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How to plan for an Azure cloud migration

A Windows Server migration into the Microsoft cloud comes with several administrative benefits, but it also means there are new management aspects to worry about.

The hype surrounding the public cloud is increasingly difficult for many in IT to overlook.

The promises of an Azure cloud migration were often overshadowed by fears related to security and loss of control. Over time, the resistance to moving away from the data center thawed, as did negative attitudes toward the cloud. And Microsoft's marketing is making the Azure drumbeat harder to ignore, especially as the end-of-life for Windows Server 2008/2008R2 draws closer and the company offers enticements such as Azure Hybrid Benefit.

Some of the traditional administrative chores associated with on-premises workloads will dissipate after a move to Azure, but this switch also presents new challenges. Administrators who've put in the work to ensure a smooth migration to the cloud will find they need to account for some gaps in cloud coverage and put measures in place to protect their organization from downtime.

Gauging the on-premises vs. cloud services switchover

A decision to move to the cloud typically starts with an on-site evaluation. The IT staff will take stock of its server workload inventory and then see if there's a natural fit in a vendor's cloud services portfolio. Administrators in Windows shops may gravitate toward the familiar and stay with Microsoft's platform to avoid friction during the Azure cloud migration process.

Part of the benefit -- and drawback -- of the cloud is the constant innovation. New services and updates to existing ones arrive at a steady pace. Microsoft sells more than 200 Azure services, nearly 20 for storage alone, which can make it difficult to judge which service is the right one for a particular on-premises workload.

Is it time to take that on-premises file server -- and all its hardware support headaches -- and lift it into the Azure Files service? It depends: There will be some instances where an Azure service is not mature enough or is too expensive for some Windows Server roles.

Take steps to avoid downtime

Administrators who've put in the work to ensure a smooth migration to the cloud will find they need to account for some gaps in cloud coverage and put measures in place to protect their organization from downtime.

It takes a lot of work to migrate multiple server roles into the cloud, including domain name services and print servers. But what happens when there's an outage?

Major cloud providers offer a service-level agreement to guarantee uptime to their services, but problems can hit closer to home. Your internet service provider could botch an upgrade, or a backhoe could slice through an underground cable. In either scenario, the result is the same: Your business can't access the services it needs to operate.

Outages happen all the time. There's no way to avoid them, but you can minimize the effects. Ideally, you could flip a switch to turn on a backup of the infrastructure services and SaaS. But that type of arrangement is not financially possible for most organizations.

With a little preparation in advance, you can limp along with some of the essential infrastructure services that moved to the cloud, such as print servers and domain name services. With a spare Hyper-V host or two, your company can power up a few VMs designed to keep a few core services running in an emergency.

What's the difference between IaaS and PaaS?

Organizations can move workloads to the cloud a few different ways, but the two most common methods are a "lift and shift" IaaS approach or using the cloud provider's PaaS equivalent.

Taking an app and its corresponding data in a virtual machine and uploading it to the cloud typically requires little to no reworking of the application. This is called a "lift and shift" due to the minimal effort required compared to other migration options. This approach offers the path of least resistance, but it might not be the optimal approach in the long run.

Traditional Windows Server administrators -- and their organizations -- might unlock more benefits if they run the application as part of the Azure PaaS. For example, rather than putting a SQL Server VM into Azure and continuing administrative legacy of patching, upgrades and monitoring, the organization could switch to Azure SQL Database. This PaaS product takes granular control away, but some of the perks include cheaper operating costs and less chance of downtime through its geo-replication feature.

What to do when cloud isn't an option

The cloud might not be the right destination for several reasons. It might not be technically feasible to move a majority of the on-premises workloads, or it just might not fit with the current budget. But it's not a comfortable feeling when large numbers of vendors start to follow the greener pastures up into the cloud and leave on-premises support behind.

A forward-looking and resourceful IT staff will need to adapt to this changing world as their options for applications and utilities such as monitoring tools start to shrink. The risky proposition is to stay the course with your current tool set and applications and forgo the security updates. A better option is to take the initiative and look at the market to see whether an up-and-coming competitor can fill this vacuum.

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