What is Azure? Microsoft's cloud platform explained
What is Microsoft Azure, and why should you use it? We dig into the history, pros, cons, and use cases of Azure — plus offer tips for learning Azure skills.
Jun 08, 2023 • 12 Minute Read
What is Microsoft Azure? Microsoft Azure is a public cloud platform with more than 200 products and services accessible over the public internet.
Like other public cloud vendors, Azure manages and maintains hardware, infrastructure, and resources that can be accessed for free or pay-per-use, on-demand basis.
Azure is the No. 2 public cloud provider
As of the second quarter of 2021, AWS controlled 31% of the market, Microsoft Azure took 22%, and Google Cloud sat at 8% market share — according to Statista.
Azure is popular with enterprise organizations
Microsoft Azure is a popular pick in the enterprise space, with Microsoft claiming that 95% of Fortune 500 companies use Azure.
Over the past few years, Microsoft has made moves that play to its unique strengths, using legacy footholds in organizations to ease reluctant organizations to the cloud. As a result, Azure adoption is increasing in enterprises while AWS adoption remains relatively flat — according to Flexera.
Historically, Azure has been the preferred choice for hybrid deployments. It is also well-regarded for its ability to sync well with legacy Microsoft solutions — the kind many businesses have been using for decades.
Usage and interest in Azure is growing
According to A Cloud Guru’s State of Cloud Learning report, cloud engineers are showing an immense increase in interest in Microsoft Azure courses and training at a rate much higher than interest in Google Cloud and AWS. ACG saw a rolling 3-month average of time spent on Azure learning up nearly 800% year-over-year, compared to between 50–100% for AWS and Google Cloud.
Migrating to the cloud (whether it be Azure or another cloud service provider) can save organizations and individuals the cost and complexity of purchasing and running resources on site.
The history of Microsoft Azure
Today, Microsoft Azure serves millions of applications, integrations, and customers. But its humble origins can be traced back to 2008 when it was announced as Project Red Dog.
The name “Azure” — for those who never got too deep into the jumbo-sized crayon box — is taken from a lovely shade of sky blue. (Sky. Cloud. Get it?)
Azure Infrastructure and Regions
At the time of publishing, Azure has 67 available and announced regions globally, more than 160 physical data centers, numerous availability zones, and millions of users. But how does it all work together?
When talking about cloud infrastructure, Azure has a global network of regions, availability zones, and data centers.
Azure regions are placed strategically all over the world to cover as large a percentage of the potential cloud customer as possible. Regions include Central U.S., Norway West, Brazil South, West India, South Africa North, Australia East, and everywhere in between.
Each region consists of one or more data centers and availability zones, which are made up of one or more data centers equipped with independent power cooling and networking. This means that a service in an availability zone will keep running if one of the parts of the zone becomes unavailable. Nifty!
Azure also has geographies. These usually contain more than a single region and allow customers with specific data residency and compliance needs to keep the data and applications close. Geography is defined as a discreet market for doing just that.
Azure also has government regions, which are only accessible to U.S. government bodies and their contractors. These regions are more stringent when it comes to compliance with government guidelines, and their locations are not disclosed. (However, I'll let you in on a secret: they're all in the U.S.)
Azure services can vary by region
Azure services are not all created equally either. Some require more resources than others and some just aren't as popular. For this reason, not all services are offered in all regions.
However, apart from the aforementioned government regions and newly established regions, most regions will have most of the Azure service catalog on offer. A few exotic services like Azure Machine Learning are sometimes only offered in one region within each geography.
Azure IaaS vs SaaS vs PaaS
Infrastructure on Azure isn't just a bunch of services. You need to understand the basic pillars: compute, network, and storage.
Everything on Azure is built on top of those pillars, and they form a foundation for your cloud infrastructure too. You can build your own architecture from infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) products, such as Azure Virtual Networks, Azure VMs, Azure VDI, and Azure Disc Storage. Or you can take advantage of the platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offerings, such as Azure SQL and Azure app services. All are built on top of the pillars, but offer different layers of abstraction for you to build your business applications.
Azure vs AWS and GCP: Is Azure right for you?
Comparing Azure to the other cloud providers, Azure falls in the top three of most popular alongside AWS and GCP. AWS has the most market share, but Azure has the most regions, and GCP is growing rapidly.
The documentation for Azure to learn from is decent. Documenting a whole cloud computing platform is a large task and maintaining it is a constant exercise. Check out our other cloud platform overviews below:
Azure pros and strengths
We've got to talk about strengths and weaknesses, because how else can you know which cloud platform will work best for you? While cloud computing as a concept is a way to offer various levels of abstraction through IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS, each cloud vendor is better at some things and less so at others.
- First, Azure has a lot of data centers, and they keep expanding. This means services and your applications will be closer to users. It also means specific legal requirements for certain countries when it comes to cloud computing are more likely to be met.
