We often get asked questions such as, "Should we be using the cloud?" and "Where do we start?" In this post we are going to focus on what the benefits are and then the approaches we use to help organisations start leveraging them.
'The Cloud' is a hot topic right now and many of the worlds largest companies are moving to take advantage of the benefits. The great thing is that you don't have to be a big company to benefit from what the cloud has to offer - everyone can!
Moving an application or an entire set of applications and their infrastructure to the cloud sounds like a daunting and risky task, so it is important to understand the advantages first to ensure that the move is the right decision for your business.
One of the most obvious advantages is that you don't have to buy any hardware and you only pay for the hours you use. In addition to the absence of your own hardware, you don't have to worry about licences for the underlying OS and in some circumstances other applications such as SQL Server.
Scaling to cope with demand is another big benefit. Gone are the days of trying to second guess likely demand for the data centres and ensuring that you have the capacity to cope with the spike in traffic that a large marketing campaign may bring. You no longer have to provision hardware to cope with peak demand; you simply scale up when you need it and scale back down when you don't.
Disaster Recovery (DR)
In the good old days DR was a big concern for line of business applications and to obtain durability, redundancy had to be put in place. This redundancy came in the form of replicas of production environments in disparate locations and these replicas came at significant cost. Things were made slightly easier and simpler with the advent of Virtualisation however it was still a very costly and cumbersome function.
One of the benefits of a cloud hosted application is that DR comes almost out of the box. Many of the underlying services such as storage are automatically geo-replicated. Fundamentally, the cloud platforms have DR inherently as they have to plan for failiures: disks fail, networks fail, hardware fails and at the scale these cloud platforms are at, failures are happening all the time. To cope with this they are designed to be resilient and have the ability to move things around to keep the upper layers functioning.
Applications need maintenance and can sometimes fail, however the cloud platforms provide the ability to automatically replicate across geographically disparate locations, collating resources with affinity groups - DR covered!
Technology moves fast, really fast, and the features in Azure help you to keep up. Some of the notable opportunities are in the technologies that up until recently have been the domain of the much larger companies.
Using HDInsight and Azure Machine Learning (ML) it is possible to gain great insights into a business, providing actionable metrics to help growth and provide direction. Machine Learning provides predictive analysis to help inform decisions but also creates opportunities to provide highly tailored and immersive customer experiences.
There are so many opportunities and so many more to come in the future and having your applications and data within the same ecosystem reduces the time to market providing the competitive advantage.
We have helped a number of our clients move their existing applications to Microsoft Azure and the process has been slightly different for each.
Enterprise applications (applications that the business depends on) require little to no down time during the transition, and it could be very costly if things don't go to plan. To reduce this risk, we move sample applications as a dry run to expose potential pitfalls of the planned transition.
The approach can be dictated by a combination of factors such as timescales, immediate objectives, the long term vision and the age and structure of the applications. The approaches can be broken down into ‘lift and shift’, ‘hybrid’ and ‘full adoption’.
Lift and shift
The most straight forward approach is to lift and shift the applications and replicate the existing architecture as is. This would be using Azure as an 'Infrastructure as a Service' (IaaS) and would commonly comprise of Virtual Machines, Load balancers (Traffic Manager) and Networks.
Although most hosted environments these days are Virtualised, the added benefit of the Azure IaaS and Virtual Machines is that you can easily scale past the hard limit of most host Virtual Environments.
In some cases - most commonly with large Enterprises - we find it isn't feasible to move all of the applications, and some have to be hosted either locally or in an existing data centre.
In these cases, the most appropriate applications are identified and moved out. A dedicated high performance VPN is then configured so that the migrated applications function just as they did before and internal users can access them in exactly the same way they always have.
Full adoption (in one go)
Sometimes it is possible to move an application straight into Azure with little or no modifications. Applications can be deployed into auto-scaling Azure Web Apps and databases migrated to SQL Azure. Standard file access can be deferred to Azure files that uses Blob storage underneath to mimic SMB storage.
We find that this is only really possible for simple applications with few dependencies. Using Azure in this way is commonly described as 'Platform as a Service' (PaaS).
Full adoption (in phases)
Much like our development approach, the move is often phased. This approach reduces the risk when migrating business critical systems and delivers benefit as early as possible.
The initial step is to move the application or applications that can be moved into to Azure, taking the IaaS approach. Once this is complete, elements of the application are abstracted and the relevant services of Azure are leveraged, moving gradually towards the PaaS model.
Should you do it?
From experience of assessing this for a variety of organisations, the most common answer is 'yes'. However, full assessment of the current infrastructure, costs and risks should be made before any action is taken.
There are many ways to approach the transition and you have to select the right approach for your business.
Trial running small elements reduces the risks associated with migration. Engaging with experts further reduces that risk and will help you to gain maximum benefit from the platform.
To find out how we can help your organisation leverage the power of cloud platforms, get in touch.