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Microsoft bills Azure network as the hub for remote offices

Azure Virtual WAN is Microsoft's bid to play in the emerging SD-WAN space, as it seeks to solve users' networking problems while it adds new customers.

Microsoft's foray into the rapidly growing SD-WAN market could solve a major customer hurdle and open Azure to...

even more workloads.

All the major public cloud platforms have increased their networking functionality in recent months, and Microsoft's latest service, Azure Virtual WAN, pushes the boundaries of those capabilities. The software-defined network acts as a hub that links with third-party tools to improve application performance and reduce latency for companies with multiple offices that access Azure.

IDC estimates the software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) market will hit $8 billion by 2021, as cloud computing continues to proliferate and employees must access cloud-hosted workloads from various locations. So far, the major cloud providers have left that work to partners.

But this Azure network service solves a big problem for customers that make decisions about network transports and integration with existing routers, as they consume more cloud resources from more locations, said Brad Casemore, an IDC analyst.

"Now what you've got is more policy-based, tighter integration within the SD-WAN," he said.

Azure Virtual WAN uses a distributed model to link Microsoft's global network with traditional on-premises routers and SD-WAN systems provided by Citrix and Riverbed. Microsoft's decision to rely on partners, rather than provide its own gateway services inside customers' offices, suggests it doesn't plan to compete across the totality of the SD-WAN market, but rather provide an on-ramp to integrate with third-party products.

Customers can already use various SD-WAN providers to easily link to a public cloud, but Microsoft has taken the level of integration a step further, said Bob Laliberte, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group in Milford, Mass. Most SD-WAN vendors are building out security ecosystems, but Microsoft already has that in Azure, for example.

This could also simplify the purchasing process, and it would make sense for Microsoft to eventually integrate this virtual WAN with Azure Stack to help facilitate hybrid deployments, Laliberte said.

It's unclear if customers trust Microsoft -- or any single hyperscale cloud vendor -- at the core of their SD-WAN implementation, as their architectures spread across multiple clouds.

The Azure Virtual WAN service is billed as a way to connect remote offices to the cloud, and also to each other, with improved reliability and availability of applications. But that interoffice linkage also could lure more companies to use Azure for a whole host of other services, particularly customers just starting to embrace the public cloud.

There are still questions about the Azure network service, particularly around multi-cloud deployments. It's unclear if customers trust Microsoft -- or any single hyperscale cloud vendor -- at the core of their SD-WAN implementation, as their architectures spread across multiple clouds, Casemore said.

Azure updates boost network security, data analytics tools

Microsoft also introduced an Azure network security feature this week, Azure Firewall, with which users can create and enforce network policies across multiple endpoints. A stateful firewall protects Azure Virtual Network resources and maintains high availability without any restrictions on scale.

Several other updates include an expanded Azure Data Box service, still in preview, which provides customers with an appliance onto which they can upload data and ship directly to an Azure data center. These types of devices have become a popular means to speed massive migrations to public clouds. Another option for Azure users, Azure Data Box Disk, uses SSD disks to transfer up to 40 TB of data spread across five drives. That's smaller than the original box's 100 TB capacity, and better suited to collect data from multiple branches or offices, the company said.

Microsoft also doubled the query performance of Azure SQL Data Warehouse to support up to 128 concurrent queries, and waived the transfer fee for migrations to Azure of legacy applications that run on Windows Server 2008/2008 R2 and SQL Server 2008/2008 R2, for which Microsoft will end support in 2020 and 2019 respectively.* Microsoft also plans to add features to Power BI for ingestions and integration across BI models that are similar to Microsoft customers' experience with Power Query for Excel.

*Article updated to clarify end of service dates.

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