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Top Microsoft Azure cloud updates of 2015

The Microsoft Azure cloud service solidified itself as the top alternative to AWS in 2015, with an improved portal, more partnerships, and upgrades around big data and containers.

Amazon Web Services remained the dominant force in cloud by a wide margin and showed no signs of slowing down. But 2015 was the year that Microsoft's public cloud rose above the rest of the pack and became the clear runner-up in the market.

Microsoft added a host of new features to Azure, including a heavy focus on big data and containers, and used its enterprise experience to be the most likely alternative to Amazon for large corporations shedding their own data centers.

Here are some of the most important updates to Azure in 2015.

Azure Data Lake, IoT Suite and big data in Microsoft Azure cloud

Microsoft went big on big data in 2015, with a series of new features and improvements to existing services for processing massive data sets in the cloud.

Azure Data Lake was rolled out in April. The Hadoop File System is built to handle high volumes at low latency, with no limits on how much data can be stored in a single account. That service, as well as Azure Stream Analytics, represent some of the best cloud improvements from Microsoft in 2015, said Dave Bartoletti, principal analyst at Forrester Research.

"They're great updates to deal with huge data sets, and an analytics service that's easy to use by nondata scientists to get started quickly -- and cheaply -- with big data analytics," Bartoletti said.

It's almost like a full-time job keeping up with all the new stuff Azure is rolling out.
Mark Clawsoncloud services team lead at eMazzanti Technologies

Other related services added to the Microsoft Azure cloud include the Internet of Things (IoT) Suite, SQL Data Warehouse, and the massive G-series VMs for compute and storage. The continued upgrades around big data have a lot of potential for predictive modeling and correcting problems, said Mark Clawson, cloud services team lead at eMazzanti Technologies, a Microsoft partner and IT consultancy.

"It's almost like a full-time job keeping up with all the new stuff Azure is rolling out," Clawson said. "There's just a plethora of tools and constant additions to the stack."

Less a singular new powerful tool than a packaging of services, IoT Suite provided preconfigured, end-to-end services for collecting and analyzing data. It expanded on Azure Intelligent Systems and included Azure Stream Analytics, so customers can scale quickly, monitor workflow for efficiencies and integrate existing workloads.

Ease of use

IoT Suite wasn't the only streamlining to the Microsoft Azure cloud this year. In fact, automation and improved user experience was a big theme for Azure throughout 2015.

"They've done a fantastic job with the new Azure portal," Clawson said. "The user interface is great, and some of the tools that have come along with that really makes our lives simpler and helps us provide a larger set of tools we can expose to the businesses to solve their problems."

Azure App Service was one of the best examples of the streamlining efforts, in which Microsoft took a set of existing services and brought them together under one suite. It went a step further with PowerApps, which added an easy-to-use interface optimized for building business applications, said Jillian Freeman, senior analyst at Technology Business Research.

"This opens Azure to a whole new set of users," Freeman said. "While many vendors, including Salesforce, ServiceNow and IBM, have been marketing around the 'citizen developer,' Azure App Service may have cracked the code."

Partnerships with old friends

Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Dell have each walked away from the public cloud, but that doesn't mean the massive tech vendors don't have a role to play in the market.

Microsoft once again turned to its old hardware partners to extend the reach of its software products. Dell and HPE both rolled out managed hybrid services for connecting private clouds to Azure.

Azure Stack

Azure Stack is a private cloud service for those still wary of the public cloud that combines software-defined infrastructure, as well as Azure portal, Azure Resource Manager, and Azure-based IaaS and PaaS services. It takes away perceived security risks by keeping workloads behind the firewall while adding the same functionality around infrastructure as a service, platform as a service and management that can be found in Microsoft's public cloud counterpart.

"Once a customer is ready to move to a hosted cloud environment, Microsoft is hoping to get around competition with AWS," Freeman said.

Expanded reach

The public cloud market is certainly global, but in many cases, it's the local touch that counts.

Due in large part to data sovereignty laws and proximity to data, mega cloud vendors have plunked down data centers across the globe, as they race to reach the widest possible audience. Microsoft was certainly no different, with new data centers in the U.K., India, Germany and the Netherlands. Azure currently operates out of 20 regions in nine different countries.

Azure Container Service

Like several of its competitors before it, Microsoft in September said it will offer its own container service to orchestrate and manage fleets of containers on its public cloud.

Azure Container Service is built on Docker, Apache Mesos and the Mesosphere Datacenter Operating System. Microsoft certainly wasn't the first to offer this feature, and it doesn't necessarily stand out from the pack at this point, but it's an important step in what has become a crowded competition over managing containers.

Azure welcomes Red Hat, open source community

Open source software plays a big role in the cloud, and the once-notoriously closed Microsoft hasn't shied away from embracing it under CEO Satya Nadella. From Docker to Hadoop, Azure continued to embrace open source in 2015, and there was possibly no bigger punctuation to this shift than the partnership with Red Hat.

Though not the first Linux distribution available on Azure, Red Hat was conspicuously missing from what could be deployed on the public cloud. That changed in November when Microsoft said it would soon allow customers to run Red Hat Linux Enterprise applications and other Red Hat tools directly on Azure.

"Microsoft is a different company in the past year and a half," said Robert Mahowald, program vice president at IDC.

Trevor Jones is a news writer with TechTarget's data center and virtualization media group. Contact him at [email protected]

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