Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I finally get Microsoft Azure


Ever since Microsoft Azure (recently renamed from Windows Azure) has been available I have struggled with a reason to use it. This also flows over into reasons of why other SMB reseller or customers would have cause to use it. Does that mean that it was merely a tool for the enterprise? The answer is definitely ‘NO' now that I have come to better understand its application for me and potentially others in the SMB space.
So here’s the challenge that brought me to my Azure epiphany.
I have always been a big users of virtual machines. I have used products like Microsoft Virtual PC and Hyper V to allow me to have access to a number of different operating systems for support. Over time I migrated my six independent servers into a single Hyper V machine that used to host things like web sites and my old SharePoint blog. In an effort to save money, stay simple and utilize the cloud more I decommissioned this production Hyper V server a few years ago.
The problem was that besides running production environments that Hyper V box also had a number of test machines that I used to power up and down as required. My need for these virtual test machines continued even after decommissioning the Hyper V server.
I was able to use a product like Virtual Box on a more powerful laptop to achieve the testing environment I required. With 8GB of RAM and some big disks the laptop faired well for demos and training purposes. It certainly was a lot to lug around but with Virtual Box on there it did the job.
One of the other reasons I need a number of virtual servers is for when I do a SharePoint migration. Typically this involves swinging the database into a new version of SharePoint and allowing it to convert. Unfortunately, you can’t for example template a calendar element in SharePoint 2010 and import it directly into SharePoint 2013, you can only go from 2013 to 2013 version. Thus, this meant converting the data to the same version and then migrating.
Where this started to become an issue was the release of SharePoint Foundation 2013. No longer could I deploy a stand alone SharePoint Foundation server, I now needed to have a Domain Controller as well since SharePoint Foundation required a domain login to install. It was certainly possible to install SharePoint Foundation 2013 on a domain controller but that really wasn’t supported and it also provided a different experience. So now even to do the most simple thing with SharePoint Foundation 2013 I needed two virtual machines running.
The requirement of two virtual machines started to make it hard to work with the old laptop I was using. All I needed was more RAM but that wasn’t an option with this laptop. So my thoughts then turned to potentially replacing my aging desktop with a more ‘beefy’ box with plenty of RAM so I could run all the virtual machine I needed. This however wasn’t going to be cheap and would take up space and chew more power. It also wasn’t going in the direction I wanted to head, which was simplicity, small devices and cloud based systems. It also meant that I wouldn’t have a portable solution as I do now with the laptop. So where to now?
I considered perhaps getting my own equipment in a datacentre or ‘renting’ a server but then I wondered with Microsoft Azure could do the trick.
Spinning up a server is easy enough and after a few false starts when it came to networking everything together I finally got two servers connected together using Azure. I made one a domain controller and the other a SharePoint Foundation Server 2010 box. With that accomplished I then set up a SharePoint Foundation 2013 box with ease.
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So here’s one of the first benefits of Azure. As I have documented in this blog previously, SharePoint Foundation 2013 requires a lot more resources than SharePoint 2010. In Azure that’s no problem. I can start with the lowest spec machine and easily scale up as required. So for this initial machine I have bumped it up to 2 cores and 3.5GB of RAM (which still isn’t really enough) and I can continue to bump it up if required.
After also building a stand alone Windows SharePoint Services v3.0 server also in Azure I now have all the machines I need to do a migration. Best of all, say the migration has a lot of data that will take a while to process I can simply ramp up the power of each Azure virtual machine to allow it to complete the task quicker. When I have finished, I simply scale it back to what it was before.
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Previously, people would physically mail me their SharePoint data to convert, now I can simply give them access to the Azure virtual machine and they can directly upload it there. Once I convert the data I can also give them access to the same machine so they can check it before proceeding. Easy.
So now I no longer to carry around my laptop with my SharePoint migration machines, I can do it all on Azure from any machine on which I can access the Internet with, including my Mac! That means that I don;t have to ‘waste’ my money on getting another super powered desktop. I can throw it out and use my Surface PC instead.
Now enamoured with Azure I began to consider what else I could use it for and found yet another example.
Another virtual machine that I maintain is one that is set up to use for PowerShell access to Office 365. That way it is isolated and can be used independently of what maybe installed on my desktop. I have now set up a similar machine in Azure so now I can use PowerShell with Office 365 no matter where I am. This makes it far more convenient than having to fire the laptop up to do something simple. Again, I can do this wherever I have a browser.
Now you might be asking about the cost of all this. Because most of the time these machines are powered off the cost of usage is extremely low. With all the running up of a domain controller, three SharePoint servers and a PowerShell machine my total cost (including all the data transfers for install files) is less than $5! A new powerful desktop would have cost be probably in the range of $2,400 dollars. That is an allowance of about $200 per month for 12 months of Azure which I can’t see myself getting anywhere near. Thus, it may only cost me $10 – $50 per month which over the year is a huge saving from shelling out for a desktop (not to mention the run up time which I didn’t include).
Thus, Azure now makes sense to me in terms of agility for my business. It now makes sense to me in terms of cost saving. It also makes sense to me in the opportunity to do so much more with the product. All I have done is play with virtual machines, which is only a very small component of what is possible with the product.
I have a long, long way to go to truly understand and utilize the product to its full extent but now I GET IT. I am beginning to see the benefits it can provide me and thus it is opening my eyes as to what is possible for customers.
So if you are an IT Professional I urge you to get into Azure and understand what it can do. Like me, I’m pretty sure that once you do you’ll see the light like I have.
I’ll be posting more about Azure from now on as I discover more about how it works and how to configure it so stay tuned.