For organizations looking for a public cloud provider, Microsoft stands out as one of the top vendors in the market with a wide range of services available.
Microsoft offers all three of the major categories of cloud computing: software as a service (SaaS), infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and platform as a service (PaaS). It sells its IaaS and PaaS offerings under the Microsoft Azure brand name.
By nearly all estimates, Azure is the second largest IaaS and PaaS service on the planet, trailing behind Amazon Web Services (AWS). It is particularly popular among large, geographically dispersed enterprises, especially those that use Microsoft software like Windows and Office.
Today, Microsoft Azure enjoys a reputation as a mature, reliable and highly secure public cloud provider. However, Azure has had to play a lot of catch up to earn this spot.
History of Microsoft Azure
Microsoft Azure began in the mid-2000s as an internal initiative codenamed Project Red Dog. At the time, Amazon had already launched its cloud computing service, and Microsoft was rushing to catch up.
During the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference 2008, two years after Amazon Web Services (AWS) had gone live with its Simple Storage Service, Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software architect, announced that the company planned to launch its own cloud computing service called Windows Azure. The plan called for Microsoft to offer five key categories of cloud services: Windows Azure for compute, storage and networking; Microsoft SQL Services for databases; Microsoft .NET Services for developers; Live Services for file sharing; and Microsoft SharePoint Services and Microsoft Dynamics CRM Services SaaS offerings.
Ozzie told the crowd, "It's a transformation of our software and a transformation of our strategy."
He acknowledged Amazon's leadership, noting that AWS had "established a base-level design pattern, architecture models, and business models that we'll all learn from." And he predicted that one day, "all our enterprise software will be delivered as an online service as an option."
After the announcement, Microsoft began to roll out preview versions of its cloud services, and in February 2010, the Windows Azure Platform became commercially available. Early reviews of the service were mixed, with many analysts comparing Azure unfavorably with AWS. However, Microsoft improved Azure dramatically over time. It also added support for a wide variety of programming languages, frameworks and operating systems, including Linux — something that once would have been unthinkable for a Microsoft product. Recognizing that its cloud computing service had moved far beyond Windows, the company renamed Windows Azure as Microsoft Azure in April 2014.
In the years since, Microsoft has continued to expand its cloud capabilities, largely living up to Ozzie's predictions at the initial announcement in 2008. It has also increased its support for open source software, and today Azure is a reasonable choice even for enterprises that don't run Windows servers. Competing closely with AWS, Google Cloud and IBM, Microsoft Azure is one of the unquestioned cloud leaders – and some observers say it has a chance to be the top cloud vendor, long term.
Microsoft Azure Services
Microsoft Azure offers an extremely large portfolio of cloud services, which it divides into fourteen categories:
- Compute — includes Virtual Machines, Virtual Machine Scale Sets, Functions for serverless computing, Batch for containerized batch workloads, Service Fabric for microservices and container orchestration, and Cloud Services for building cloud-based apps and APIs
- Networking — includes a variety of networking tools, like the Virtual Network, which can connect to on-premise data centers; Load Balancer; Application Gateway; VPN Gateway; Azure DNS for domain hosting, Content Delivery Network, Traffic Manager, ExpressRoute dedicated private network fiber connections; and Network Watcher monitoring and diagnostics
- Storage — includes Blob, Queue, File and Disk Storage, as well as a Data Lake Store, Backup and Site Recovery, among others
- Web + Mobile — includes several services for building and deploying applications, but the most notable is probably the App Service, which comprises services for Web Apps, Mobile Apps, Logic Apps (a low-code, data-driven service) and API Apps (for creating and using APIs)
- Containers — includes Container Service, which supports Kubernetes, DC/OS or Docker Swarm, and Container Registry, as well as tools for microservices
- Databases — includes several SQL-based databases and related tools, as well as Cosmos DB, Table Storage for NoSQL and Redis Cache in-memory technology
- Data + Analytics — includes big data tools like HDInsight for Hadoop Spark, R Server, HBase and Storm clusters; Stream Analytics; Data Lake Analytics; and Power BI Embedded, among others
