Tech

Azure focuses on feature abundance and integrations to become the all-inclusive cloud experience

Microsoft Azure has been showing faster growth than any other cloud provider over the last few years, and its vast ecosystem of partnerships and integrations continually make it an appealing platform for existing and prospective customers. 

The platform currently stands as the second largest cloud offering in the world with 21% market share, following AWS’s 39% as of Q3 2021, according to Statista. It has a faster growth rate than it’s larger competitor at 59% for Azure and 32% for AWS. 

It offers many features in the data and analytics space, ranging from Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) solutions for data and big data management and analytics, to multiple AI and machine learning offerings, to specialized Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions such as Azure Purview,which is a unified data governance solution that helps users manage and govern their on-premises, multi-cloud, and SaaS data. 

However, from a PaaS perspective of the cloud, Microsoft Azure is the leader.

“So from a whole cloud point of view, from just moving compute and workloads, Amazon is still the market share leader. But when we look at this from (the standpoint of) developing and running applications, Microsoft is the leader with a little bit more than 25% of market share, followed by AWS at 15%,” said Lara Greden, research director for IDC’s Platform as a Service (PaaS) practice. 

Azure’s expansion is a combination of both people who are already customers as well as more small and medium-sized businesses that are poised to become larger, especially those that are poised to utilize Kubernetes and cloud-native architectures. 

“I think Microsoft Azure really has the kind of leadership to tell people to come here to create the new applications to be a digital-first,” Greden said. 

The cloud in general has reached an inflection point as 75% of companies already have some combination of rehost, replatform, and refactor into the cloud, said Sambit Ghosh, senior vice president of the Microsoft practice at Datavail. Two-thirds of those are most likely lift-and-shift. 

“At this point Azure has definitely been creating and enhancing their cloud-native services in a more accelerated fashion in the last several years,” Ghosh said. 

Ghosh noticed that many customers are running applications in Oracle and are looking to move that into Azure Cloud. 

Now, Azure has opened up support for Linux and open-source technology to meet that need. Azure now offers full support for common Linux distributions, including Red Hat, SUSE, Ubuntu, CentOS, Debian, Oracle Linux and CoreOS. The endorsed Linux distributions are created and published by Linux partners for use in Azure environments. 

Platform experience important

In addition to pushing cloud-native, Microsoft Azure offers a plethora of features and integrations to entice people into their platform and to advance the way that people can meet their business goals more efficiently if they’re on the platform already. 

Part of this comes from meeting developers where they already are, whether they’re collaborating on Microsoft Teams – which doubled in usage from April 2020 to 2021 and now has 145 million worldwide users, according to Statista – or by building on the skill sets that many developers already have. 

“Microsoft has the leadership ability there, because so many developers have skills in .NET. And then the integrations can be created in .NET with their integration suite. Now, you don’t just have to have a central team doing it,” IDC’s Greden said. “Integrations with legacy systems continue to be the key enabler in today’s economy and for the foreseeable future.” 

Microsoft is helping companies with integrations by dispersing that key scaling capability among all of their developers, rather than having integrations managed by a central integration team.

“They’re providing that flexibility to customers to meet them in their journey, which I think is definitely a smart move in driving adoption onto the cloud, rather than switching platforms,” Datavail’s Ghosh said. 

Azure includes features like Azure Cosmos DB, which integrates with Azure services and allows users to choose from multiple database APIs including MongoDB, Cassandra API, and many others. 

It also offers plugins for companies that want to run Red Hat or JBoss Enterprise or some other Java apps through the Azure Marketplace.

More people can get their hands on integrations because Azure helps citizen developers utilize integrations through its Power Apps, Microsoft’s low-code offering. 

Microsoft recognized the importance an elastic cost model has in alleviating one of the major concerns of moving the cloud: cost. Power Apps are now available in a pay-as-you go model as of Microsoft’s announcement at its Ignite event in November 2021. 

“[The pay-as-you-go model] basically allows you to take more risks and create more apps, because you’re going to pay the right amount,” Greden said. “Let’s say you have 1,000 users use it once a month; you’re not going to pay the same as somebody who’s having 1,000 users using it every day.”

Microsoft added many new capabilities to Power Apps such as built-in commenting where users can write and share Office-like comments directly inside the authoring canvases of Power Apps, Power Virtual Agents, and Power Automate.

Data insights can now be used to discover inefficiencies in workflows and business processes with Process Advisor in Microsoft Power Automate.

AI a heavy emphasis

Azure is putting a heavy emphasis on strengthening its low-code capabilities through AI and its ownership of GitHub, according to Greden. 

