How to calculate what to move to the Windows Azure cloud

A former Microsoft Windows Azure evangelist offers some advice for what to move to the cloud and when.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

I’m taking a couple weeks off before the busiest part of Microsoft’s 2012 kicks into full gear. But never fear: The Microsoft watching will go on while I’m gone. I’ve asked a few illustrious members of the worldwide Microsoft community to share their insights via guest posts on a variety of topics — from Windows Phone, to Hyper-V. Today’s entry is all about Windows Azure and is authored by Wade Wegner.

I spent the last four years of my career as a Technical Evangelist for Windows Azure at Microsoft. Not only did I focus on driving the adoption of Windows Azure through building developer training kits and tool kits, but I also got to work with hundreds of customers and partners making their first investments in Windows Azure. Some of these folks started small with either a few cores and some data up in the cloud, while others made huge bets on the platform and leveraged thousands of cores and stored petabytes of data.

Looking back, one of the things I took for granted in my role at Microsoft was the degree to which users have a good idea about the kind of workloads they can -– or even should –- move to the cloud. By the time I worked with most customers, they had already gone through the arduous process of figuring out which applications they wanted to move to the cloud and committing to do so. My job was typically to help them figure out how to solve specific technology issues related to their Windows Azure investments.

When I joined Aditi Technologies a few months ago, it was a bit of a wake-up call for me to see just how much time is spent talking with customers about what to move to the cloud even before the question of how is brought up. I had thought that it was common knowledge what applications would be best served in the cloud and how easy this decision should be for customers. Yet, the more I worked with customers in the early stages, the less surprised I was that that so much time is spent in making this decision. Deciding which workload to move to the cloud is one of the most important decisions to make. Often times the future of other projects and initiatives is based on the outcome of this first project.

When taking a cloud platform approach, as you do with Windows Azure, there’s a very different set of considerations a customer needs to make than if they’re simply moving their infrastructure to a virtualized environment or taking a software-as-a-service approach.

Since the platform approach focuses on the application instead of the underlying hardware, network, or even operating system, customers need to think much more long term about their architecture holistically. They need to think short term: “what do I want to gain in the next three-to-six months?” as well as long term: “how will this decision impact my future technology investments and business goals?” Independently these questions can be fairly simple to answer. In combination they create something of a domino effect, and the answers become much more complex.

With this in mind, I’ve come up with the following three “tips” that should guide a customer’s thought process when contemplating a move to the cloud.

1. Always plan for the long-term. It’s easy to be tempted by solutions that promise immediate benefit and what looks like the quickest route to the cloud.  While the PaaS (platform as a service) approach may appear more complex, the long-term benefits such as built-in elasticity, service healing, patch management, and so forth, make it a worthwhile investment that will pay dividends both on the technology and business sides of the house.

2. It’s okay to start with something simple. Many companies use smaller applications with fewer dependencies as a way kick start their Windows Azure journey. Rather than taking a “fork lift” approach and moving everything all at once you can think of hybrid scenarios where you tactically move individual pieces to the cloud – one at a time, but as part of a larger, interconnected architecture.

3. Know the outcomes you want to achieve. It could be cost savings or time to market; regardless, know what you want to achieve and design the solution accordingly.

With these “tips” in mind, I put together a series of questions for customers to keep in mind as they consider moving different workloads to Windows Azure. This is by no means exhaustive, but it helps set the context of how and what people should think about.

Are you building a new application or are you able to adapt an existing application to operate in the cloud?

You can certainly move existing applications into Windows Azure, but oftentimes you’ll have to make changes so that you can benefit from the elasticity of the platform. Consequently it is sometimes easier to target new applications when first moving to Windows Azure.

Do you have large amounts of data that you either have to store or process in your solution? Do you worry about running out of storage capacity on any apps with more users coming on board?

The low cost and durability of storage in the cloud make it extremely practical to start collecting and storing data that you otherwise would have thrown away. This opens up all kinds of opportunities to start mining your data for patterns and insights that you otherwise would have missed.

Do you have a predictable pattern of usage with your applications? Alternatively, do you have spikey and unpredictable usage patterns?

The ability to scale horizontally means you only need to allocate enough compute to satisfy the immediate needs of the application.  When you need more servers, spin up more servers. When you’re doing with them, shut them down.

Is having a global presence for your application important?

Windows Azure has eight data centers worldwide – and a lot more content delivery networks for caching your static data – which makes it easy to target a worldwide audience. Additionally, there’s a service called Traffic Manager that lets you define a policy for routing your users to the closest datacenter to reduce latency.

Do you have solutions that require access to services that exist inside secure networks?

There are many ways to securely connect back into your on-premises assets – this can be especially important if you’re in a regulated industry or have information that you cannot move into the cloud. You can target specific services by using the Service Bus to relay messages through your firewall, benefiting from a service-oriented approach on-premises. Furthermore, you can also segregate your systems by using queuing technologies – e.g. drop a message into queue in the cloud and pick it up from a local machine.

While answering yes to any of these questions doesn’t necessarily mean your application is an ideal fit for moving into Windows Azure, but it at least suggests that you can explore the possibilities. Microsoft and many of its top partners offer assessments and design sessions that focus on identifying the best options when moving to Windows Azure. Take advantage of these options when you can, and also check out these two great resources to help get you started moving your apps to the cloud:  Moving Applications to the Cloud, 2nd Edition and Get Started with your Cloud Journey.

I understand that your first inclination may be to immediately start building an application or service for the cloud – at least, as a developer, that’s my first inclination. If you can, try to take a few moments to think about which application to work on – often times this decision can be more difficult than the actual technical implementation.

Wade Wegner is the CTO at Aditi Technologies, where he is responsible for driving Aditi’s technical strategy and ensuring continuous innovation on behalf of its customers. Prior to joining Aditi, Wegner held several roles in Microsoft, most recently leading Technical Evangelism for Windows Azure. In this capacity, he coordinated across engineering, marketing, sales, and field teams in order to drive the adoption of Windows Azure. Outside of work, Wegner is an aspiring brew master. You can follow his brewing - and Windows Azure - adventures on Twitter at @WadeWegner.

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