- Because Microsoft has been supporting on-premises customers for 40-plus years, they have an extensive hybrid cloud offering to get all of their existing customers into cloud. They also have a very good integration with existing tools and technologies such as Visual Studio, Active Directory, and File Storage.
If you have applications written in the .NET framework, Azure is almost a no-brainer as well. Azure has the most industry certifications of any cloud provider, and this can be useful for certain countries or industries when having to adhere to these.
Azure cons and weaknesses
While there aren't many drawbacks or areas of improvement for Azure, there are a couple.
- Since Azure is trying to be all things to all cloud-computing crowds, at times some services just don't get enough attention. This can mean that the new data analytics service you have made that uses a certain Azure feature might fall behind a bit as the feature disappears.
- Azure will try and keep up with every single trend in cloud computing, so the number of new services and renamed services (thank you, Microsoft) can be overwhelming. The key is to focus on just the ones you need for your project.
Azure services and project use cases
Let’s look at a couple of well-suited real-world use cases for Azure — something to whet your Azure appetite.
Let’s start with the wonderful world of hybrid cloud. Microsoft has a long history of supplying on-premises compute systems, and a ton of those customers are still around. Are they going to throw all that they have away and buy it again because someone's written "cloud" on it? Of course not! But there is value in some of the Azure services for most companies. Azure is making it increasingly easy to implement a hybrid cloud strategy.
For example, using Azure Sentinel, you can monitor both your cloud assets and your on-prem services. Inadequate security is often a concern with hybrid setups, but with Sentinel express route and VPN gateways, this is just not an issue.
I can't talk about Azure and not mention Cosmos DB, one of the most impressive services on Azure. This single-digit-millisecond latency, automatic and instantly scalable global secure SQL database is about as cloudy as you can get.
A company that is looking to scale globally or to several regions can provide an exceptional experience for the end-user by plugging Cosmos DB into the front-end application. You are guaranteed speed at any scale. It's super easy to plug into your application. It's fully managed, so no servers or maintenance to do. And it's cost-effective . . . when used correctly with Azure cost management!
Ready to start your Azure Journey?
If you want to stay up to date with Azure, check out Azure This Week here on A Cloud Guru. It's a weekly show with the latest news from Azure.
It may sound like a bit of a mouthful (side note: Microsoft's certification exam names can be confusing) but this foundational-level certification will teach you the basics of cloud computing with Azure and prepare you for the AZ-900 exam. Consider it Cloud 101.
The Azure Fundamentals cert lays the foundation for many different roles — not just budding Azure engineers and architects but cloud-adjacent folks, from leadership to sales to support. And it's one of the top-paying Azure cloud certifications. Plus, I hear the instructor is pretty darn good. (Spoiler: It's me.)
There are plenty of reasons why you should consider getting Azure certified. But one nice bonus of pursuing Azure certs is how easy Microsoft makes it to get certified and stay certified. Azure certification exams can be taken remotely and big certification renewal and expiration changes made in 2021 make Azure certs free to renew indefinitely (which make them arguably the best certification renewal option in cloud).
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Microsoft Azure FAQs
Microsoft Azure is a public cloud platform that offers more than 200 products and cloud services accessible over the public internet. Azure is the second-largest cloud computing platform (just behind AWS and above GCP), serving millions of applications, integrations, and customers.
Announced in 2008 as Project Red Dog, Microsoft Azure has grown to become a major cloud computing player. As of 2021, Azure has a 20% market share — with AWS at 31% and Google Cloud Platform (GCP) sitting at 9%
Azure has a global network of regions, availability zones, and data centers: Each region consists of one or more data centers and availability zones, which are made up of one or more data centers equipped with independent power cooling and networking.
Comparing Azure to the other cloud providers, Azure falls in the top three of most popular alongside AWS and GCP. AWS has the most market share, but Azure has the most regions, and GCP is growing rapidly. Read more!
Since Azure is trying to be all things to all cloud-computing crowds, at times some services just don't get enough attention. Additionally, Azure will try and keep up with every single trend in cloud computing, so the number of new services and renamed services can be overwhelming.
Microsoft Azure is a cloud computing platform. Azure manages and maintains hardware, infrastructure, and resources in data centers. These assets can be accessed by individuals and organizations over the internet for free or on a pay-per-use basis. This allows Azure’s users to tap into powerful, often cost-prohibitive hardware and solutions without a large upfront investment.
Microsoft has a long history in enterprise organizations. Enterprises and those with hybrid environments or environments with essential legacy Microsoft solutions often prefer Microsoft Azure to AWS and GCP.
Azure services include Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), Software as a Service (SaaS), and serverless. These cloud services can be used for things like storage, networking, compute, and analytics.
Microsoft Azure lets businesses and individuals create, run, and manage applications and solve various technical challenges with flexibility across various clouds and on-premises data centers.
One popular Azure selling feature is Cosmos DB. Companies looking to scale globally or to several regions can provide an exceptional experience for the end-user by plugging Cosmos DB into the front-end application. This guarantees speed at any scale, is easily plugged into your application, is fully managed, and is cost-effective.