“[Azure] is able to take all the data in GitHub and feed that through AI models to be able to do AI pair programming and we’re just at the cusp of what that will enable companies to do,” Greden said. “This is key to Microsoft’s strategy because it enables more people to develop with better quality because quality is still a really big issue when it comes to applications.” 

All of the main AI capabilities that companies seek out have now been bundled into one kind of offering: Azure Applied AI Service,  announced at Microsoft’s 2021 Build event. The service includes Azure Cognitive Search, Azure Form Recognizer, and Azure Immersive Reader, in addition to newer offerings like Azure Bot Service, Azure Metrics Advisor, and Azure Video Analyzer. Azure Bot Service makes it easier to build, test, and publish text-, speech-, or telephony-based bots through an integrated development experience. Azure Metrics Advisor, now generally available, automatically detects and diagnoses issues to minimize downtime.

“There are a lot of custom applications out there. We see companies running certain (electronic medical records systems) like hospital systems running more specific custom .NET applications that they have written. A lot of colleges have a lot of custom (learning management systems) applications that are running. Banking also has a lot of customization. So within that, AI has been something that companies are more and more interested in,” said Errin O’Connor, founder and chief architect for EPC Group and the author of four Microsoft Press books covering Power BI, SharePoint, Office 365 and Azure.

Embracing data 

O’Connor said that the number one request he is seeing from Azure customers is that they want to move their existing on-premise SQL servers to Azure and then create a data warehouse. 

“Some of the services they’re rolling out around Synapse and Purview are around data governance; that’s all driving and analytics modernization into Azure,” Datavail’s Ghosh said. 

Azure Synapse Analytics was launched in 2019 as a service that brings together data integration, enterprise data warehousing, and big data analytics. Users can query data on their own terms with either serverless or dedicated options at scale. 

The service provides a unified experience to ingest, explore, prepare, transform, manage, and serve data for immediate BI and machine learning needs.

“It’s a little strange because you have Power BI and then you have Azure Analytics. But Analytics is more for Big Data,” EPC Group’s O’Connor said. 

This way, users can easily create a holistic, up-to-date map of their data landscape with automated data discovery, sensitive data classification, and end-to-end data lineage and enable data consumers to find valuable, trustworthy data, according to Microsoft in a post.

“We’re seeing a drive for modernizing applications being motivated by companies wanting to leverage data more and more to convert the data into information that they can then leverage to make intelligent decisions,” Datavail’s Ghosh said. “But in order to do that, you need to first start automating some of your processes and taking the data from your business and bringing it into a common data store.”

Hybrid cloud models

Azure is expanding its customizability by embracing hybrid cloud models, and the platform offers ways to accomplish hybrid data integration.   

“I think Microsoft has done a good job of making that key and central to their strategy. Like they recognize that hybrid cloud will include other clouds and it will include people’s own data centers,” IDC’s Greden said. “I think AWS is probably still a little heavy on the single cloud sort of point of view, but the rise of Kubernetes is definitely lending itself to that multiple cloud or data center type of operation.”

For hybrid data integration, Azure includes Azure Data Factory, which enables users to build, manage and run ETL and ELT processes at any scale using code-free interactive user interfaces. This allows for many capabilities to be automated since they are exposed through APIs. 

“They’re releasing Azure Kubernetes Service and other container instances on top of their hybrid offerings, which allows you to bring your applications into Azure Cloud but you’re not locked into Azure Cloud,” Datavail’s Ghosh said. 

Going down the path of a hybrid model and containerization, Microsoft announced the public preview of Azure Container Apps at Ignite 2021. It functions as a managed serverless container service for developers who want to run microservices in containers without managing infrastructure. 

The service offers full support for Distributed Application Runtime (Dapr) and scales dynamically based on HTTP traffic or events powered by Kubernetes Event-Driven Autoscaling (KEDA). 

Security, governance are challenges for some moving to Azure

When it comes to Azure’s security and governance models, some people are still wary of joining Azure for these reasons, according to Errin O’Connor, founder and chief architect for EPC Group and the author of four Microsoft Press books covering Power BI, SharePoint, Office 365 and Azure.

“When COVID kicked in, people were moving to the cloud like crazy and a lot of people didn’t do it right. So their governance and security model is terrible,” O’Connor said. “There’s just a lack of Azure governance. And there’s typically one or two or five people that know what the hell they’re doing in the company with Azure. And they’re typically so busy that they don’t have time to do much of anything except the task that’s at hand,” O’Connor said. “They’re doing all these great things, but are they really thinking of the 12 or 24 month roadmap?”

At first, it’s most important to align the business needs and then to work around that in building out which Azure features to take on, according to O’Connor. 

