Amazon Web Services (AWS) may dominate with a vast collection of products and options, but it’s far from the only game in the cloud.
Microsoft, a company once known for its domination of personal computing, has slowly and steadily built its Azure cloud into a formidable competitor.
The number of database, storage, compute, analytics, and devops services 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. The other cloud providers love TLAs (three letter acronyms). Microsoft chose a lush colour 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 learning. 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.
1 - .NET compatibility
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.NET, 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.
2 - Power Platform
Microsoft saw the potential in the low-code development philosophy and started integrating it into its Power Platform, a big collection of integrated tools for delivering basic apps, business reporting, and workflow automation. If you want to mix in some artificial intelligence, there are modules for that too.
The company recognised the popularity of approaches in the trenches within its own walls, where there are so many business units with basic needs but not enough people in the IT shop to create everything.
The Power tools allow anyone with a modest amount of programming intuition to deliver internet applications. In other words, they make it easier for those who Microsoft calls “citizen developers” to leverage the work of “pro developers.”
3 - Fluid Framework
At first glance, the Fluid Framework preview looks like another collaboration word processor. You can insert some text, add a headline, and maybe fill out a table. But then you notice that you can also insert some basic components that behave like an app. You can add interactive checkboxes, calendars, polls, and timelines. It’s not just a word processor. It’s not a full application. It’s somewhere in between.
4 - 60 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 proudly claims the most regions 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.
5 - Visual Studio
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 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.
6 - Windows Virtual Desktops
When the pandemic hit, many IT shops took on the job of delivering the tools that people needed at home. If your company has been devoted to Microsoft Office tools like Word or Excel, then Azure worked hard to help businesses maintain continuity.
The Windows Virtual Desktop portal lets you deploy Windows to anyone working remotely while Azure Firewall watches the incoming packets. It’s like your old Windows desktop just moved to the cloud, which is pretty much the point.
7 - 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.
8 - Cosmos DB
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 or geospatial location data using GeoJSON.
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.
9 - Robust blob indexes
The cloud encourages us to stash data away in blobs and buckets but it leaves much of the processing up to us. Microsoft has a nice feature for creating an index of each blob so you can search by keywords. The indexing routine will read many document formats including the classic ones from Microsoft Office.
If you’ve got a big stash of Word or Excel files just sitting around and you want people to be able to search them, this tool makes it pretty easy to store data and still be able to find things quickly. AWS’s Glacier will handle SQL like queries for some CSV data there, but that won’t help find that old Word document.
10 - Immutable storage
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. Although Amazon does make the data stored in its Glacier data archiving service immutable, the data can be deleted.
If your policies might change over time, Azure lets you specify time-based permissions, so that data might be retained unchanged until a future moment. The lawyers will also be happy to know that they can apply special “legal hold” tags on blobs of data whenever there’s an investigation. If you’re in a particularly litigation-rich corner of the economy, the lawyers can add up to 10 different legal holds for the blob.
11 - Video Indexer
As video took over the Internet and the moving pictures filled up our disk drives, Microsoft started building out an indexing tool to catalog and organize the information using the best AI from its labs. Video Indexer will plow through the endless frames while identifying multiple languages and transcribing the words.
If you want to use the machine learning portal, the indexer will pull out the key frames and send them over so the AI can identify people, places, and things. Sometimes the facial recognition can even grok the emotions. If you’re interested in tapping these particular nuances, you can train the AI on your data set.
12 - Game development
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.
13 - Blockchain
It’s been a few years since Bitcoin was skyrocketing in value, but now that the hype has faded there’s still the reality that the blockchain offers a number of compelling opportunities for anyone who needs to build strong contracts online. Azure offers a Blockchain Workbench that will let you spin up your own corner of the Ethereum world with just a few clicks.
For 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 GoChainfork 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.
One of the more intriguing ways to explore the blockchain is to set up a hyperledger, a framework for experimentation. Azure offers a collection of templates for building out a Kubernetes cluster of nodes so your data and transactions can be immortalised in the cryptographic signatures of the fabric.