Is Microsoft Azure ready for IaaS ?

Update 

It’s almost one year since Azure Resource Manager was announced as Generally Available. This was a great day for me, since as per my point of view, this was the beginning of Azure IaaS as an Enterprise Public cloud Platform.

Since that day, a great customer I’m working for decided to accept the challenge and implement Azure IaaS on to of Azure Resource Manager. A decision which  was mixed with some fear and perplexity. And today here we are : What happens after One year ? Is Azure IaaS Resource Manager is ready for Enterprise ?

I will need tens of pages to describe all the story : Decisions, Challenges, missing features, bad and good designs, workarounds, patience. But to resume these are the main conclusions I may sate:

1- Building blocks of IaaS

IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) can be ‘jargon’ speaking replaced  by Virtual Machines on the Cloud (Private or Public). To be able to build a complete platform using Iaas, the next build blocks must be present :

  • Compute : compute is the heart of IaaS, since it’s the heart of a Virtual Machine. It’s basically defined by : CPU and Memory (RAM) capabilities ie the principal Hardware Configuration. Compute decides of the performance of your workloads
  • Storage : Storage is  where all data reside and to which data is written and read. The quality of the Storage will decide of the quality of your workloads
  • Network : Network is the veins of the infrastructure, through it all information and data transit. It impacts directly the performance and the quality of  your workloads.

In addition to the above key building blocks, there are other factors which we judge ‘mandatory’ for an Infrastructure as a Service platform

  • Security : It’s the tools, features and functionalities controlling the security of the platform
  • Operations and Management : It’s the tools and the functionalities provided to manage and operate your platform
  • Backup : Mandatory and not an option, backup features are a key point to choose which platform and solution to use

 

2- Where is Microsoft Azure in all of this ?

The following are my conclusions and my thoughts about how Azure (my focus is on Resource Manager) performs regarding IaaS building blocks:

2.1- Compute

Microsoft Azure provides a rich offer on the Compute part. It’s continually evolving and providing new configurations. The offer difference is mainly about Compute Hardware (CPU type, Memory type) or the configuration itself (Core/Memory ratio, supported disk count). With the Public Cloud platforms, we may first be uncomfortable with the hardware configurations which we may find not standard (3.5 GB of RAM in of 4 GB!), but this is it, and our vision and ‘on-prem’ habits should change. Azure provides today different levels of compute configurations with different pricing variations, and I estimate the offer rich till today. Microsoft is progressively adding new configurations and compute offers.

Azure Virtual Machine series and sizes: https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/documentation/articles/virtual-machines-windows-sizes/

Azure Virtual Machine Pricing : https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/pricing/details/virtual-machines/

Positive points

Negative points

Rich configurations offer
Continuous evolution
No SLA for Single Virtual Machine (You need to split your service on at least two VMs to achieve SLA)

No intermediate hardware configurations (From 7 to 14 GB RAM for example)

Positive points : Rich configurations offer, Continuous evolution

Negative Points : No SLA for Single Virtual Machine (You need to split your service on at least two VMs to achieve SLA)

2.2- Storage

Microsoft Azure currently provides two kind of Storage types : Standard and Premium. The difference is mainly about Performance, and consequently Pricing. While Premium Storage provides interesting and high performance, it’s relatively expensive and does not follow the ‘Pay as you Consume’ model, an extremely negative point. Standard Storage is not expensive, but we can’t say the same thing about Performance. Capped at 500 IOPS/disk, you cannot expect  results for your workloads requiring on storage performance.

Positive points

Negative points

Two Storage classes
Pricing for Standard Storage
Standard Storage performance is poor
Premium Storage pricing model : Expensive + ‘No pay as you go’
Should see more Storage offers (Cold Storage, Archive Storage…)

2.3- Network

Microsoft Azure Networking concept is very interesting. You can ‘almost’ translate you on-prem networking configuration on Azure. The concept of Virtual Networks and Subnets is easy to adopt. Still, passing from the VLAN based networks to this type of flat networks may be cumbersome for some people, but to be fair : It’s the same concept. Interconnections with on-premises networks or other virtual networks on other Azure regions is also provided by Azure via two models : VPN and Express Route. VPN is the standard way to connect two sites using commodity hardware and the internet network. Express Route is a Microsoft offer which uses a Private circuit (provided of course by a Network provider) to interconnect your on-premises sites to Azure datacenters with high bandwidth / Low latency properties. But on the meanwhile there still some missing features which may stop you or slowing you down indeed. Many customers want to use their standard products ad tools for Network Routing/Firewalling purposes (VPN, Firewall, IDS, IPS…) and to avoid using the Azure Network Security Groups feature (NSG –> Many drawbacks), for that many MS partners provide products adapted for Azure : Virtual Appliances (Fortinet, baracuda…). There are two big limitations blocking customers using Virtual Appliances:

