Amazon Web Services is an amazing constellation of products, but it’s far from the only game in the cloud world. Microsoft realized long ago that the future of enterprise computing lies in the cloud and it has been investing heavily in owning a piece of this market. The number of products sitting under the Azure brand umbrella continues to grow and it has become hard to find something that Azure can’t do. In many cases, Azure is running right alongside the other cloud providers and in a few of the corners it’s inching into the lead.
At the core of the business, Azure offers much of the same commodity products as everyone else. If you need a machine running a current version of Linux (yes, Linux!) or Windows, you can spin one up in a few clicks. If you have some data to store, Microsoft will squirrel away the bits just like everyone else.
But once you move away from the basics, Microsoft’s corporate DNA starts to emerge. This is the company that built the operating systems that dominated home and corporate use for decades. Then it turned around and conquered the game console market. This polish and crowd-pleasing glitz is apparent as soon as you log in. The other cloud providers tend to have a bare-bones commodity shell wrapped around their commodity offerings. Azure seems a bit prettier and presentable. The other cloud providers love TLAs (three letter acronyms). Microsoft chose a lush color for its name.
It only makes sense that Azure is leveraging Microsoft’s strengths. The users with a deep investment in Microsoft’s languages (C#), tools (Visual Studio), and frameworks (.Net) will be the ones who feel most at home in Azure. You don’t need to stick with Azure to keep using these tools but it’s almost always a bit easier to stay within the Microsoft family.
Another draw is the company’s deep investment in corporate research. Microsoft began building a full, academic-grade research department back in the 1990s and that has led to a steady stream of products in areas like artificial intelligence and machine vision. The company has been deploying this research and integrating it with its generic cloud services.
All of this comes together in a public cloud that smoothly integrates commodity machines, major APIs, artificial intelligence, and data storage. Azure should be the first place to look for anyone with a long history of Microsoft development and it should get a close look by others too.
If you’ve been developing web applications or desktop software with Microsoft’s tools, there’s no better place to work than Azure. The company’s long tradition with .Net, ASP, C#, and many other Microsoft-first products continues. You will feel more at home here than anywhere else. Sure, you could spend the time to learn one of the newfangled frameworks or toolkits, or you could get the job done faster. Don’t the Hollywood screenwriting classes always tell the kids to “write what you know?”
This isn’t to say that Microsoft remains an island. Azure was one of the first to support newer, open-source options like Node.js. In time, these newer standards may come to dominate even Azure, but for now they’re just one of the options. Azure’s App Service supports Node.js, PHP, Java, Ruby, Python, and a few more options. Microsoft is very much committed to exploring all of the options emerging from the open-source world, and this may come in handy if you decide to start moving your .Net stack in that direction. But until you do, you can run .Net nicely in Azure.
Free Windows instances
Almost everyone gives away free services to new customers and the cloud service providers are no different. Azure, it should be no surprise, pushes Microsoft’s products at the beginning. Buried in the fine print at the bottom of the Amazon sales literature is the note that many of the Windows Servers aren’t eligible for “free tier” experimentation. If you want to use Windows Server 2008 R2 with SQL Server, for example, you’ve got to turn to Azure. And while you’re there, there are dozens of other options for products that are always free like 8,000 calls to the Internet of Things portal per day or one million Azure Function invocations.
54 cloud regions
One of the great things about the cloud is the way it abstracts away all of the details about where the machines are sitting. They’re not in that server room down the hall, the one with the sketchy air conditioning and leaky roof that you must find a way to fix. Nope. All of those headaches disappear—or to be fair, they become the job of someone who will charge you for shouldering that load.
Sometimes, though, there are legal and practical reasons why you want to know where your data is sitting. Sometimes the tax lawyers say it makes a difference. Sometimes you want geographic diversity because of natural disasters. Sometimes you just need to have a local presence because a judge or a politician says so.
Azure has the most data centers of the major cloud providers and that means the most choices. Not every product runs in every region, but you’re more likely to make the lawyers happy when you can choose from more places.
Microsoft’s Visual Studio is still one of the most popular IDEs around and it’s no surprise that it has tight integration with the Azure cloud. Prebuilt Visual Studio images on Azure let you boot up your own instance running Visual Studio (2015 or 2017) in a few clicks. It sure beats downloading the immense collection of files.
If you want to develop for Azure, there are usually connections that slice a few steps from the workflow. Azure Functions, for instance, can be built, tested, and published in Visual Studio.
Visual Studio is still a standard IDE, though, and that means it still works with the other clouds too. Your code will go where you deploy it. But Microsoft’s extra connections makes it a bit easier for Visual Studio lovers to enjoy Azure.
