Microsoft Azure review: Competitive cloud pricing takes a bite out of AWS
A clear and cost-effective path for deploying your Microsoft office network in the cloud
The purchase, roll-out and maintenance of servers for your business's Microsoft-based network can be prohibitive. But now, if you have a fast enough internet connection, you can deploy Active Directory, file servers, database servers and more in the cloud, and Microsoft's Azure platform provides a clear and cost-effective way to move server and network infrastructure online.
Microsoft's Azure cloud platform is a clear favourite for a company that would otherwise use local Windows Server and Active Directory systems to support Windows PCs for staff. While it's by no means a closed shop - a wide range of Linux distributions are also supported on Azure - Microsoft's cloud service provides ready integration with your local network and the company's desktop products.
There are potential disadvantages to using cloud infrastructure for your business: you'll never have any kind of physical access to or control over your systems and you're at the mercy of your host's outages. But Azure provides a 99.99% uptime guarantee for its virtual machines and you won't be responsible for maintaining and updating your hardware and licenses manually, which can save on both capital expenditure and time for your IT staff.
You can choose where your Azure servers are hosted, ensuring, for example, that relevant customer data is kept within the same geographic region as those customers and allowing you to get the best possible connection speeds by ensuring that you're not sending data halfway around the world.
Microsoft Azure review: Deployment
There are almost unlimited potential uses for cloud computing and storage, which can be a barrier to entry in and of itself: it's important to work out what's most convenient and cost-effective to keep local and what would be most easily deployed in the cloud.
Active Directory, Windows Server VM and storage options can be used to roll out Infrastructure as a Service for your business on an Azure private virtual network. To make good use of such a setup, you'll need a fast - and ideally symmetric - internet connection and a reasonably powerful firewall router capable of handling a VPN connection between your local network and the Azure cloud.
There are also plenty of options to cover your public-facing networking needs, from Ubuntu Server images already configured with Apache for web hosting to web app development platforms that make it easy to test and roll out apps in Java, Python, Node.js and more.
Secure cloud storage is available at a range of costs and access tiers (hot, cool and archive), from managed disks for your virtual machines to file shares and scalable containers for unstructured data.
Microsoft Azure review: Pricing
Opting for cloud services rather than physical infrastructure massively reduces your business's initial outlay on hardware and licences, although you'll have a higher monthly operational expenditure due to subscription fees and - potentially - support costs, either directly via an Azure support plan or from a specialist IT support firm if you don't have in-house expertise.
Pricing for complex cloud services is by its nature highly variable: one company's needs won't be the same as the next, even if both fall within the SMB bracket.
The simplest subscriptions for most services are on a pay-as-you-go basis, with exact pricing depending on the product specification you opt for, such as virtual machine configuration or quantity of storage, but cost-saving reserved instances - for which you pay an upfront flat rate for a fixed period - are also available.
You'll need to work out individual pricing based on what systems and infrastructure you need, and we strongly recommend using both Azure's estimate calculator before you buy and its cost tracking tools afterwards to make sure you're getting good value for your money. We're fans of Azure's costing tools, which are somewhat easier to work with than AWS's calculator.
On PAYG, a general-purpose VM with 2 virtual CPUs and 8GB of memory, running Windows Server will cost 150.43 per month. A 1024GB HDD to go with that costs 33.58 per month, although a wide variety of larger and smaller HDD and SSD disk options are available. Storage transactions - reads and writes, typically billed in 4MB blocks - are an additional cost, priced at 37.27 per 100,000 transaction units. A variety of snapshotting and backup options for your disks are available at further cost, depending on how much data you need to back up at any given point.
A virtual network is free, but you'll have to pay for inbound and outbound data transfer - that currently works out at 75p per 100GB. Azure Active Directory Basic costs 11.18 monthly plus 75p per user, per month and an extra 10.43 per ten users if you want multi-factor authentication.
This very basic setup works out at 196.68 per month. While making exact comparisons is challenging due to differing default configurations and terminology, an equivalent Amazon AWS estimate for a Windows Server VM, Active Directory services, Virtual Private Cloud and data throughput came to $276.27 (248.25) a month, making Azure a slightly better deal for this particular scenario.
In the case of Windows Server and other Microsoft licenced products, software license fees are included in the cost of running the deployment, but the Azure Hybrid Benefit for Windows Server means that you can use any physical Windows Server licences you already have to reduce the cost of operating your cloud servers.
Microsoft is currently competing heavily against cloud-dominating rival AWS, with a price match promise for comparable services and a promise to undercut Amazon on Windows and Microsoft SQL databases and servers. There are also plenty of trial options to help you see whether Azure is the platform for you and, Microsoft clearly hopes, get you sufficiently invested.
When you sign up, you get 150 credit to spend on anything you like within 30 days, plus 12 months of basic services for free, including Linux or Windows virtual machines and a pair of 64GB SSDs to use with them, 5GB apiece of blob (unstructured data) and file storage, SQL and Azure Cosmos databases and enough bandwidth in and out of Microsoft's data centres - 15GB - to take advantage of all that.
Azure's always-free services include entry-level cloud apps, some Active Directory services, Azure Kubernetes Service container management and deployment, developer tools and free, unlimited private code repositories, push notification sending, 50 virtual networks and more.
Microsoft Azure review: User interface
Azure has departed from its Microsoft Server inspired interface choices in recent years, in favour of a more broadly accessible user interface design language that feels less cluttered than that of rivals Google and AWS. The Azure portal home screen provides an overview of the resources you currently have in use, links to monitoring and security tools and a quick access list of the most popular Azure services - a full, searchable list can be reached via the All services tab in the left-hand menu pane.
This pane also gives you access to all categories of Azure services, from your storage server and virtual machine lists to cost management and analysis tools to help you ensure that you're not burning more money than you should be.
While it's a bit of an acquired taste, the interface does an admirable job of making a mind-boggling array of services accessible and easily deployable within a few clicks. You can also create multiple, highly customisable Dashboard displays to track the status of your various hosted systems and services.
When it comes to virtual machine installations, like AWS, Azure expects you stick to using the operating system install images provided, though you can migrate existing on-premises VMs to Azure, assuming your images meet certain compatibility criteria. If you need greater flexibility on this front, such as the ability to upload and install operating systems from your own ISO images, you'll have to use a more VM-focused cloud services provider such as Vultr, but be aware that this will also involve more manual configuration in general.
Microsoft Azure review: Verdict
There's a lot of competition in cloud services, but Microsoft is being particularly aggressive when it comes to undercutting Amazon and Google, which makes it a very good option for small businesses right now. A variety of reserved and pay-as-you-go pricing options are available, with enough free credit and services to support a proof-of-concept project before you commit fully.
If you're looking to deploy cloud-based infrastructure to connect your Windows systems, Azure probably represents one of the easiest routes to doing that, although you'll still need traditional Windows network and server management expertise to get everything set up: this isn't a ready-rolled and fully configured solution. However, if you're looking to deploy Microsoft products in the cloud, Azure is exactly the right tool for the job.
Azure is a competitively priced and relatively easy-to-manage platform for cloud-based office network deployments and is a particularly good choice for Windows Server users.