Reach for the sky
by Simon Bisson
Simon Bisson finds out what you stand to gain by moving your IT infrastructure out to Microsoft Azure.
HardCopy Issue: 64 | Published: October 30, 2014
If there’s one thing to be said for cloud services, it’s that they allow small and medium-sized businesses to punch above their weight. Cloud-hosted services and infrastructure change the economics of IT, taking advantage of the massive scale of cloud services to offer enterprise-level features far cheaper than it would be possible to implement in-house.
You only have to look at some recent announcements from cloud providers to see just how much the game is changing: Microsoft and DropBox both offer a terabyte of storage per user for their enterprise customers, while Box is making storage effectively free. Throwing another datacentre of storage at a service is cost-effective for the big cloud service providers, and their purchasing power dwarfs that of most other businesses.
It’s not just storage that changes the game; it’s the whole Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) model, tied to the growing importance of cloud platforms. The assumptions that we made about infrastructure just a couple of years ago have changed as the rapid release cycles of cloud providers push more and more services and technologies out the door every day.
From platform to infrastructure
Azure began as a pure Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) cloud development solution, similar to Google’s AppEngine. As with AppEngine, the underlying cloud compute platform of Azure PaaS worked very differently from traditional servers and PCs which meant that developers had to completely rebuild applications and services. That wasn’t as much of an issue for developers building new apps, but it was a show-stopper for anyone wanting to move from datacentres to the cloud, and for those wanting to take advantage of cloud compute platforms to add extra power to their apps.
Amazon Web Services took a different approach, offering developers the ability to run existing virtual machine images (both Windows and Linux) on its cloud infrastructure, or to pick from a library of preconfigured virtual machine (VM) images. That let developers build apps locally and quickly deploy them to the cloud, with no need for complex development tools to emulate cloud services on local PCs.
As part of a series of planned upgrades, Azure moved from its own custom hypervisor to the same Hyper-V hypervisor used by Windows Server 2012, allowing it to deliver its own IaaS offering. This initially offered a small set of pre-defined Windows VMs, before opening up to a wider selection of Windows and Linux VMs, as well as supported applications, not only from Microsoft but from third parties such as Oracle.
Azure’s IaaS features have expanded to include tools for backing up local servers, for linking local and cloud resources securely, and for storing SQL databases and files. There’s now also a direct link between Azure’s storage tools, its hosted VMs, and Microsoft’s StorSimple storage appliances. It’s even possible to use Azure as a disaster recovery site, ready to take over from on-premise servers in the event of outage. Azure VMs can work with Azure’s platform services, so you can use them with its web servers, its Hadoop big data tools, and its cloud-hosted Active Directory.
One key feature of Azure is that once you’ve signed up, there’s just one web portal where you can deploy and control services, as well as managing and deploying your virtual machine images and the VPN connections between Azure regions and your datacentres.
The heart of Azure’s IaaS is its support for Hyper-V virtual machines. You can upload your own VMs or choose from a library of preconfigured Windows and Linux virtual machines – including VMs that come ready to run key applications. Uploads are currently limited to Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V VHD images as the new VHDx format isn’t supported by Azure.
Using library images means you can be up and running within minutes – no waiting for weeks to receive and configure new servers, and no waiting to install and configure applications. If you’ve got the rights to use an operating system and an application, then you can use the appropriate Azure VM –and if you’ve got an MSDN subscription, you get access to an additional selection of development and pre-release images (although these are for development use only).
VMs in Azure communicate using VPN, allowing you to quickly build virtual infrastructures around software-defined switches so you can separate operational and management networks, and secure connections to private resources. That’s important if you’re designing a scalable infrastructure where quick replication of VMs is required as it lets Azure manage your IP addresses, simplifying the process of adding databases, storage, and web servers to an application in response to user demand.
Recent upgrades to Azure have meant that you can now use Azure storage as virtual disks, allowing data to be shared between VMs and quickly replicated across the Azure infrastructure. Separating storage from VMs also makes it possible to generate working copies of live data for developers, which helps ensure that test and development environments closely replicate live services.
