Think about the types of disasters that are specific to cloud hosting and plan for these accordingly. You can even use Azure as a backup solution for local storage, helping you mitigate any potential losses.
When migrating to the cloud, downtime is always a possibility. Planning for downtime can help you minimise the impact, so be sure you have considered potential downtime when putting together your cloud strategy.
While the scalability of Microsoft Azure is a major benefit when it comes to cost saving, this pricing model can also make it difficult to predict exactly how much the process of moving to the cloud will cost and how it will affect your bottom line. When planning your migration, be sure to choose a migration strategy that best suits your business needs. You could also work with a partner like Nasstar who can help you establish the best route for your unique requirements and budget.
Future trends in Microsoft Azure
Microsoft Azure is continually making improvements and developing its technology to redefine the cloud technology landscape. From Azure Arc enabling more flexible hybrid management to Azure Quantum influencing mainstream computing, there’s a lot to be excited about in terms of Azure future trends.
AI and Machine Learning
Microsoft Azure plays host to a selection of AI and Machine Learning (ML) services that help businesses resolve challenges and make informed decisions. From computer vision and speech recognition to natural language processing and other capabilities, Azure makes it easier than ever for developers to build apps using pre-built APIs and SDKs.
Another product launched in 2023 to be excited about is Microsoft 365 Copilot. This tool utilises AI technology to provide personalised user support in a range of business activities, from creating documents and summarising emails to crafting presentations and understanding data.
Internet of Things (IoT) technology from Azure helps businesses to link, control, and watch over their IoT devices through Azure IoT. This fully managed Software as a Services (SaaS) platform makes it easier to create and maintain IoT applications for various IT use cases using both pre-built templates and workflows. We expect this technology to continue developing and improving to support businesses in handling and analyse data IoT data.
Another trend we foresee in 2024 and beyond is Zero Trust. This high-level security strategy is already widely used, presuming anyone accessing company resources cannot automatically be trusted and will need to be verified each time access is requested.
Microsoft is developing a new product called ‘Microsoft Entra Private Access’ which allows secure access to applications both in the cloud and on-premise. We think this will extend further into more Microsoft and Azure products, allowing seamless and secure access through Zero Trust Network Access.
Nasstar’s Microsoft Azure solutions
Whether you’re still considering public cloud providers or you’ve made the decision to migrate to Microsoft Azure, Nasstar can support your journey in a myriad of ways. From initial strategy and adoption to specialised projects and implementation, our talented and experienced teams can help you every step of the way.
We also have a wealth of experience in the Azure space, holding several Azure accreditations including the virtual desktop specialisation and the digital and app innovation designation to give you confidence that you’ve chosen the right partner.