Guide to Microsoft Azure Cloud Storage

Microsoft’s Azure cloud storage provides a robust set of storage options, a menu of offerings that can be overwhelming to the uninitiated at first glance.

Storage on Azure isn’t a single service or even just a single type of account. Rather, what Microsoft has created is a very tailored set of account and service options designed to meet different use cases and deployment scenarios.

While there are multiple options for storage, there are a few common attributes that are enabled by Azure itself. In all cases, Microsoft manages the scalability of the core services, such that the storage services have both capacity and availability for use. Microsoft also provides a baseline level of security for its cloud storage, with access control options that enable users to define specific policies for a given storage service or account.

Azure Storage Accounts

To get started with any Azure storage service, users first need to set up an Azure storage account type:

General Purpose. The most commonly used account type is the aptly named General-purpose account, which can be setup via the Azure Resource Manager. There is both a version 1 and version 2 of the general-purpose account, with the version 1 being the older account type that still exists for legacy support, but shouldn’t be used for new deployments. The general-purpose v2 account supports all the major storage services available on Azure including Blob, Disk, File, Table and Queue storage services.

Specialized. Microsoft also offers users the option of creating Azure storage accounts that are specialized for certain storage services. The specialized accounts are intended to provide a premium performance level that exceeds what is available with the general purpose account. Among the specialized storage account types are: BlockBlob Storage, which is focused on blob blocks; and FileStorage, which is just for files.

Azure Storage Services

Microsoft Azure has five core storage services for cloud data, with additional services that are not considered core.

Core Services

Among the core storage services are Blob, Disk, File, Table and Queue storage services.

Azure Blobs. Azure Blobs provide an object store for both binary and text data. It is a great general purpose data storage service that supports unstructured data that is saved in block blobs in the cloud.

Azure Disks. Azure Disks provide block-level storage, which are intended to be used with Azure Virtual Machine. It’s a managed disk service that provides users with different types of disks that range in performance, including standard hard disk drive (HDD), Standard SSD, Premium SSD and Ultra disk.

Azure Files. Azure Files provides a managed file share service in the cloud that is compliant with the Server Message Block (SMB) and Network File System (NFS) protocols. Files enables hybrid deployments of file sharing that can span across compliant Windows Servers that have Azure File Sync.

Azure Tables. Azure Tables is intended to be used for storage of structured NoSQL data and is typically used alongside the Azure Cosmos database. Tables provides a schema-less approach to storage that is also useful for web applications.

Azure Queues. The Azure Queues service is purpose built as a cloud storage facility for message queue data.

Non-Core Storage Services:

In addition to the services that Microsoft identifies as being core storage, there are a number of other services for different use cases including High Performance Computing (HPC), data backup and hybrid deployments.

Archive Storage. Archival storage in Azure is not an entirely separate service, but rather is a performance and access tier, from within the blob storage services. The purpose of the archive storage tier is to provide a lower cost option for data is rarely accessed.

Azure HPC Cache. The HPC Cache service is a file caching server that enables a hybrid deployment. For large workloads, data sets can be spread across local HPC storage and a high performance tier of Blob storage.

Data Box. The Data Box isn’t actually a cloud service, it’s a physical device (literally a ‘data box’) that organizations can use to load data on-premises and then have that data physically transported to an Azure data center to be loaded. It’s a good option for large data sets where uploading over an internet connection isn’t a viable option. Data Box options range from an 8 Terabyte (TB) disk all the way up to a 1 Petabyte (PB) option.

Managing Azure Storage and Pricing

Microsoft provides a number of different tools to help user manage Azure storage. Perhaps the most useful is the Storage Explorer, which provides a easy-to-use dashboard to view and manage all deployed cloud storage resources.

Pricing across all Azure storage services is a calculation that varies based on a few options, and often also will change over a period of time. There are differences by region and across different performance tiers, as well as data redundancy options. Microsoft also generally offers better pricing across its Azure Storage Reserved Capacity offering, which requires users to commit to a one to three year period for a certain capacity of storage across an Azure storage service.

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Sean Michael Kerner
Sean Michael Kerner
Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.

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