Azure Winter Roundup 2016

Microsoft Azure LogoWith the weather starting to warm up and the sun out for longer, the worst of winter is behind us and we have spring to look forward to so what better time to wrap up 2016 with a recap of some of the new features to drop.

What’s New in General Availability

The all important GA milestone means these services are ready for prime time so here’s what’s new in the world of Azure since Al’s last update.

Managed Disks

Azure Virtual Machine Data DiskSince the dawn of infrastructure as a service in Microsoft Azure, Storage Account management has been one of the burdens that stayed with us into the cloud. Like managing LUN mapping and disk tier balancing from on-premises SAN arrays, we had to get the right number of Storage Accounts with the right capacity and number of IOPS in each.

Managed Disks now allows us to offload that burden to Microsoft and means we can provision IaaS VMs with the storage complexity of PaaS (read none). When we provision a machine and select the option to use Managed Disks, the platform with create everything behind the scenes.

Managed Disks are available in Premium and Standard storage flavours but the gotcha here is that for standard, you pay for the fully provisioned disk size, not the thin provisioned in use size as you do with traditional Storage Accounts so some customers may wish to continue using the conventional methods for storage.

For the full story on Managed Disks, read on at https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/blog/announcing-general-availability-of-managed-disks-and-larger-scale-sets/.

Azure SQL Database Performance Uplift

Azure SQL DatabasePlatform as a service database usage is really exciting for Coeo being SQL specialists so an announcement that states the performance of Azure SQL Database has doubled for write operations across all tiers and doubled for read operations on the premium tier is music to our ears.

For the full story on the performance enhancements read https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/blog/azure-sql-database-is-increasing-the-read-and-write-performance/ and if you are wondering if Azure SQL Database will work for you, there’s a good article comparing PaaS Azure SQL to IaaS SQL Server at https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/azure/sql-database/sql-database-paas-vs-sql-server-iaas.

New Av2 Series VMs

Azure Virtual MachineThe A series VM in Azure is the cornerstone of your traditional on-premises VM for many customers so seeing a new Av2 line of VMs is always a welcome addition.

Available in general availability in all regions, the new Av2 VMs give you more the same number of CPUs but more memory. An A2 VM vs. an A2_v2 VM gives you an extra 500MB up to 4GB. There are also memory intensive M editions such as the A2m_v2 offering vastly increased memory.

With the Av2 Series VMs, you do lose a chunk of storage however storage has now entirely been transitioned over to SSD from HDD which means more speed and who doesn’t like speed?

Check out the full specs on the new Av2 VM sizes at https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/azure/virtual-machines/virtual-machines-windows-sizes#av2-series.

Azure Site Recovery Support for Windows Server 2016

Azure Site RecoveryWith Windows Server 2016 release in September 2016, it was only a matter of time before this one was announced but we can now safely say yes, you can protect your shiny new Windows Server 2016 machines with ASR.

You can find out more about what scenarios ASR with Windows Server 2016 is supported at https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/blog/azure-site-recovery-windows-server-2016-asr/.

New Services in the UK

Azure Resource Manager Resource GroupWith the UK Azure regions being brought online late in 2016, there were a number of services that weren’t available in the beginning but Microsoft are staying on the throttle to bring all the services we love to Blighty.

Just over a week ago, it was announced that Azure Site Recovery and Azure Backup are now available in the UK which opens up huge potential for customers wanting cloud-based backup with data sovereignty concerns.

In addition to ASR and Azure Backup, the following Azure services are available in the UK regions as of December 2016:

  • SQL Server Stretch Database
  • Azure Functions
  • Power BI
  • Azure DocumentDB
  • Azure DevTest Labs

Azure Backup New Features

Azure BackupSticking on topic with Azure Backup, there are a number of new features. I particularly like this one given Azure Backup looks like Data Protection Manager so it gives me the System Center warm and fuzzies.

As well as the new region which you just read, there is now a new monitoring console in the Azure Portal allowing you to check up on your backup health and compliance, but best of all, VMware support. Yup, you read that right, using Azure Backup, you can now connect your Azure Backup Server to your vCenter Server, discover VMware VMs and protect them using Azure.