- AI + Cognitive Services — includes multiple tools for developing applications with artificial intelligence capabilities, like the Computer Vision API, Face API, Bing Web Search, Video Indexer, Language Understanding Intelligent Service and more
- Internet of Things — includes IoT Hub and IoT Edge services that can be combined with a variety of machine learning, analytics and communications services
- Enterprise Integration — includes multiple tools for building and managing hybrid cloud computing environments
- Security + Identity — includes Security Center, Azure Active Directory, Key Vault and Multi-Factor Authentication Services
- Developer Tools — includes cloud development services like Visual Studio Team Services, Azure DevTest Labs, HockeyApp mobile app deployment and monitoring, Xamarin cross-platform mobile development and more
- Monitoring + Management — includes numerous tools for managing Azure workloads and hybrid cloud environments, such as the Microsoft Azure Port, Azure Resource Manager, Log Analytics, Automation, Scheduler and more
- Microsoft Azure Stack — includes solutions for replicating Azure infrastructure in enterprise data centers with the goal of facilitating hybrid cloud deployments
The table below highlights some of Microsoft Azure's more popular services. It is far from exhaustive. Also, the pricing for cloud services varies on a wide number of factors and changes on a regular basis. However, the chart does provide a quick glimpse at some of Microsoft's cloud computing offerings and an overview of how it prices those services. (For additional pricing information, see the Azure Pricing Calculator.
Microsoft Azure Advantages
The biggest advantage that Microsoft has when it comes to its cloud computing services can be summed up in one word: Windows.
For organizations that already use Microsoft software, such as Windows, Office, SQL Server, SharePoint, Dynamics, etc., using the Microsoft cloud computing service seems like a natural fit. It allows them to use the tools and interfaces that they are already familiar with and helps them get up and running quickly.
In addition, Microsoft has made a particular effort at enabling hybrid computing, and its Azure Stack solution, which is still in technical preview, seems likely to enhance its appeal for enterprises with hybrid environments.
Microsoft has also very deliberately targeted the government market. It touts its security and compliance capabilities, and its website claims, "Azure has been recognized as the most trusted cloud for U.S. government institutions, including a FedRAMP High authorization that covers 18 Azure services."
Finally, Microsoft Azure has a very vibrant ecosystem with a lot of partnerships with other technology vendors. For example, it has relationships with Red Hat, Canonical, Citrix, HPE, Adobe, SAP, Cisco and many others, that enhance the services it is able to offer customers.
Microsoft’s map of the Azure regions, which span the globe; proximity to a data center is important for cloud customers.
When to Use Microsoft Azure
Microsoft Azure is an excellent choice for organizations that already use Microsoft software in their data centers and are interested in creating hybrid cloud environments. Large organizations seem particularly attracted to Azure, and the company claims, "Ninety percent of Fortune 500 companies trust the Microsoft Cloud."
Government agencies interested in using the cloud should also consider Microsoft Azure as it is likely to meet their security needs. In some cases, it may be easier for these organizations to use Azure than other public cloud providers.
In addition, developers who use Microsoft's development tools, particularly Visual Studio, will likely want to investigate Azure both for dev/test and production servers. Microsoft has built in integration between the cloud service and its development tools, which makes it easy to use them in tandem.
If you're in the process of choosing cloud services for your business, read our comprehensive guide to cloud computing.
When Not to Use Microsoft Azure
In a survey conducted by Cowen & Co., Microsoft Azure ranked poorly for its costs. It can be more expensive than some of the other public cloud vendors, and licensing issues can make it particularly tricky to estimate total charges.
Microsoft Azure also sometimes comes under criticism for its IT support, for its reliability and for its performance. Gartner has noted, "Although Azure is neither as feature-rich nor mature as AWS, many organizations can now consider it 'good enough,' and base their vendor decision on factors other than technical capabilities."
Microsoft Azure might not be the best option for small or medium businesses, particularly those that are very cost-conscious or those with small or non-existent IT staffs. It also might not make the most sense for organizations that do not use other Microsoft technologies like Windows and Office.