However the real value comes from no longer having to manage your own Exchange or SharePoint servers, or build and run a Lync infrastructure. You can move skilled staff from basic management to developing new apps and services without risking critical infrastructure.
Azure’s VM IaaS offering is a powerful tool for managing a migration to the cloud. VPN connections from cloud-hosted servers allow you to keep your data local while migrating processing to the cloud. As servers retire, data can be moved to cloud storage, and server images delivered to Azure, ready to be part of a cloud infrastructure. Microsoft’s decision to use Hyper-V in its cloud platform means you can use your existing management tooling in your datacentre and in the cloud, as well as taking advantage of free physical to virtual migration tooling to move from a physical datacentre to private cloud to hybrid and beyond.
With support for most of its own server workloads, and increasing support for third party applications, Microsoft is making it relatively easy to move from on-premises to cloud operations, particularly as you can transfer licences from your own systems to Azure-hosted VMs.
Microsoft regularly adds new capabilities to its VMs, and its Azure management agent means it’s possible to inject management and security tools into a VM at first run. That means you can use open source technologies like Puppet and Chef to manage your VMs, and have them running encryption and antivirus tools, all ready to go as soon as the VM launches for the first time. A recent set of updates, Azure Remote App, uses Windows Server 2012’s Remote App features to deliver app UIs to desktop and mobile remote desktop clients, letting you run your apps in the cloud while your users access them on tablets and phones. There are clients available for Android and iOS, as well as for Windows and Windows Phone.
Remote App isn’t a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure: it’s a more flexible approach that works alongside BYOD policies to give users the applications they need on the devices they have. You don’t need to worry whether a client device can run Visio, all you need is the network connection to your Azure instance. Using RemoteApp simplifies the support of your BYOD users: as long as there’s a supported version of Microsoft’s Remote Desktop app for their device, you’ll be able to deliver a user experience to them.
Azure for backup
Perhaps the simplest Azure IaaS feature comes bundled with Microsoft’s Windows Server 2012 family of server operating systems. Instead of using tape or external hard drives for server backup, you can use Azure’s cloud storage to host server backups. The tools Azure offers are identical to the familiar Windows Server backup tools, so there’s nothing new to learn.
Visual Studio Online
Microsoft’s Team Foundation Server added project management and control tools to Visual Studio. Visual Studio Online takes those same tools and turns them into a cloud service, with cloud-hosted source control. It supports requirement tracking, and the management of user work items, while offering access to features that can help with Agile development processes. There’s also the option of offloading the build process from your servers to the cloud, with automated testing.
You don’t even need to be using the Visual Studio IDE to use Visual Studio Online, as its cloud source control uses the popular Git version control system. Teams can be widely distributed, helping manage outsourced work, as well as managing cross-platform and open source development.
Azure Backup uses incremental backups to keep bandwidth usage to a minimum, though you should be aware that your first backup can take time, and use a significant percentage of your available bandwidth while doing so. It’s a one-off, though, and if you plan appropriately, and use both Azure and local backup in parallel, then it won’t have a significant impact on your network and server operations.
While it does mean you’re paying for Azure storage for your backups, they are encrypted and compressed, with encryption keys kept on your network and controlled by your IT department. Reliability of Azure backups is better than traditional backups as, like all Azure storage, they’re replicated in three different Azure datacentres, reducing the risk of data loss. As with all backup solutions, it’s important to test restoring individual files and whole disks from Azure regularly – especially the time needed to download files over the public internet.
Azure for business continuity
Some key Azure IaaS features do require a significant commitment to Microsoft’s on-premises infrastructure tools. If you’re using System Center Virtual Machine Manager you can use Azure’s new Site Recovery feature to work with your on-premises VM clouds. Site Recovery keeps copies of your VMs, along with regular snapshots, on Azure. While earlier versions of the service just kept a disaster recovery site in sync with a master datacentre, the latest release offers the option of using Azure as the host for a recovery site.
