Just recently, Microsoft finally launched Windows Azure Infrastructure as a Service – or IaaS – as a new service in the array of Windows Azure cloud services. Essentially, what this is, is a way to rent infrastructure components in the cloud; Storage, Network and Servers (With OS), and connect them to your existing – on premise – infrastructure, so everything works together. The upside for you? Cost efficiency and a higher flexibility to scale up and down as needed. Naturally, as this is a completely new service, not a lot of experience and knowledge is out there yet.
So let us have an early look at if Windows Azure IaaS has an impact on you a SharePoint professional and/or architects. What are the scenarios where we can benefit from Windows Azure IaaS? And… What are the challenges?
Until now, when talking SharePoint in the cloud, the discussion have almost completely been around Office 365 and/or SharePoint Online. For good reason, as this is still the only way Microsoft provide baked and ready SharePoint in the cloud. Windows Azure is not changing that very much – at least for now.
But since not all companies are yet keen on putting their SharePoint data onto a shared environment like SharePoint Online, or they have some need for customizations that can simply not be done in SharePoint Online (everything that require server-side code and a few other things), there are some relevance for Windows Azure IaaS and SharePoint. Actually, during a Windows Azure IaaS meeting with Microsoft just last week, the Microsoft Product Manager called SharePoint on IaaS “the biggest workload of them all”.
SharePoint farms in the cloud
Windows Azure IaaS allow you to install a complete SharePoint farm in the cloud. You will have complete control over the servers in the farm, using specially developed PowerShell “cmdlets” or the web based User Interface, which is pretty good, but does not expose all available functionality. In addition, you can log on to the individual servers in your farm using Remote Desktop, so you can control all the SharePoint stuff online as well.
So why would you build a SharePoint farm in Windows Azure IaaS? The obvious reason is to cut the initial cost and potential delay in time to delivery of hardware and installation, configuration and test internally. You still need to do some of this work, but everything that is related to operating System, storage and networking is done for you (You need to make some simple choices underway, naturally. Like naming, networking etc.) It is very effective, and you can easily adjust system resources like CPU’s and RAM available per server. No need to wait for a shipment from your hardware provider.
But there are other interesting scenarios as well.
If you are a global operations, you might have users in other regions of the world. Since SharePoint continues to be a centrally deployed solution, using datacenters around the world is something users are asking for – for performance reasons. With Windows Azure IaaS you could actually place you new SharePoint farm in Asia, and control it from US or Europe. No hassle and no extra cost.
What if you are doing a large project with a number of partners? This is a pretty good candidate as well, given that SharePoint Online does not meet your needs. With the enterprise plans for Office 365, you get rights to allow a certain number of external people (partner users) onto your SharePoint sites. You can find more details on that in the Service Description for Office 365. Just be aware of what you actually already have, so you can select the best solution. With a SharePoint farm in Windows Azure IaaS, you have more control and more capabilities – like adding custom code (server-side) – and therefore you can build a collaborative solution that fit the exact needs of you and your project partners. Just remember, that you need to have licenses to cover for everyone – which is why you want to make sure that Office 365 is not good enough.
And what if you have a team of developers? If you have created a template with SharePoint and dev tools installed, you can spawn new developer machines in minutes and only pay for them when they are needed. These can naturally be single machine environments or multiple servers in a farm, if you need to test farm deployment or something like that.
So what shouldn’t you do with SharePoint in IaaS? There are a few thing that you need to consider very carefully. Since SharePoint will be outside you LAN, you will work on the goodwill of the internet connection available. Microsoft promise that they have a huge hole to the web from the Azure datacenter, but my bet is that your company – or at least some of the sites you have around the globe – do not. Users must expect to have a different experience compared to an on-premise SharePoint service. Even with a fat WAN connection from your HQ, you are working under the same conditions as everyone else in the internet; there are factors that you will have a hard time to control.
These are important things to consider when you decide what type of applications you want to place in IaaS. If you lose internet connectivity, you cannot get to your information. In Office 365, your users can just go to the nearest café and log on to their Wi-Fi. But with IaaS you will most likely need access to you own infrastructure for a VPN connection to the cloud farm.
Also, you don’t want to split a farm across on-premise and cloud – even though it sounds attempting. The potential latency between the servers will hurt you – and you users. The type of SharePoint infrastructure you want to put on Windows Azure IaaS should be “self-contained” and so should the apps running on it.
You can still share services across on premises and IaaS; like search. But even doing that needs to be planned carefully, to avoid weird service interruptions.
So that was building or own SharePoint farm in Windows Azure. What else can we do with SharePoint and Windows Azure IaaS?
- Using Windows Azure for Storage?
- Securing ADFS with redundancy?
- Using Windows Azure with SharePoint Apps?
I will cover these – and more – in later posts…
Just one other thing before I let you go… (Yes – This is an update to the original version of this post) There is currently some confusion around SharePoint 2013 on Windows Azure IaaS. Just today, I read Dan Holme’s post on SharePointProMag.com where he correct a comment on the presumed lack of support for 2013 on Azure IaaS made in his blog last week. According to Dan, SharePoint 2013 IS indeed supported. But it seems that there is not an official statement from Microsoft on this. Personally, I discussed SharePoint 2013 on IaaS with MS just last week, and got the message that Microsoft is working on sorting out 2013 supportability and it sounds like Dan have had similar experiences.
People at Microsoft – who should know the status on this issue very well – is not able to give a clear answer. But still, 2013 support will be there eventually – and it works OK already – ,so don’t worry too much. Windows Azure IaaS are offering two new standard machine configurations with more resources, so they better meet the CPU/Memory requirements of Microsoft SharePoint Server 2013.