  • VA high Availability : Since VA is an Azure VM, and since there is no SLA for single VM, you need to deploy at least two VAs and load balance traffic between them. But with 2 VAs we hit the load balancing limit. Azure Load balancer (which is the only way to achieve Lad balancing on Azure, since VIP are not supported) does not support balancing traffic at the IP level, protocol and a port is mandatory, hence no HA for virtual appliances.
  • UDR on Gateway Subnet : In order to use the native VPN and Express Route offer from Microsoft, you need to deploy a Gateway at the Virtual Network level. The issue today is that if you want to use a VA associated with the Azure Gateway to connect to other sites, it will be impossible. UDR (User Defined Routing) is a feature permitting changing the routing for your Azure subnets ie you can control where the next hops of your packets will land. This is very interesting since you can send all your Azure traffic to the Virtual Appliance for filtering. Unfortunately, since UDR cannot be applied to the Gateway Subnet, if you use a VA and the Azure Gateway to connect Azure to other sites, then all the inbound traffic to Azure via the Gateway will land directly on the subnets and not the VA : The combination of a VA + Gateway is impossible. In the other hand, you can use the VA to create a VPN with your sites, but as stated on the first limitation, there is no SLA for VA (Azure gateway is under an SLA of 99.9)

 

Positive points

Negative points

Simple to understand
Simple to design and deploy
Network Security Group is not a scalable Security solution

No HA virtual Appliances (No Load Balancing at the IP level)

No UDR on the Gateway Subnet

2.4- Security

Security is a huge topic, since Security can touch all the fabric level : Access Security, Network Security, Confidentiality, Integrity… and so on. But this post is intended to see if globally, Azure provides features and requirement for Security. Let’s talk about some Security aspects at different levels:

  • RBAC : Role Based Access Control was introduced last year with the new Portal to add the capacity to use pre-defined roles to limit the Access to the Azure resources. This was an achievement and gave customers more control about how their users and admin can manage the resources. The introduction of ‘Custom roles’ at the end of 2015 was just amazing.
  • Storage : Usually when we say Storage and Security, we say Encryption. Azure Storage does not support Encryption at Rest, unfortunately. This feature was introduced on Preview few weeks ago and supports only Microsoft managed keys and no Customers keys (Encryption at Rest first goal is to avoid MS access users data, so …), support for Customers keys is in progress. Today, if you want to achieve encryption for your IaaS VMs storage, you can enable Bitlocker on your Windows VMs as a solution. But I don’t think that managing bitlocker is appreciated by customers.
  • Network : This is actually a hard point on Azure. The feature provided by Microsoft for Network filtering and ACLing is Network Security Groups (NSG). NSG are  very difficult to managed and to implement, in addition to the limitations. The alternative is to use Virtual Appliances ie leaders products. But as stated on 2.3- Network, there are many limitations so far
  • Compliance and Trust : Microsoft Azure is adding day after day Compliance and attestation about the compliancy of its Cloud Platform. Nothing to say about it. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/trustcenter/Compliance

 

Positive points

Negative points

RBAC
Compliance and trust
Partner Solutions for Security
Storage Encryption at Rest (Only on Preview + No customer managed keys)

Network Security features (weak points)

2.5- Operations and Management 

Imagine you got a Mercedes S Class with the best options and engine, but without a dash (This is unlikely but just image it), you will drive like a blind, no Speed, no signals, nothing. I’m sure you will not buy this car and prefer a bicycle instead. But this is not the case for Microsoft Azure and specially IaaS. A bunch of tools and solutions are provided to manage and operate the platform. I can enumerate the Azure Portal itself, Azure Powerhell, CLI as the basic management ways. Azure provide Audit Logs for all the operations logs, notifications, dashboards and diagnostic logs too. Azure also provides OMS (Operations Management System) which include a monitoring feature, and the catalog is growing. The least and not the last, Azure Security center which gives you a Security view of your IaaS platform.

Positive points

Negative points

A bunch of tools for management and monitoring OMS is cool, but not all the features are yet included

A lot of tools means a lot of needed knowledge

2.6- Backup

The last point of this post is Backup. After one year of Struggle, Microsoft announced on Mars the Public Preview of Azure Backup for IaaS V2, finally. Azure Backup for IaaS V1 is GA from long time ago, but before I’m mainly talk about Azure ARM, this was my struggle. This capability prevents us from using Azure for Production since the completion of the Pilot (End 2015). No Backup means No Production means nothing.  Fortunately, GA is expected at Q2, so starting from July, Azure IaaS V2 customers will be able to backup their Virtual Machines and hence, use them for production. Customers can from now, PoC the solution, and create their policies, since no major changes on operations or design will affect it (https://buildwindows.wordpress.com/2016/04/13/azure-backup-with-azure-recovery-services-features-and-limitations/)

Positive points

Negative points

GA expected before July No supported Backup solution for IaaS V2 today

3- The Verdict

I’m an Azure lover, I trust and believe in this solution as a believed on Hyper-V, since 2008 R2 SP1 vs the giant VMware. The question is : Is Azure ready for IaaS today ?

The answer : Yes for Envisioning, Design and PoC, and starting from this summer* for Production

* In this Summer, many missing features are expected to see birth like Azure Backup GA, UDR on Subnet Gateway, Storage Encryption GA and VA high Availability. This will be enough to finally benefit for the Power of Azure

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