Most of the time, everyone wants a disk drive to be rewritable, updatable, and editable. It seems like everyone wants the freedom to change their mind, now and forever more. But even if that’s the default mode, it isn’t true for all of us all of the time. Auditors, the people who want to track transactions and revisit what happened in the past to keep the world more honest, hate the way that digital evidence can be tweaked, altered, and destroyed. They want to trust that the data will always be the same. And they’re just one group of strange people who want disk drives that store data and block any changes.
This is why Microsoft offers tamper-proof, immutable blob storage. The first target may be the bean counters in the financial world who want to audit everything, but there’s no reason why others might not like the strength and permanence of storage like this. Amazon does make the data stored in its Glacier data archiving service immutable, but they can be deleted.
Sometimes the best interface is just a pencil and paper. For this reason, Microsoft hacked together some of its APIs to create Sketch2Code, an Azure website that turns your Picasso-esque sketches into running HTML forms. Your lines on paper flow through an Azure Function and the Computer Vision Service to become HTML for form processing.
Video makes for compelling content, but it can be a bear to wade through a clip looking for just the section that you need. For this, Microsoft’s AI team built the Video Indexer, a cloud service that extracts all kinds of information from video. In goes some video file and out comes a JSON data structure filled with details about who said what when. The spoken words are turned into transcripts. Objects and faces are identified and every single moment of screen time is analyzed. The duration of each segment is recorded. It’s all pretty automatic and you can find what you want without wading through hours of footage.
There are billions of different ways that the XBox world interacts with the Azure cloud, perhaps hundreds of billions of ways each day, with packets of data flying every which way. Microsoft is pretty much the main source of XBox game development and it’s no surprise that it supports many of these games with Azure back ends. Visual Studio, Unity, and Azure work hand-in-glove. Your magical creations can then be deployed to the PCs or the XBoxes while the Azure cloud handles all of the back-end details.
The boss and the board of directors keep reading that the blockchain will change the world. How can your company get in on this world-transforming power? Azure offers a Blockchain Workbench that will let you spin up your own corner of the Ethereum world with just a few clicks. For extra added value, solution templates help you create a proof-of-authority model for updating your private ledger. Or if you’re more interested in the proof-of-reputation model, Azure is also embracing the GoChain fork of Ethereum. Sure, Microsoft could also try to get you to pay for a proof-of-work model, but that would be a bit too obvious for a company that sells computational work by the slice.
Is half of your team a bunch of SQL traditionalists, the kind who value the structure and rigor of SQL and a well-architected tabular data model? Is the other half a bunch of NoSQL types who preach the flexibility and ease of a “schema-less” model of basic key-value pairs? Cosmos DB is your answer. You can read and write data from this global cloud database with five different APIs offering models for access that are as different as SQL and NoSQL. The traditionalists get their safe space with structured JOINs and SELECTs by using the SQL API. The freedom lovers get to choose between the MongoDB API or the Cassandra API. Or if that’s not wild enough for them, there’s also the option to store graph information using the Gremlin API. If that’s not enough, the documentation promises, “Additional data models and APIs are coming soon!”
Of course it’s not as magical as it sounds. The core of the engine is largely a NoSQL key-value store. The SQL layer is a subset of regular SQL that flies without schema. The results are still inserted and fetched in JSON format. The main advantage is that SQL experts can use much of their knowledge to write queries. In other words, Microsoft is meeting developers where they are and letting them leverage their strong core knowledge instead of forcing them to learn something new.
R language support
The R programming language is a favorite of data scientists, and the RStudio IDE is a favorite of R programmers. Both the language and the IDE get a warm welcome on Azure. You can use R in Azure Machine Learning Studio and Azure Notebooks, run large-scale R jobs with Azure Batch, and do serious number-crunching with R on HDInsight. And you’ll find RStudio baked into Azure’s Data Science Virtual Machine and integrated into Azure Databricks, which is a tool that turns your data into analytical results using Apache Spark. Azure offers a connection that lets you do the big data crunching in the Azure cloud and then pipe the answers to RStudio for examination and reporting.
Microsoft Office integration
Microsoft Office was one of the products that built the company and it continues to be one of the foundations that supports the entire operation. You don’t need to use Azure to work with the various Microsoft Office APIs, but it should be no surprise that Microsoft makes it a bit simpler to extend the office suite by, say, hosting an Office Add-in on Azure. Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel are migrating into the cloud and it only follows that Azure does a better job of supporting these productivity tools than rivals. The same products that built Microsoft support its migration to the cloud.