In the event of a site failure, Site Recovery puts into action a defined recovery plan, bringing up servers and services in order to keep your business running. By using Azure as a host for recovery you’re only paying for the Site Recovery service and your copied data, and not the stored images – until you need them. While setting up Site Recovery can be complex, it’s a powerful tool that can save your business. However you should test your recovery plans regularly, as you don’t want anything to go wrong just when you need it the most!
Azure for storage extension
Microsoft’s StorSimple acquisition was interesting in that it focused on delivering appliances that let organisations extend their storage into the cloud. StorSimple’s storage appliances take a familiar tiered approach to network storage, keeping regularly accessed files locally with cloud storage used to store files that don’t need rapid access. There’s a considerable space saving as a result: a single storage appliance can offer up to 500TB of storage, with deduplication and compression, while only taking up two or four rack units, rather than several racks.
Balfour Beatty Rail
Balfour Beatty Rail delivers mission critical software solutions to both Network Rail and the wider rail industry. As part of a strategy to make its services more responsive and accessible, it needed to embrace web technologies. It began by identifying one of its services, which was actually sending DVDs by post in order to distribute large rail infrastructure datasets, as a proof of concept and a demonstration of what would be needed.
The team considered providing this service using a traditional in-house hosting solution, but this proved inherently risky. After investigating alternatives, the team chose Azure to reduce risk and to experiment with agile development models. Azure allowed the company to scale, while avoiding commitment to hardware that might not be able to handle future demand. The result was a solution that could be implemented quickly, which convinced the team to use Azure for other projects.
The Balfour Beatty Rail team found Azure to be highly cost effective when compared to traditional provisioning. There are other benefits too, in that the team no longer has to worry about any of the myriad of issues that go with self-hosting, and can instead concentrate on delivering great customer-focused applications.
That’s because there’s only 15TB of local storage: the rest of your data is in the cloud. By using Azure as the final tier for your files, StorSimple also improves reliability as, like all Azure storage, files are replicated in three datacentres. At the same time, it gives you the opportunity to access those files from cloud servers. The latest StorSimple appliances now offer a virtual appliance running on Azure that can be used by VMs you’re running on Azure, making it easier to migrate files from datacentre to cloud, or to use your cloud-stored data as part of a disaster recovery plan.
It’s easy enough to set up with some basic command line configuration and, once in place, a StorSimple appliance looks like any iSCSI storage device. You can handle further configuration from the Azure portal and from your servers.
Azure for web
One of Azure’s more important IaaS components is its high-density web server offering. Built on top of Internet Information Server (IIS), it’s a way of quickly getting websites and web apps up and running. There’s no need to configure the underlying VM: all you need do is choose the target development environment, which can include popular open source technologies like PHP and node.js. Pricing varies from free servers that use the default azurewebsites.net domain with limited data transfers, to plans that offer dedicated compute instances with up to 50GB of storage and unlimited websites.
Getting started is easy. You can use a free trial, or start at the low bandwidth free tier before using Azure Websites with a custom domain name. As Azure’s web servers can be part of a cloud infrastructure you can use them alongside virtual machines, and Azure’s various infrastructure services.
If you want to try out Azure Websites on your own infrastructure, Microsoft’s Azure Pack lets you run the same web servers on your own Windows Servers. It’s a free download, and gives you a version of the Azure portal as well as key Azure developer technologies, making it easier to build apps locally and then run them from the Azure service.
While you can use the Azure portal to manage Azure websites, Microsoft provides a set of free tools in its Web Platform Installer that allow users to quickly build and deploy websites and applications, including open source tools such as WordPress and Drupal. The ability to quickly deploy familiar open source tools to Azure makes it easy to try out applications and services, including company blogs and content management tools.
Azure’s tools and services are designed to take advantage of the scale of the cloud, and of the immense buying power that scale brings. It makes sense to use it for storage and backup, and to add scale to your business without having to invest in new infrastructure. SME IT budgets remain constrained, and shifting from capital expenditure to operational expenditure can be beneficial. If you’re going to compete with larger businesses, then you’re going to need the edge that cloud infrastructure can give you.