“It’s like you have the Honda, the Porsche, and you have the Lamborghini options with Azure. In a lot of cases the Honda’s gonna work just fine. But then you have some CIOs or CFOs that are going to want the Lamborghini option. And so how do you match those together so that regardless of what option they take, it’s still going to flow together and also work via the security model,” O’Connor said. “There are all these event grid services, there’s web functions, functions, API, app logic…you can name all these different features, but I think they really need to dumb down what their services are and make it so that a person that’s been in it for 15 years might know what’s going on.”

When thinking of moving to the cloud, it’s important to first look at one’s existing tech stack and personal skill sets and make the choice around that, according to Datavail’s Ghosh. Other important considerations when moving to Azure would be to do a careful discovery roadmap and planning of the cloud journey and to look at the cost profile. 

“If you’re looking to move to Azure and you do the cloud strategy, the cloud planning, careful thought process and looking at what’s the right thing, what is the right provider for your company, I think the cloud journey itself can be much, much less challenging,” Ghosh said. 

How these two companies rated their Azure journey

Incorporation Insight

The main Azure feature that helped Incorporation Insight, a company that helps customers incorporate businesses, to find success is Azure Stack’s ability to store sensitive data and automatically optimize and process it with Azure Cloud, according to Michael Knight, the company’s co-founder. 

“We opted for Microsoft Azure particularly for its generous features that will enable us to address anticipated data distribution complexities due to the ever changing digital usage of consumers,” Knight said. “Being able to host DevOps public or private cloud interfaces also gives us greater flexibility as a scaling business.”

Knight also said that his company chose Azure because of its budget-friendly subscription model that charges based on consumption and helps save money on IT. Other top features that he found included Azure’s cybersecurity guarantees and multiple compliance provisions.

CTDev 

CTDev, a company that builds custom solutions of various complexity levels in the reinsurance business domain, found that using the Azure DevOps service as a CI/CD managed service provides frees up a lot of value and free-up operation people from managing worker nodes that use nontraditional continuous integration tools like Jenkins.

Viachaslau Matsukevich, a solutions architect at CTDev, said that one can use Azure DevOps as a version control system for storing infrastructure as a code repository. Release management is also greatly implemented here so you can easily track which particular commit was deployed to the end system. Azure DevOps also has great integration with other Azure services.

“Another feature that makes Azure stand out for me is resource groups. It is especially good for (proof of concept) or lab environments where you can clean up everything with a single click and don’t have to worry about some resource leftovers that will cost you money in the future,” Matsukevich  said. “The biggest reason for companies to switch to Azure is their partnership with Microsoft. Also, Microsoft offers great discounts if you already have licenses purchased for MS products like Office or Windows.”

New Azure features

Azure Synapse Analytics service (December 2020)

Azure Synapse Analytics brings together data integration, enterprise data warehousing, and big data analytics. It enables users to query data using either serverless or dedicated options at scale.

Azure Applied AI Service (May 2021)

The service brings together Azure Cognitive Services, task-specific AI, and business logic to offer users AI services for common business processes. The Azure Applied AI Services are Azure Video Analyzer, Azure Metrics Advisor, Azure Bot Service, Azure Cognitive Search, Azure Form Recognizer and Azure Immersive Reader. 

Azure support for Linux (August 2021)

Azure now supports common Linux distributions and enables users to create their own Linux VMs, deploy and run containers in Kubernetes, or choose from hundreds of pre-configured images and Linux workloads available in Azure Marketplace. 

Azure Purview (September 2021)

This enables users to maximize the value of their on-premises, multicloud, and SaaS data with this unified data governance solution. Users can create a unified map of your data assets and their relationships with automated data discovery and sensitive data classification and get insights. 

Partial document update in Azure Cosmos DB (November 2021)

Azure Cosmos DB Partial Document Update feature (also known as Patch API) provides a convenient way to modify a document in a container. This provides an API for developers, performance improvements, and multi-region writes. 

Azure Container Apps preview (November 2021)

A serverless container service built for microservice applications and autoscaling capabilities without the overhead of managing complex infrastructure. Users can run containers and scale in response to HTTP traffic or a growing list of KEDA-supported scale triggers including Azure Event Hub, Apache Kafka, RabbitMQ Queue, MongoDB, MySQL, and PostgreSQL. 

Ultra disks support on AKS (January 2022)

Azure ultra disks offer high throughput, high IOPS, and consistent low latency disk storage for stateful applications.  Ultra disks are suited for data-intensive workloads.

Azure IoT Edge tools for Visual Studio extension now supports Visual Studio 2022 (January 2022)

Developers can now code, build, deploy, simulate and debug their IoT Edge solutions in Visual Studio 2022. This includes a new Azure IoT Edge project targeting different platforms, a new  IoT Edge module and support of of .NET 6 for the C# module. 

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