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Azure upgrades flesh out platform, improve throughput

A number of Azure upgrades rolled out by Microsoft this week aim to fill gaps in the service and solidify the platform as the biggest competitor to Amazon Web Services.

Microsoft is making important upgrades to address throughput issues with Azure and provide customers with better insights into their use of the public cloud platform.

Microsoft released a raft of upgrades to Azure this week, including several instance types, new compliance standards and improved networking and security. The company also is upgrading hardware across its data centers, and one of the most important changes in public preview is accelerated networking for single root I/O virtualization, which provides up to 25 Gbps of throughput and latency reduction of up to 10x.

Latency, especially with storage, has been an issue for Azure, so the networking advancements are most welcomed, said David McKenney, director of product engineering at TierPoint, a Microsoft Azure managed services provider in St. Louis. Azure allows for very high IOPs, and problems have arisen with throughput hurting overall latency to the point where it's not production-ready in some cases, he said.

Seeing how the Azure updates helped chop latency and increase overall throughput "was pretty incredible," McKenney said.

These Azure updates are tied to custom field programmable gate arrays first introduced to improve the performance of Microsoft's Bing search engine. Microsoft estimates the overall enhancements to its servers will improve network performance by 33% to 50%.

Microsoft also released the L-series and H-series of VMs, which are tailored for high storage and CPU speed, respectively. These join other new instance types Microsoft has rolled out over the past year, including its GPU-based N-series and large instances for SAP HANA.

Milliman, an actuarial service provider based in Seattle, runs its platform-as-a-service offering on Azure and often runs different instance types to meet its clients varying needs.

"Matching the hardware and processing requirements at a price point and having a bastion of options is really important to us," said Paul Maher, principal and CTO of life technology solutions at Milliman. "If you're trying to run across a diverse client range, with varying price sensitivities, the last thing you want is a one-size-fits-all scenario."

Another important upgrade for Milliman is the increased transparency from the preview release of Azure Monitor. The company wants to do more around diagnostics on the health of their workloads, and pass more feedback to customers about uptime, resiliency and performance analytics.

"For heavy users, which we are, it's really important that we feel like we have granular control," Maher said.

Another notable Azure addition is IPv6 support and web application firewall (WAF) capabilities with Application Gateway. Microsoft also added to its compliance portfolio, with ISO 22301 certification and IT-Grundschutz Workbook for customers subject to German IT protocols, which comes in conjunction with its new German region that opened this month. Microsoft added EU-U.S. Privacy Shield Framework in August.

Compliance standards are a major issue for enterprises, so providing those assurances for customers is an important step in getting customers comfortable with public cloud, said Carl Brooks, an analyst at 451 Research in New York.

"It's still a big pain in the butt, but Microsoft and Amazon are working to make that irrelevant as soon as possible," Brooks said.

Sizing up Azure against AWS

Microsoft is the closest public cloud platform to Amazon Web Services (AWS) in terms of maturity of its product and breadth of services, but it's still two to three years behind, Brooks said.

Most of the products released this week from Microsoft were announced earlier this year, but the quick turnaround shows Microsoft has adjusted to the speed of cloud computing and can deliver on its promises much faster, Brooks said.

"You used to be able to announce something and sit on it in development for two years because you were the only shop in town," Brooks said. "Now you have to deliver things and they have to actually work when people get their hands on them."

When I first started I had to talk to customers about a list of things you couldn't do [with Azure]. When I look back at that list now, just about every one of them is crossed off.
David McKenneydirector of product engineering, TierPoint

The biggest remaining limitation for Microsoft Azure is the cap of disc sizes to one terabyte, which prevents some large legacy workloads from migrating over. Still, Microsoft has come a long way with its infrastructure-as-a-service capabilities since moving more into the infrastructure space in 2013, McKenney said.

"When I first started I had to talk to customers about a list of things you couldn't do," McKenney said. "When I look back at that list now, just about every one of them is crossed off."

Trevor Jones is a news writer with TechTarget's Data Center and Virtualization Media Group. Contact him at [email protected].

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