The adoption of Cloud Computing has exploded in recent years, and it’s easy to understand why. The days when businesses would purchase physical hardware and task infrastructure teams with building servers aren’t quite gone yet, but platforms like Microsoft Azure are making it easier than ever to provision servers and computing services with just a few mouse clicks.
In this blog post we:
• Introduce cloud computing concepts and explain their meaning
• Introduce Microsoft Azure
• Explore some of Microsoft Azures features
• See how Microsoft Azure can benefit your business
Microsoft Azure is a cloud computing platform that provides SaaS (Software as a Service), PaaS (Platform as a Service), IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service), and supports numerous programming languages and tools.
Before we dive into the rest of this blog post, it’s worth explaining what Cloud Computing SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS mean:
Cloud computing is the practice of running software applications, services, and hardware on the internet. It saves businesses and users from having to install, configure, and maintain these on their network, servers or local PCs.
Software as a Service are cloud software applications, that is, software applications that live on the internet that you access from your web browser. It doesn’t matter if you’re running them on a Mac, PC, Smartphone or tablet. One of the benefits of a SaaS product is they can run on multiple devices (and quite often for a nominal subscription fee – or sometimes free).
Platform as a Service, in its simplest term, is a cloud-based environment that’s designed to support the build, running, and management of applications. One of the key benefits of introducing PaaS to your business is that it can often shield you from lower level infrastructure components. PaaS environments can often be maintained from your web browser with Microsoft Azure as just one example.
Historically, a business might have servers hosted onsite in their IT server room or collocated with a hosting provider. While this is still a viable practice, it’s not without its challenges. For example, support and infrastructure teams typically must manually provision hardware to provide businesses with the infrastructure they need.
Or imagine you run a popular website that has cyclical spikes in internet traffic throughout the month or year and predicting these spikes in traffic can be difficult.
You could ensure your server has as much RAM or CPUs as possible, but that wouldn’t be economical during periods where internet traffic is low, not to mention, multiple CPUs can add more costs with software licensing.
Infrastructure as a Service or IaaS helps your business make challenges like this much simpler to deal with. Microsoft Azure lets your business scale “on-demand” as your needs adapt. One of the best features of the platform is that you can manage it from your web browser!
Offering over 600 services in the platform, Microsoft Azure has you covered. From the Azure dashboard, you can provision database servers, web services, artificial intelligence services, and much more.
Microsoft Azure features an easy to use Portal that acts as your command console. From the Portal, you can create and administer servers, computing services, and monitor your existing cloud infrastructure as well as integrate with Visual Studio Online to help your business introduce DevOps practices (Development and Operations) to the workflow, which brings us to software development.
If you’re a software developer, the platform also supports many programming languages which include but are not limited to:
Azure Redis Cache
Based on the popular open source product Redis Cache, Azure Redis Cache gives you access to a dedicated Redis cache that is not only secure but managed by Microsoft. Any cache you create using Azure Redis Cache is automatically available in any application within Azure.
As your application load increases, Azure Redis Cache helps make your application more responsive and reduces latency.
Azure Data Factory
If you regularly work with cloud and on-premise data or need to undertake the transformation of both unstructured and structured data, this can be a headache. Fortunately, Azure can help you handle this with the Azure Data Factory.
The Azure Data Factory lets you process on-premise data such as SQL Server together with cloud data like Azure SQL Databases and Blobs (binary large objects). These datasets can be massaged and manipulated during processing to get the data model just how you like it.
For example, you might want to process a large volume of tweets from Twitter alongside data from your CRM. You can do all the transformative analytics while the Azure Data Factory handles all of the plumbing that’s often associated with such tasks.
Search is an essential component for many web applications; Google’s primary business was initially search. You can find Search functionality in e-commerce sites such as Amazon to consumer services like Netflix.
As web development technology has advanced over the years, users have become accustomed to features that make search more intelligent such as automatic suggestions as the user types. Microsoft Azure Search is a service that allows you to embed rich search functionality into your applications and provides a search engine “in a box” for you. You can access and manage the API using REST endpoints.
Some of the key features of this service include, but are not limited to:
- Faceting: Compute hit counts by category as seen in most e-commerce websites.
- Suggestions: Building block for implementing auto-complete, helping guide users to a successful search before they hit enter.
- Rich structured queries: Combine search with structured filters, sorting, paging, and projection to introduce application-defined restrictions and presentation options.
- Hit highlighting: Helps when searching through lots of text, such as in forums or when documents have long descriptions.