To find out about the new central console, go to https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/blog/azure-backup-server-key-features/ and to find out about how to use Azure Backup Server with VMware, go to https://azure.microsoft.com/en-gb/blog/four-simple-steps-to-backup-vmware-vms-using-azure-backup-server/.

Automatic VM Shutdown

Azure DevTest LabsVMs in Azure are great as part of a testing and development environment because you can get them stood up so easily but cost can sometimes be an issue when you’ve got a team hard at work.

A feature that has been available for some time in Azure DevTest Labs has now made it to the mainstream in the form of Auto-Shutdown. When configured, this allows you to define a schedule on which the VM will automatically shut down. Once down, you’ll only be paying for the storage allocation to the VM and not the compute cycles it’s burning.

The full story on Auto-Shutdown is at https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/blog/announcing-auto-shutdown-for-vms-using-azure-resource-manager/.

I’m just waiting for Auto-Start to appear now.

UK Pricing Reductions

Azure Alert IconWith all the drama around Brexit and the strength of the Pound, some customers saw their pricing for Azure services rise recently. With effect 6th February 2017 and applied to the UK South region, pricing for any Azure VM in the F series is down 18% for Windows and 23% for Linux. For Azure VMs which are A1 size, the price is dropping by a whopping 51% for Windows VMs and 42% for Linux VMs.

In addition to these VM savings, BLOB Storage prices are falling too, 38% for Cool Block BLOBs and 26% for Hot Block BLOBs.

To see how the pricing could effect you, look at the Virtual Machine Pricing page at https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/pricing/details/virtual-machines/windows/.

Taking Preview Features for a Spin

Preview features are what’s new and in the pipeline with Azure services. These aren’t ready for the main stage yet and things might change but it’s always great to see what’s coming next.

Azure Analysis Services

Azure Data Lake AnalyticsAzure Analysis Services is the Azure PaaS equivilant of SQL Server Analysis Services allowing you to build data models from SQL based data. You can even connect Azure Analysis Services directly to Power BI to give your data some zing.

Though strictly not a new preview as it has been around for a little while, Azure Analysis Services is now available in the North Europe region making it more viable to look at for customers in the UK.

Learn how to get started with Azure Analysis Services at https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/azure/analysis-services/analysis-services-create-server.

Azure Advisor

Azure Security CenterAzure Advisor is a dashboard in the Azure Portal which allows you to see recommendations from Microsoft on how you can make better use of your Azure resources and don’t automatically assume that means spend more.

Recommendations can range from how to configure parts of your service for better resiliency or performance or could be security advice to harden your service and yes, some may even help you save money on Azure services.

To check out the new Azure Advisor and find out how it could help you, take a look at https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/azure/advisor/advisor-overview.

Training Resources

If you are in the game of being certified on cloud technologies, there’s an offer out there right now you won’t want to miss.

Microsoft Learning are currently offering a bundle for all three Azure exams along with free second shot on each for just £208 which is a lot cheaper than buying all three on their own.

Head over to https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/learn/skills/ to buy your vouchers.

Certifications aside, the usual suspects for Azure are here to stay:

Microsoft Virtual Academy (MVA) https://mva.microsoft.com/product-training/microsoft-azure#!lang=1033
Channel 9 https://channel9.msdn.com/Series/Architecting-Microsoft-Azure-Solutions
Azure Resource Manager Quick Start Templates https://github.com/Azure/azure-quickstart-templates

TL;DR

Here’s a small bonus to close. If you are a billing administrator for your organisation or responsible for looking after your Azure billing, you’ll be super excited to learn that you can now get your statements emailed directly to you which means no more logging into the portal each month.

You can go to https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/blog/azure-email-invoices/ to read about how to enable this but the bad news is that it’s only for Pay As You Go subscriptions right now and doesn’t apply to Enterprise Agreement customers.

richardjgreen

Richard works as a Cloud Consultant for Fordway Solution where his primary focus is to help customers understand, adopt and develop with Microsoft Azure, Office 365 and System Center. Richard Green is an IT Pro with over 15 years' of experience in all things Microsoft including System Center and Office 365. He has previously worked as a System Center consultant and as an internal solutions architect across many verticals. Outside of work, he loves motorbikes and is part of the orange army, marshaling for NGRRC, British Superbikes and MotoGP. He is also an Assistant Cub Scout Leader.