What is that Azure thing?

I’ve been studying for the Implementing Microsoft Azure 70-533 exam for about five months now so I’m an expert and I know everything. *gets note from director* Wait, no, okay I’m a complete amateur drowning in the Azure sea.. Come on guys? That sounds bad. But I guess they are right, Azure is MASSIVE, its deep its all encompassing its ever changing its a behemoth of thing to wrap one’s head around or to ‘grok’. But that’s why I’ve been reading Azure documentation and watching videos day after azure tinted day, right? To enlighten the masses, to answer that burning question that keeps you awake at night, you know, the one that distracts you from your kids piano recitals even though you spent far too much on the lessons the last five years and the piano from your sister in law was really a pain in the ass to get into the house. Yes, everyone is asking “WHAT IS THAT AZURE THING?” (couldn’t resit saying it). Is it a dance, a service, a website, an infrastructure? Yes, to all of those although the dance is a work in progress. Allow me to be your humble guide and life raft through the Azure tsunami.

I took the 70-533 test a few weeks ago. I failed/didn’t pass. But damn, nobody likes to fail. I’ve been successfully avoiding tests since my college days at K-State some 3 years ago until now. Except for the Minnesota DMV test, which I failed the first time as well. The material on the test wasn’t mind boggling or difficult. I felt prepared but Microsoft seems to be pushing PowerShell real hard, which is a good thing as we’ll discuss later. I however only glanced at PowerShell assuming the admin roles were done through the portals and all that jazz, not so. At least that’s not what the all mighty  Microsoft wants for Azure’s future. I don’t know much PowerShell but the automation (and office hi-jinks) capabilities are sweet and it avoids human error while speeding up some mundane practices that take up IT department time. (We all know IT departments have plenty of time on their hands..)

So I’m back on the studious path and planning to take the test for a second time here in a few weeks. Finding resources to prepare for this test was, well.. difficult. It’s all out of date and scattered, there are at least 4 different ways to manage the damn thing let alone explain its features. I exaggerate as always, but wow, I had to pull together a plethora of resources to really understand Azure. For those of you coming from an infrastructure background you may have an easier time. I come from a IT background, but with more focus on SQL Server support and performance maintenance, application support and such. There were many and still are many infrastructure concepts in Azure that I’m having to learn about before I can apply the ‘Azure-version’ or even think about its concepts on a fully implemented system. I’m kind of going about it backwards, but I’ve already done the heavy lifting.. err reading, so there’s no going back. Since the cloud is the future and Azure is a major player I’d recommend learning this route, but again only if you have the reading fortitude.

I’m now going to attempt the unthinkable and give you a very high level idea of what Azure is, at least I’m going to try. Please let me know if you have corrections, questions, ideas, complaints, curses, free french bulldogs and\or Scotch (not both, please not both!). Most of what I have to say comes from Microsoft Virtual Academy (MVA). I’d say for the uber-technical this read will be a little light so go find something interesting to read at hackernews.com already. But if you honestly don’t know what Azure is, you might after this.

What is Microsoft Azure?
The simple answer is it allows you perform virtually any compute or data storage operation by provisioning and scaling the necessary resources on demand on a pay-as-you-go basis. But that’s really not so simple is it, try thinking of Azure as three pillars; Websites, Virtual Machines, Storage and Data. Now anything to do with those common IT infrastructure and development concepts can be done inside or alongside (hybrid) Azure. Azure seeps into your current infrastructure and does powerful witch magic to make it better? *handed another note* Ahh, if I mention the witch magic again they’ll cancel my internet. Azure actually adapts to your environment though, you could think about it like immersing whatever you do/have/want to do in a cloud of Azurey goodness.

Well random guy on the internet, you ask, “there are many cloud services, why Azure?” That whole hybrid thing I was trying to explain is a big reason, so is the hyper-scale that azure allows you to operate on if needed. With 19 regions and 15+ data centers your business and its data is redundant and can reach audiences across the globe. In the end you get a highly Available, Reliable and Maintainable application. Like life businesses are dynamic, Azure allows scaling up and out when needed and back down when you don’t need it. You also get redundancy and fail-over options. This allows businesses to avoid investing in costly infrastructure for ‘busy periods’ or certain spikes of resource intensive what-have-you.

So there are two portals to manage Azure, an old one and new one (sometimes referred to as the preview portal). I honestly still have some trouble remembering which features on which version so I have to open them both and dig. The good news is that this is okay because with PowerShell one can control everything as we’ll discuss in many future posts. Besides the two portals and PowerShell you can also manage Azure through the HTTP-based REST API. There are management libraries for .net, Node.js, Java, .php and more. You can do some management through Visual Studio’s Tools as well. That’s disgusting right? A million ways to do a million things, Cartesian madness.

You use these after creating a subscription of course to create and manage services. The services offered is gross horrible list, but I’ll share some here: monitoring alerts, autoscale, application insights, azure website diagnostics, multi-factor authentication, azure media services, azure storage queue, azure service bus, azure load balancer, azuer HD insight, machine learning, cloud service worker and web roles, azure scheduler, notifcation hubs, virtual machines, Azure Active Directory , azure backup, Azure Hyper-V Recovery Manager, bixtalk, 3rd party tools…. SO. MUCH. As you can see if you know of anything in the IT industry there is probably or will probably be an ‘Azure-‘version of it.

The datacenters I mentioned before are monstrous walmart-esque buildings full of server racks and computer bits. When using a service under a subscription you are renting some of this computation resource from Microsoft’s facilities, that’s the ‘cloud’ everyone’s been talking about at the water cooler. Really you can think about Azure as two types of services Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS). Which you use depends on the level of control you need as an admin and the resource specs your users need.

If you’ve stumbled this far I’ll throw you a bone here and say that IaaS can be thought of as ‘Servers(infrastructure) in the sky’ its physical IT department you see tucked in the basement when somebody mean makes you go down there. This IaaS service can be the only infrastructure a company uses OR it can run alongside it. The hybrid functionality is what makes it especially appealing futures in the cloud as it eases transition and allows organizations to adapt a bit before jumping into the Azure abyss.

That’s the aspect I’m learning about now (IaaS) so I’m not going to go into much detail on PaaS, but it’s like deploying an enterprise application over Azure. Users could log into the app. You would just manage the app while Azure would manage the VMs, OS and all that jazz for you.

When you create an Azure subscription a directory is created, this can be synchronized with on premises Active Directory to provide single-sign on (SSO) user experience and used by developers for home grown/in house app authentication processes.

Look for ‘What is that Azure thing? Part 2’ in the next few days where I’ll try to grab all the threads I’ve started here and make them into a beautiful tapestry for you.

Please join the conversation and follow me at @RSA_Tech for tech bits with a SQL/Azure theme.


If you’re as excited about Azure as I am here are some links to hold you over. Actually just one link to a blog like this one albeit not as verbose. It’s an amazing treasure trove of links and info about Azure in the form of a preparation article for folks interested in taking the 707-533 Implementing Azure test. It really is brilliant and goes above and beyond an intro to Azure for those interested.

Preparing for 70-533 Implementing Microsoft Azure Infrastructure Solutions Exam



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