Azure Machine Learning
Machine learning often involves leveraging historical datasets to help models or predict future outcomes. From search engines, online recommendations to real-time digital advertising, email spam detection, and complex machine learning algorithms are behind these services.
Machine learning algorithms were traditionally reserved for computer scientists, statisticians, and analysts. But with the advent of platforms like Azure, this is changing. Azure Machine Learning is a cloud-based, fully managed service that provides you with the power of predictive analytics but without the Ph.D. requirement, thereby making machine learning more accessible to a broad community.
Cognitive Services API and Artificial Intelligence
The use of artificial intelligence or “cognitive computing” has exploded in recent years. Microsoft has commoditized and democratized algorithms into easy-to-use APIs that can be configured and published from the Azure Dashboard.
Services such as LUIS, the Language Understanding Intelligence Service allow you to build solutions that can understand human language.
The Cognitive Services APIs that ship with Azure also include artificial intelligence that lets you process vision, sound, and speech so you can develop intelligent and innovative solutions.
If you need to process data at scale and find actionable insights, part of the Cognitive Services API features a set of text/analytics algorithms that include functionality that allows you apply sentiment analysis and key/phrase extraction to data at scale. APIs like this can be exposed as REST endpoints and are easily consumable by developers.
Advancements in artificial intelligence have been growing at a rapid pace in recent years. With Azure, you can build chatbots using Azure Bot Services. Integration with Microsoft Visual Studio is seamless and helps give developers a richer coding experience.
Chatbots built and hosted in Azure can be accessed in many channels that include, but are not limited to websites, Skype, Slack, Facebook and much more!
The Bot Framework is a developer platform that can build model complex conversations allowing developers to build intelligent chatbots that can also leverage Microsoft Cognitive Services APIs. These can easily be published to Azure and hosted there.
Azure even features a web dashboard where developers can test out their newly published chatbot online before releasing it!
How Azure can benefit your business
We touched on some basic benefits at the start, but it’s worth exploring them further as the Azure ecosystem is rich in functionality of how it can benefit your business directly.
First, you want to consider cost. Microsoft will let you try out the service for free so you can decide if you wish to adopt the platform. After your free trial account has expired, you can choose a PAYG (pay as you go) plan or opt-in to an enterprise agreement. The free plan is a good place to start to get a feel for the interface and features that ship with Azure.
You can also keep an eye on the cost from your dashboard and experiment with the online calculators to predict how much adding new CPUs, RAM, databases, instances, and so on would cost per month
Visual Studio and Continuous Integration
If you run a software development team or business, as you’d expect, Azure integrates nicely with Microsoft Visual Studio. Adopting Continuous Integration to your software process can help you build and ship more quickly which can boost profits.
With Azure, you can quickly setup Build Servers that integrate with Visual Studio and create processes that automatically initiate a build, test, and release of your application when developers check-in code!
With Visual Studio and Azure, you can easily add or remove build artifacts that compliment your unique software delivery processes.
Scale on demand
Business requirements can change quickly, and so you need a platform that makes it easy to adapt to your business needs as they evolve.
Receiving alerts that your database server is running out of disk space? Or how about an increased spike on your corporate intranet due to a recent business acquisition?
With just a few mouse clicks, you can have server setup in minutes with the configuration of your choice. Azure also ships with predefined server templates to help get you started. Your server can be accessed just like a traditional server by supplying its IP address and credentials in a Remote Desktop connection session.
The IT landscape is continually shifting and to help your business keep abreast of technological developments you need a platform that makes adapting easy. Microsoft Azure lets you do this from a centralized dashboard with the click of a mouse.
With Azure, you can provision various Windows or Linux instances which gives your business real flexibility regarding the applications it can run and support.
IoT (Internet of Things)
The IoT industry is growing exponentially. Mobile devices and watches all connect to and exchange data with the cloud. Azure ships with support for the IoT and includes features that allow you to build and deploy predictive analytics solutions as well as process data in real-time from millions of IoT devices.
No Server Maintenance
One of the most significant advantages you gain by migrating your infrastructure to a cloud provider such as Microsoft Azure is that you effectively outsource all hardware and platform maintenance to Microsoft. It frees you up to focus on solving real business problems. In the rare event that you need to debug or examine log files, you can do it all from the Microsoft Azure Dashboard.
In this blog post, we’ve introduced cloud computing and Microsoft Azure, explored some of Azure’s features, how to use them, and how the platform can add real value to your business. Why not create a free account and have a play with the dashboard?
If you’re interested in Microsoft Azure and want to learn more about the additional features and services the platform provides, you can contact us.